by Dr David Blackall
Over four years, from 2013 to 2017, before retiring from teaching university-based journalism, I worked in the field with an ecologist and her Masters of Science students. We were using remote cameras and other data collection techniques, at my rain-forest wildlife refuge in Kangaroo Valley (NSW).
Though I had seen them thirty years ago, we found no apex predator, the native quoll (Eastern Quoll and the Tiger Quoll [extinct]). However – there were foxes, feral cats, European rats, and mice, galore. This was bad, as the apex predator (the native quoll) is crucial to forest management and indicative to ecological health. This data also showed that there were few native herbivores keeping the forest floor trimmed. My wildlife refuge is surrounded on three sides by a huge nature reserve, proclaimed in 1937, so in theory, it should be fairly clean of feral animals.
My journalism colleagues, presumably global warming devotees, were so because the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has mandated global warming as a given. Inevitably, my students each year became more and more reactionary. I insisted that climate change occurs through land clearing, and in a regional context it was impossible to separate the cause where both variables were at play – greenhouse gases and land clearing. My ecology work and my science background, however, gave me some research credibility; enabling the presentation of ideas around land management, with the view of students writing environmental journalism. In discussing ecology, organic agriculture, environmental science, soil science, even Permaculture, I avoided their direct accusation that I was a (climate) ‘denier’ – a terrible defamatory word that was invented by the climate lobby.
Though we invited these journalism students over four years of field research, to accompany us to the wildlife refuge, to write journalism on the project – not one of them took up our offer to accompany us on the bus to the research transect. It was impossible to make the experience compulsory, due to university timetable clashes, yet I repeatedly suggested that students were welcome to film, photograph, write and understand our ecological research in action. I offered my own high definition cinematography and stills for those who couldn’t make it, encouraging them to edit the material into video packages for assessment. No takers. It became apparent that many of these students were committed to the climate change narrative, which is understandable. They felt uncomfortable with ecology, as they aspired to work one day for the ABC, where climate was the buzzword.
These cadet journalists appeared to fear any potential stigmatization that might arise through writing about land-use issues, rather than CO2 emissions and climate – the accepted narrative. What were these predominately Australian undergraduates afraid of? I emphasized how they could meet the Masters of Science students, they could work with these young M.Sc. professionals, who were obliged to attend the field work. The M.Sc. students had jobs back home, they were postgraduates, and they were from around the world: Germany, Zimbabwe, India, Nepal, Korea, Iran, China, USA, Japan and the UK and Wales.
Most of these early career scientists had never been in forest, and certainly in conversation it was clear none of them had ever been in a temperate Australian rain-forest: with slippery rocks, leeches, spiders, snakes and torrential rain.
We introduced data acquisition techniques in remote-camera operation (video and stills), in setting (harmless) baits and fur detection traps, and in interpreting that data. Everything was meticulously noted, and photographed, while water and soil samples were taken for analysis. Old fire damage was noted on tree trunks and in the soil. The species of trees were related to soil type, cores were drilled into trunks for tree-ring analysis, while potential hot fire points (dead debris) were noted, and so were predicted and included in their write up for the group ecological assignment. This simulated assignment placed me in the role of ‘the client’, they were ‘the scientific consultants’ – advising on biodiversity for my BioBanking potential, for which my property was registered with the NSW government.
Phenomena like bushfire ‘candling’ were discussed. ‘Candling’ is where furious-flaring-fire induced winds, full of explosive eucalyptus-oil vapor, blow large slithers of burning bark – as flaming torches – over long distances to forward locations. We explained how this was a survival mechanism for trees, as migrating the fire to advance burns, served to reduce fuel and lower heat severity when the main front arrived – thus producing cooler patches. Here, even kangaroos and wallabies, wombats and quolls, with their magical innate behaviours, are able to detect the cooler spots in the advancing fire and so make their escape to already burnt country, whereupon they follow a creek line to lower areas and safety. This is why regular winter burns are preferable to devastating hot fires with massive debris build-up, as experienced this season.
We also discussed with these international students how the National Parks and Wildlife Services distribute 1080 poison to control foxes and dogs. This seems to have saved black wallabies at my place, they are reappearing in significant numbers. They were absent in the 1980s and 90s.
It is necessary to highlight here, for journalism, that many online CSIRO reports and Royal Commission Reports (excellent reference material) of terrible fire seasons like those in 1939 and 1952, are easy to access online in Google searches. This material informs journalism with reliable historic accounts, which appear to be lacking in current analysis. Journalism researchers must be creative with the Google search terms, be sceptical (that forbidden word) of dominant stories, they must search around, even avoid, the words of the mainstream climate narrative.
