New Bush Telegraph Independent Stories since 1987
COMMUNITYSUSTAINABILITYENVIRONMENTPOLITICSCOUNCILARTSCLIMATE CHANGE

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.

This article is in the following category/ies:

  • Categories

  • Archives

    5 comments on “Can trees protect against fire?”

    1. 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.

    2. 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 ??????????

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Join us

    For only $20 (per annum, $10 concession) you can become a member of The New Bush Telegraph Incorporated. Membership to an incorporated association shows your support and gives you voting rights at annual general meetings, access to volunteer opportunities and special member events.

    FIND OUT MORE

    Sign up to become a subscriber – it’s free

    Keep up to date with all the news from The New Bush Telegraph and be notified of new articles when they are published. It’s the best way to stay in touch and never miss out on those important local issues. You can unsubscribe at any time.

    * indicates required

    Donate to the New Bush Telegraph

    The New Bush Telegraph is a not-for-profit community initiative.

    Support us to grow and reach our goals by considering making a donation.

    COMMUNITYSUSTAINABILITY
    ENVIRONMENTPOLITICS
    COUNCIL
    ARTSCLIMATE CHANGE
    ABOUTLETTERS TO THE EDITORCONTACT

    Archives

    #125 Spring 2019#120 Winter 2018#109 Spring 2015#108 Winter 2015#107 Autumn 2015#106 Winter 2010#105 Late Spring 2009#104 Winter 2009#103 Autumn 2009#102 Summer 2008#101 Winter / Spring 2008#100 Late Autumn 2008#99 Late Summer  2008#98 Summer 2007#97 Spring 2007#96 Winter 2007#95 Autumn 2007
    New Bush Telegraph - Independent Publishing Since 1987
    Privacy PolicyTerms & Conditions
    Copyright © New Bush Telegraph Incorporated ABN: 42106732072
    linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram