Logging in Victorian forests was at least partly to blame for the severity of the 2009 Black Saturday fires reaching the intensity of the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading Australian ecological scientists have found.
Researchers from the Australian National University and University of Melbourne spent two intense years examining how logging affects fire severity in forests in Victoria which were hit by the deadly Black Saturday Bushfire.
They found that logging practices, which left 60% of a forest’s biomass on the ground and 40% taken in logs, helped make the fires more severe. When the forest regenerated in about seven years, the ground cover left behind from the first logging added to the fuel and severity of bushfires.
“It’s sad and very sobering to have found that human disturbance added to the severity at which the fires burned,” says Professor David Lindenmayer from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society.
The findings will help fire and forestry authorities understand how to better manage forests to prevent future bushfire disasters.
The Black Saturday bushfires killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria in February 2009, fuelled by 46 degree temperatures and winds more than 100 kms per hour.
The research, by Professor Lindenmayer and fellow researchers Dr Chris Taylor and Professor Michael McCarthy from the University of Melbourne, was published in the latest issue of the journal Conservation Letters.
They found that high severity fire leading to canopy consumption almost never happened in wet forests with trees less than seven years old, and was less frequent in trees more than 40 years old.
“Logging actually makes a forest more likely to have a fire at a much higher severity than otherwise would be the case,” Professor Lindenmayer said.
Since 1964, more than 47,000 hectares of wet forest have been logged with further logging planned for 17,600 hectares in the next five years.
Professor Lindenmayer said governments needed to change forestry policies to protect people, towns and the forest itself.
“The Victorian Government has policies that aim to reduce fire risks to people and property. They should stop logging near towns and other settlements because of the prolonged fire risks it creates,” he said.
“There has to be a major change in forest policy in Victoria that has to take into account fire risk. There should be no wet forest logging within 5-10 kms of any town.
“Governments that are sanctioning these kinds of things need to have a think about not only this summer and next summer but the next 40 summers.”