Two years after Black Summer, an environmental disaster looms

Two years after the catastrophic Black Summer fires ravaged East Gippsland, much of the bush looks – at first glance – as you might expect: striking green regrowth sprouting from charred trees clawing at the sky.

The shoots returning to the scorched landscape seem reassuring, but they conceal a looming environmental disaster hidden deep within.

Burnt out trees near Wingan River in East Gippsland. Credit:Joe Armao

While eucalyptus forests may recover quickly from fires, there are signs previously thriving tracts of ancient rainforest may never return.

Up to 80 per cent of Victoria’s warm temperate rainforest was affected by the fires that raged in the summer of 2019-20, with some threatened sections burnt across 95 per cent of their range.

La Trobe University ecologist Pete Green said scorched rainforests could take more than 150 years to fully regrow if left undisturbed, but might never regenerate when burnt by more fierce fires.

Dr Green said it remained unclear how much burnt rainforest would recover, but climate change increased the likelihood of more major fires.

The damage wrought by the Black Summer fires in Mallacoota nearly two years on. Credit:Joe Armao

“As fires become larger, more intense and more frequent we might be seeing long-term decline of our rainforests over time,” he said.

Across East Gippsland, thin belts of rainforest ran along the bottom of gullies, typically protected from fires by their humid microclimate. But the Black Summer blazes were so intense that many rainforests were completely torched.

Now, Dr Green said, eucalyptus trees were threatening to invade the slow-growing rainforests by dropping seeds that could quickly germinate across the landscape.

Mallacoota ablaze during the Black Summer bushfires. Credit:Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

“Eucalyptus forests cope with fire much better than rainforests do,” he said.

Other tree varieties, including acacias, may also crowd into rainforest territory.

The 230-kilometre drive from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota takes in massive stretches of fire-ravaged bushland, but some sections were untouched.

The Black Summer fires burned more than 1.5 million hectares of land in Victoria, claiming five lives and destroying 420 houses.

Dead trees on the Angora Range Road in Brookville. Credit:Joe Armao

WWF Australia reported the bushfires, which started in November 2019 and burned through to the following February in Victoria, killed or displaced 3 billion animals in this state and NSW.

But now there are some encouraging signs of survival.

Dr Green is researching how native snails have recovered. His team has located 17 of 18 species in burnt areas despite initially fearing they may have disappeared.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “We’re confident those species haven’t become extinct because of the fire.”

Two years on, the damage of the Black Summer fires remains visible at Cann River. Credit:Joe Armao

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning estimates the fires affected more than 4400 animal and plant species, 244 of them losing 50 per cent of their habitat. More than 200 of those species were rare or threatened.

The department’s executive director of biodiversity, James Todd, said field crews and scientists were reporting extensive regrowth and the return of native wildlife.

“It is still early in the recovery, and we are continuing to survey and monitor the response of native plants and wildlife,” he said.

Mr Todd said emergency extractions of threatened species and pest animal control measures were aiding the environmental recovery and preventing degradation that might have occurred without human intervention.

Ensay cattle farmer Chris Commins. Credit:Joe Armao

The department conducted a captive breeding program for the Spotted Tree Frog after surveys showed severe fire and sediment associated with post-fire flooding exacerbated the risk of extinction.

It also transported Macquarie Perch from Dartmouth in north-east Victoria to fire-affected Upper Buffalo in May this year, among other animal rescue projects.

Surveys of cave-breeding bats, spotted-tailed quolls and eastern ground parrots are under way to determine the presence, or absence, of these species.

But opinions differ wildly about how to avoid another inferno.

Cattle farmer Chris Commins lives in Ensay in East Gippsland but farms extensively in the region. He wants to see a major increase in planned burning to reduce forest fuel loads.

Mr Commins remembers the forest being more open and less overgrown with scrub when his father was burning the bush extensively until the 1970s.

He argues too few controlled “mild burns” have been conducted, leaving the bush neglected and fuel loads high, making it vulnerable to bigger fires.

“What was open country is now becoming scrub-dominant,” he said.

Mr Commins fears the knowledge of burning the bush is being lost but rejected suggestions his belief was based on advancing agricultural interests, such as grazing cattle in state forest, at the expense of the environment.

Mr Commins is working with other Gippsland residents including former CSIRO bushfire researcher David Packham to lobby for more planned burns.

Former CSIRO bushfire researcher David Packham, who is one of a group of residents lobbying for more planned burns.Credit:Joe Armao

“We’re all very passionate about the country we love, and it distresses us to see it smashed in a wildfire,” he said.

Queensland-based Indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffensen, who has conducted burns across Australia, said governments needed to pay greater heed to traditional Aboriginal land-management practises.

“At the end of the day, they [governments] are not doing what’s right for the land,” he said.

He called for more burning based on Indigenous knowledge systems.

Forest Fire Management Victoria acting chief fire officer Allyson Lardner said planned burning had continued in East Gippsland, with 200 targeted burns since 2019-20.

She said the agency looked for opportunities to burn year-round when it was safe to do so.

“While planned burning is not the only solution, it is a key part of bushfire preparedness and part of an integrated strategy to protect life, property and the environment,” she said.

Melbourne University bushfire prevention specialist Janet Stanley said small-scale planned burns may be effective in protecting properties. But she insisted mounting evidence suggested larger prescribed burning was not the most effective way to reduce the risk of major blazes.

She estimated humans started 85 per cent of bushfires, whether accidental, reckless or deliberate, and this needed to be tackled through education and support programs particularly for youths prone to risky behaviour.

“We can do a great deal more to reduce the chance of wildfire that we’re not doing at the moment,” Associate Professor Stanley said.

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