Flat White

Of droughts and fires and floods

24 March 2021

7:14 PM

24 March 2021

7:14 PM

We all know Dorothea Mackellar’s famous words. More recently, Tim Flannery has told us our dams would never fill again and former fire chief turned Climate Council member Greg Mullins warned that we’ll be incinerated by holocausts as a consequence of dangerous climate change caused by our greedy desire for a good standard of living based on cheap and reliable electricity.

New South Wales disaster supremo Shane Fitzsimmons has certainly reaped a triple reward from flood and fire and famine, but not in the way that Mackellar outlined in her classic poem. She understood and loved the land in a similar way to traditional Aborigines, pastoralists, foresters, apiarists, farmers and anyone else who knows where their daily bread and other essential renewable resources come from.

Nowadays, it’s illegal to burn the bush frequently and mildly enough to keep it healthy and safe.

When Flannery announced that Warragamba Dam would never fill again, the runoff to rainfall ratio had been seriously reduced by decades of woody thickening and litter accumulation in the absence of maintenance by mild fire. If you don’t burn, a lot of precipitation gets held up by dense foliage in the subcanopy and undergrowth and litter on the ground. It evaporates when the sun comes out.

When you have an unnatural high-intensity fire, it not only removes all the foliage and litter but can also make the soil hydrophobic. So the floods that inevitably follow droughts and nowadays megafires, are bigger and quicker and more erosive, polluting and damaging. Then the scrub grows back even thicker.

During Black Summer, RFS Commissioner Fitzsimmons apparently got his nose out of joint and declined military assistance because the Prime Minister didn’t consult him directly. After the gigafires, he was promoted to the position of Commissioner for Resilience. I was bemused to see him on the telly talking about organising military assistance for flood victims.

I have the utmost sympathy for the victims and I’m sure a majority of them understand that the floods are not a consequence of climate change caused by greedy people. But they would be much better served by a Commissioner who worked to restore a resilient landscape by sustainable management rather than one who likes discussing organising the logistics of emergency response with the media.

Vic Jurskis is a former senior NSW Forestry Commission professional forester. In 2004 he was awarded a Fellowship by the Joseph William Gottstein Memorial Trust to investigate eucalypt decline across Australia. He has published two books, Firestick Ecology, and The Great Koala Scamboth available from Connor Court.

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