[135] Northern Territories – To burn or not to burn?

‘Our boys are doing a great job’ says the ranger of the Cuta Cuta Caves. We’ve just had a talk about why the rain isn’t there anymore, yet climate change isn’t the part of the discussion for him. But drought and forest fire management are another side of the coint.

‘If you drive through the Northern Territories,’ he continues, ‘you see the great job of our guys.’ He refers to the burnt forests, the black soil, the desolate looking lands on which sadly looking skinny trees are the only ones reaching for the sky.

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Preventing Fire with Fire

When driving through Queensland, The Northern Territories, and later on Western Australia, I often notice the burnt forests. Most of them are the results of controlled fires, burning a part of the forest at the time, rather than seeing everything burn down when a real fire breaks out.

Mostly the controlled fires only burn down the dried grasses, and the dead firewood that causes a high inflammable layer under the taller vegetation. By burning down this highly inflammable layer, they take away the fuelwood for a real forest fire that would burn down everything, including the taller trees which are huge carbon sinks and take many decades to grow.

As a result, they not only prevent forest fire to take uncontrollable shapes once they start, but they create a fertile layer of soil on which new life can grow. Which you can see as well, on the areas where the controlled fires must have taken place longer before, since fresh greenery is all over the place again.

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To burn or not to burn?

Yet, this widely spread technique in Australia is not the only technique of fire management. Moreover, at the other side of the world, in the States such as California, USA, fire fighters are having severe troubles to keep fires under control.

At the same time in Europe, forest fires are spreading out, since global warming causes more extensive periods of drought and heath, turning the forests which are normally unlikely to burn, into lightly inflammable areas.

Yet, climate change cannot be the only problem of the increasing forest fires in California, I would think. Something else is going on as well. ‘They are doing it all wrong,’ told a Californian fire fighter me once. He explained how the fires had become uncontrollable since they were not allowed to organise this kind of controlled fires as they do in Australia. Since environmentalists don’t want them to touch the forests. Yet, he said, this is precisely what makes the fires uncontrollable once they start burning. ‘We have no option then letting it burn,’ he said. It becomes problematic. Before they had an off- and an on-season, nowadays, the fire season does not stop anymore.

During one of those burning summers I turned out to be in California, where I attended a global summit on climate change. The topic of forest fires was high on the agenda. ‘My men are dying out there,’ said Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles deeply worried to demonstrate how climate change was not only knocking on the door, but already in the room.

Yet, later on when I talked with some climate change scientists, they told me that climate change is not the only cause of the increasing uncontrollable fires out there. ‘They don’t manage the forests properly,’ they told me during a walk to one of those forests on the hills of San Francisco. ‘They leave the low fuel wood and the highly inflammable material laying on the ground, providing the perfect base for a fire to come. And if it comes, it will be uncontrollable.’ With these words he confirmed what the Californian fire fighter would tell me later on.

Driving for miles and miles through patches of burned forest, dried-up forest, and lush greenery, I keep on thinking on forest management, the best way to do it, the benefits and back-sides of controlled fires, the Californian fire fighter and my friends in San Francisco suffering breathing issues due to continued forest fires. ‘My men are dying out there,’ echoes through my mind.

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What is the best way to manage a forest; to prevent forest fires from happening in this increasing warming and drying world?

I look forward to find it out and share it with you in some articles to come !

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