New Bush Telegraph Independent Stories since 1987

Can trees protect against fire?

September 21, 2020

By Howard H Jones

I began to rake the leaves and remove the Bangalow fronds to a safer distance from the house in that fatal week earlier this year. I didn’t have a fire plan. I had encouraged the trees to grow up to the wooden cladding of my timber home, and there was only a narrow lane through the forest to the closest escape route, which required a hazardous two-kilometre drive to what I assumed was the safety of cleared paddocks.

Clearly, I was beginning to lose confidence in the capacity of the rainforest to resist fire and for my house to be safe. My certainty had been undermined by the knowledge that rainforest edges had burned in northern NSW at Lamington and Terania Creek earlier in the fire season. So, I began to question the reliability of the unusually dry rainforest around my home to resist the conflagration that was destroying forests and homes to my south? 

Howard H Jones's house at Saddleback Mountain, Kiama.
Photo supplied.

There had been good reason for my confidence. Floyd, an authority on NSW rainforests, wrote that if rainforest burned it may initially be replaced by fire promoting species and future fire regimes would follow the newly established fire lines. He said rainforests needed up to 700 fire-free years to fully recover.

For this reason, I knew there had probably never been fire in the rainforest around my home. I also knew that most subtropical rainforest species were fire-resistant. The rainforest is normally damp and dense with little light penetration or air movement. It grows in places sheltered from the hot fire winds, unlike the open, often disturbed, dryer fire promoting eucalyptus forests.

As a child, I had lived through the 1956 Blue Mountains fire that saw much of Leura township go up in flames. I remember watching firefighters retreat as fire approached a group of houses below the highway.

When I returned days later, only one house had survived. I realised that a closely planted row of poplars on the fire approach side had shielded the house from the radiant fire wind and saved it. Like many rainforest species, the poplars lacked the volatile oils that ignite so easily, and their foliage had absorbed enough heat to protect the house. 

Interestingly, Blue Mountains Council now provides a list of ‘best local native plants for use in bushfire prone locations’.  

After the dreadful south coast fire season had settled, I walked through the rainforest at my home with a new eye. Even though I have lived there for nearly 30 years, my newly fire alert brain saw it differently. The dryer ridges had a considerable amount of debris from the great Brown Barrel eucalypts and were clearly a fire risk, while the broader rainforest floor had no debris whatsoever.

For the first time, I realised that most rainforest species do not drop branches readily and consequently have few hollows for native animals. Those branches that do drop rot quickly due to the moist environment and lack of light and the plants on the forest floor are sparse and mainly ferns.

Rainforest, Saddleback Mountain.
Photo supplied.

My rather naïve assumption that I would have been safe from fire had I reached the open paddocks at the end of my road was dashed when I visited the devastated fire areas of the south coast. I saw how fires had reached astonishing distances across open farmlands, villages and waterways with ease.

I heard one landowner state that the air was igniting with volatile eucalyptus gases well ahead of the fire front, and I wondered if uninterrupted open space assisted radiation and wind speed and could itself be hazardous under extreme conditions.  

I reflected on how important fire barriers can be in protecting against fire, whether they be colour bond fences, rows of poplars or better still densely planted local rainforest trees. It seemed to me that tree removal isn’t always a fire mitigation solution.

I also mused on the prospect of indiscriminate fire hazard reduction in wet gullies, rainforest or regenerating rainforest areas, where fire suppressing moist forests could be inadvertently replaced by fire promoting ones.    

Howard Jones is secretary of the Gerroa Environment Protection Society. His house is located on the slopes of Saddleback Mountain, Kiama. This rainforest was named the ‘Illawarra Brush’ by Dr Kevin Mills who described it as the largest area of subtropical rainforest remaining in South Eastern NSW.

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    6 comments on “Can trees protect against fire?”

    1. Such an important discussion to have. Thank you. I shall add that removing an average size urban tree releases approximately 4 tonnes of atmospheric carbon and the forest giants 10 tonnes or more thereby exacerbating our heating of the planet. We seem to be in an natural spiral of self-destruction. The more we clear and burn, the more we heat the place, the more we have to clear and burn to stop the burning. A second point, around my way (Lake Macquarie) the 'cool burn' periods seem always to be late winter when the little birds and animals and breeding and the burns are to total areas which of course wipes out the lot. I would like to see more of the aboriginal method of patch burning so the small animals can escape the burn area. And final question, when the green rim of Australia has all but disappeared with development and burning how hot will this land be?

    2. I agree the obsession with burning or chopping down what trees are left after such extensive bushfires is really upsetting.

    3. Thanks. I've just learnt something. Perhaps, lots of us are. Let's hope govt policies are developed with a "fire alert brain".

    4. Great article and deep reflections.
      Luckily, we were some hundreds of meters from the inferno but many of us are still reflecting on the fire season (I'm in Tapitallee west of Nowra with more sclerophyll forest than Saddleback) and I can't help but think that when forest is allowed unbridled growth it will in times of drought have outgrown its groundwater reserves.
      Much of the forest around us had shown signs of stress long before the fire with large, visible areas of near-dead trees with leaf, bark and limb loss creating unmanageable fuel loads.
      Without having been burnt, these areas remain visibly stressed and many trees have died creating ongoing high fuel loads.
      I feel we need to apply calm logic to achieve pathways to recovery.

    5. We in C Bay have just received two replies from Shoalhaven Team FCC District NSW Rural Fire Service in regard to hazard reduction and over grown vegetation on our road in front of our home for close on twenty years,only to be told our matters raised are receiving appropriate attention and a response to be forwarded when investigations are completed. I watched in total last season when Nowra control sent Three North coast fire trucks deeper in to uncontrolled dangerous fires insisting they go forward,only for the experience last truck going back and changing his disabled vehicle for another, to pick up his other Two trucks crew who abandoned their vehicles and were walking all would have perished, this whole event was shown on national TV,and you may well Ask ,Do I Have Trust in NOwra Fire Services ??????????

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