The Royal Commission findings, like that of Leonard E. B. Stretton in his Bushfires Royal Commission Report 1939, discuss lessons that should have been learned then, with hot fires and the huge, dry, flammable material build up, when the entire state of Victoria was alight and exploding. The situation was worse today: with increased fuel load, ten times what it was in 1788, coupled with drought and today’s high level of arson from population pressure and mental health problems among teenagers.
The lack of preparedness for these disastrous fires, due to substantial build-up of flammable debris, is the joint responsibility of Parks management, private landholders and local Councils. This topic is rarely discussed by the ABC.
For learning, deterring future arson, there is scant stimulus material for schools, with few alternative angles taken by journalists on the reasons for the crisis, and so it is impossible for children to learn beyond the climate narrative and learn that arson is illegal, that it is dangerous and may kill. The errors, as written up in the Royal Commission fire report of 1939, are being repeated in 2020.
We must start building feral-proof fencing, we must begin eradicating all feral animals, and start managing forests with the aim of rebuilding the ecosystem to resemble how it was prior to 1788, with no debris. We must fund it well, instead of down grading the funding. There must also be management of farmland, there must be removal of township debris and all sources of fire-starting fuel.
There should be replanting programs of non-flammable trees, like the Kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus), which I cut back to mere stumps to feed sheep in drought as a kid on my father’s farm. These robust trees bounce back in the first rain. Their extended trunk stores water, right down to their tap root tuber structure. We planted them in erosion gullies among the fire prone debris and this delivered a rare green pick for sheep in droughts.
These strategies must be incorporated into a ‘national emergency’ effort. In 1788 the forest floor was alive with herbivorous marsupials – eating, scratching and trimming the flammable fuel down to manageable levels. The quoll and Aboriginal hunters kept them in ecological balance. The Indigenous humans also managed the fire as best they could, given its unpredictable nature. We must resume this science, this ecology, as a best practice.
My research shed in Kangaroo Valley is built entirely from steel and concrete. The external walls are made from fire insulated ColourBond, which is supported by a cyclone-proof steel frame. All windows and doors have fireproof steel shutters, and one side of the shed is dug into the hillside. It has solar hot water, wood stoves for heating and cooking, and is basic yet luxurious. University M.Sc. students worked there, stayed overnight, or sheltered from freezing rain on their day trips. Each fire season, we managed to clear surrounding debris, which I was obliged to do so for their safety.
Over 45 years, owning and managing these 16 hectares, I conducted the clearing myself; with a chainsaw, a machete and handsaws, then I built bonfires to burn the material. Often such material is stubborn to ignite, so a solution is removing dry debris well away from the building. In these later years, with fractured lumbar vertebrae and arthritic hips, I am prevented from such strenuous work, so I hire contractors. We bury debris to create contour banks to control erosion in heavy rain, and this provides potential moisture retaining planting beds for Permaculture trees and shrubs.
Such clearing, and planning, is critical – with authorization from local Council, the Parks rangers, and neighbours. Nowadays, however, many folks throw their hands up in defeat and say: “it’s climate change – we are powerless to act in the greenhouse gas suffocation as brought upon us by the fossil fuel industry.” This stupidity is dangerous.
This week someone attacked me for asserting that arson starts about 37% of the current wave of fires deliberately lit, while around 43% is accidental, the rest is due to lightning ignition, or unknown. Despite my quoting the fire authorities I was viciously accused of being a climate denier and that my percentages were spurious. I don’t know how they can possibly arrive at such an idiotic conclusion.
Leonard E. B. Stretton (1939)
Bushfires Royal Commission Report 1939, to the Parliament of Victoria.
Victoria report of the Royal Commission to inquire into the causes of and measures taken to prevent the bush fires of January, 1939, and the measures to be taken to prevent bush fires in Victoria and to protect life and property in the event of future bushfires.
Student Project – Video. Using remote cameras to detect Sugar Gliders in tree tops. Retrieved 11 January 2020, from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMRRzeyhVCc&t=2s
David Blackall, BSc (Agric), Dip Ed, MA (Jour), PhD – journalist and filmmaker.
He is a Senior Honorary Fellow at the University of Wollongong, Australia.
His films have screened on SBS TV, and some were selected for film festivals in Sydney, Melbourne, Berlin, London, Montreal and two locations in Italy.
His current-affairs stories include the Trio Capital superannuation fraud, and where earth-science meets art, at Bundanon, on the Shoalhaven River, both with the 7.30 program, ABC TV.