Australia Fears Devastating Wildfires Will Expand

By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Australia, January 29, 2003 (ENS) - National parks and fire management agencies in Victoria and New South Wales fear that extreme weather conditions predicted for Thursday may result in a massive expansion of wildfires that have already burned over 750,000 hectares (2896 square miles) of alpine national parks and forests.

The wildfires coalesced from approximately 60 small blazes started by lightning strikes associated with dry thunderstorms in late December and early January. They are now burning on a 200 kilometre (125 mile) long front through the forested ranges of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the alpine parks of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria.


Wildfires redden the hills of Canberra. (Photo courtesy Canberra Wx)
Fires are currently burning in the Alpine National Park, the Wabba Wilderness area and the Mt Buffalo National Park in Victoria and the Mt. Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales.

All the national parks contain fire prone eucalypt forests in deep gorges flanking fire sensitive ecosystems on alpine plateaus over 1,500 meters (4,921 feet).

Weather forecasts for Thursday predict "extreme" fire conditions of high temperatures around 40 degrees Celsius, low humidity and northwesterly winds gusting up to 65 kilometers (40 miles) an hour. While cooler conditions are expected later this week, parks agencies expect the fires to burn for at least another two weeks.

In an attempt to control the fires, land management agencies have mobilized over 2,000 firefighters and support personnel from around the country as well as specialized firefighters from New Zealand and a U.S. infra-red fire mapping system operator.

However, most of their current efforts are aimed at protecting tourist resorts in and townships adjoining the rugged national parks. Fighting the fires in the roadless areas has been severely hampered by dense smoke which has limited water bombing operations.

On Saturday, January 18, the northernmost fires - fanned by hot northwesterly winds - emerged from the Brindabella Ranges and the Namadgi National Park in the ACT and raged through southwestern suburbs of Canberra, Australia’s capital city.

In the space of five hours 530 houses were incinerated and hundreds more damaged in fireballs that generated winds of up to 120 kilometers (75 miles) an hour. Four people died in or near their homes, and hundreds were hospitalized from burns and smoke inhalation.

The fires also devastated an Environment ACT wildlife research center at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve which undertook a captive breeding program of endangered wildlife. The fire engulfed the centre - 30 kilometres to the west of Canberra - with only four of the rare 35 brush-tailed rock wallabies surviving. Two breeding pairs of regent honey-eaters, one of Australia’s rarest honey-eaters, also perished in the fires.


One of the telescopes destroyed when fire swept Mount Stromlo Observatory (Photo courtesy Mount Stromlo)
The fires also destroyed the Mount Stromlo Observatory, which adjoined the suburbs worst hit by last weeks fires, causing $US12 million damage. Five telescopes and a major workshop were transformed into twisted molten sculptures within an hour. A $3 million imaging spectrograph that had just been completed and was ready to be shipped for installation at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii was also destroyed.

At least one of the alpine bogs in the Mt. Kosciuszko National Park that was home to the endangered corroboree frog - a black and gold creature the size of a dime - was burned in the fire. The National Parks and Wildlife Service remains hopeful however that another bog inhabited by the frogs - whose total population is estimated at 150 individuals - remains.

While the fires ringing Canberra have now subsided - following light rain and cool conditions over the last two days - the fires further south in the alpine national parks are likely to break out of containment lines firefighters are desperately seeking to construct.

While the fires continue to burn the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI), has called for a review of national park management, claiming the fires demonstrate the need for logging to be allowed in National Parks in order to reduce forest fuel loads. “We need a strong national review of national park management, with a particular focus on forest, vegetation and fire management,” NAFI Executive Director, Kate Carnell, wrote in an opinion column last week.


Field of alpine flowers near Mount Kosciuszko before the fires (Photo by Colin Totterdell courtesy Victoria National Parks Assn.)
Carnell cited the U.S. “Healthy Forest Initiative” as one that “recognized that fuel load reduction and forest restoration projects were a priority activity and a lifeline to help protect the forests.”

National parks agencies and environmental groups have rejected Carnells’ claims. The Director General of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, which has responsibility for managing the Mt Kosziusko National Park, last week dismissed claims that National Parks could be fire-proofed as ludicrous. “What's been proposed is utter nonsense," said Brian Gilligan. "We cannot fire-proof the Australian landscape."

Victorian Campaigns Manager for The Wilderness Society Gavan McFadzean scoffed at NAFI’s claims that logging reduces the fire risk in forests. “Most of the science tell us that old growth forests have a higher level of fire resistance," he said. "Most of the forests in southeast Australia are on 60 year logging rotations are so are grown and logged at their most fire prone part of their life span,” he said.

“If NAFI is genuine about their concerns about public safety and the future of the native forests estate for a moratorium on logging during the crisis and a review of silvicultural practices in southeast Australia,” he said.

The Australian government’s own scientific research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization, has estimated that climate change may lead to a doubling of the number of very high or extreme fire danger days. The Australian government has refused to ratify the Kyoto climate change treaty and instead is backing U,S. government moves to create an alternative but voluntary framework.