A LEADING forestry expert has strongly criticised opponents of prescribed burning in forests and has urged a radical new approach combining traditional Indigenous knowledge and bushfire science to tackle bushfire policy.

Dr Tony Bartlett AFSM, an independent forestry consultant, told a bushfire conference in Melbourne that a quantum shift in thinking and practice was needed to manage climate change impacts on native forests.

“The increased frequency of high intensity landscape-scale wildfires is having an impact on forest resilience,” he said in a presentation to the Forestry Australia Forest Summit.

“For forest fire management, we need adaptive and innovative actions drawing from both traditional knowledge and bushfire science.”

Dr Bartlett was one of a three-person, expert panel that conducted a Commonwealth-State review to assess the impact of the 2019-20 bushfires on the modernised Regional Forest Agreements. The other members of the panel were a Victorian Traditional Owner, Katherine Mullett, and the Victorian Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, Dr Gillian Sparkes AM.

Dr Bartlett criticised comments made by academic opponents of prescribed burning – Dr Phil Zylstra and Professor David Lindenmayer – in the Canberra Times on May 17 this year and in The Conversation on March 23 this year. These quotes were:

“Our research has shown that native forests can become more flammable – not less- as a result of prescribed fires”;

“Disturbances such as prescribed burning lead to pulses of flammable regrowth”;

“Prescribed burning too often has short-term benefits but long-term costs”, and;

“Burning made WA forests on average seven times more flammable for 43 to 56 years”.

Dr Bartlett emphasised that the findings from this “landmark” research were inconsistent with those from the extensive body of Australian bushfire research.

“They do not match the lived experience in many forests burnt by severe wildfires,” he said.

“Prescribed fire is the solution not the problem. Passive management is failing our forest ecosystems.”

Dr Bartlett said it was critical to debunk the academic myth that prescribed burning was only effective and appropriate close to high-value houses. He indicated there are six reasons to conduct prescribed burning in forests:

Protection of built assets and critical infrastructure;

Increasing the probability of success of direct fire suppression operations;

Enhancing the options and practicality of conducting indirect suppression operations, when implemented in proximity to strategic fire trails;

Increasing the resilience of forest ecosystems to the impacts of repeated severe wildfires;

Reducing wildfire severity in areas next to fire-sensitive ecosystems or to create flora and fauna refugia within landscape-scale wildfires, and;

Protecting water quality, by limiting the prospect of vegetation close to reservoirs and streams being severely burnt.

Dr Bartlett said the resilience of dry forests was also being compromised by repeated intense wildfires, resulting in areas of forest that resemble burnt-out matchsticks.

“Do ecologists really believe these forests will survive under passive forest management regimes?” he said.

Now based in Canberra, Dr Bartlett worked for many years in East Gippsland, but the main forces driving forest ecology are the same throughout Australia.

At Canberra’s Cotter Catchment, in 2006, three years after 2003 bushfires, the water quality was severely compromised, resulting in construction of a new filtration plant.

In 2020, where prescribed burning had been conducted in the Cotter catchment, Dr Bartlett said fire severity was greatly reduced.

“However, environmental concerns had precluded burning slopes adjacent to the dam, and these areas were very intensely burnt” he said.

Dr Bartlett said modern science forest management had much to learn from Aboriginal fire practices.

A Bandjalang Aboriginal community member in northern NSW described the forest structure after the 2020 fires as “upside-down forest”, and said that “this forest is now so dense that an emu can no longer run through it”.

“Fire management is all wrong – now after a bushfire the forest managers are not allowed to burn for around 10 years (under the NSW Bushfire Environmental Assessment Code),” Dr Bartlett said.

However, the Bandjalang had explained that “In the past, after a bushfire, we used to do cool burning of these areas in the following summer, burning the grasses which also killed some of the regenerating wattles and eucalypts”.

Dr Bartlett said in the ACT, all of the 7430 hectares of fire-sensitive Alpine Ash forest had been burnt in two wildfires since 2003.

“About two-thirds of the alpine ash was burnt in both 2003 and 2020 – about one third was burnt twice at high severity and is now lost as there was no seed on the young trees to regenerate the burnt forest. Another third of these fire-sensitive forests burnt at low intensity, including areas that were part of backburns in 2003,” he said.

“Prescribed burning adjacent to and (when appropriate) within remnant Alpine Ash may enhance the resilience of this important forest ecosystem to future wildfires.”