SALVAGE BEGINS WITH QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Victorian forest contractor Malcolm Beveridge harvests burnt trees in the Yalmy area of East Gippsland. Malcolm is managing director of Beveridge’s Logging. He has been in the timber industry for 35 years.

SERIOUS questions and harsh criticism levelled at Australia’s fire management practices loom large through the lingering smoke of the summer bushfires, which, thank the heavens, are diminishing in some regions with the help of summer rains.

An industry advocate estimates that since Christmas more than 15 million cub m of forest resource was burnt across three states; an estimated 8.4 million ha of the continent went up in flames.

Pyro cumulonimbus clouds allowed smoke to reach 16 km in altitude and travel thousands of kilometres. NASA reports that the smoke has travelled halfway around the world and is expected to make a full global circuit.

The fires have pumped more than 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The economic damage from the fires is likely to exceed the record $4.4 billion set by 2009’s Black Saturday.

So what now? How about a royal commission? A waste of valuable time and money? Yes, say experienced foresters and bushfire scientists who have seen such forums dither into just a ‘talkfest’ with few resolutions put into practice.

Out of Victoria’s tragedy in 2009, officials were told by a royal commission to lift the rate of off-season hazard reduction burning … but just one-third of the burn target was met.

The commission with a budget of $40 million ran for 18 months. The cost did not include the very considerable time and resources committed by various government agencies, companies and individuals who prepared and presented evidence to the commission.

Dr Kevin Tolhurst, an Associate Professor in fire ecology and management in the department of forest and ecosystem science at the University of Melbourne, says some of the recommendations of the Stretton Royal Commission after the Black Friday fires of 1939 have not been fully implemented and many of the recommendations of the subsequent 56 inquiries have not been fully implemented either.

Dr Tolhurst, who has been a member of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, says this raises serious questions about whether another royal commission will offer anything new or compelling.

The actions needed to combat the fire threat are clear and precisely those that have been known for a long time – preventing ignition, reducing fuel loads, creating fire breaks, planning safe distances between bushland and houses, and adequate firefighting infrastructure and coordination.

It’s all there, vividly clear, in those overlooked royal commission findings. The map is written. Proper debate is needed now, more than ever. 

The Prime Minister should demand a new national approach to fuel load reduction and make it an urgent standing item on COAG. 

Meanwhile, across south-eastern Australia, salvage operations are in full swing and burnt ‘killer’ trees are being removed – an operation freely undertaken by volunteer harvesting contractors. 

Companies like AKD at Tumut and Hyne at Tumbarumba have re-started operations and are pumping out wood supplies – again another example of industry resilience. 

Both companies have worked through the disaster putting their people before profits, providing full wages during the emergency while employees fought fires and protected their houses and their mills. 

About 230 people are directly employed at the Tumbarumba mill on the western edge of the Snowy Mountains, part of a circular economy worth $2 billion a year to the south west slopes region and supporting almost 5000 jobs. 

Hyne Timber CEO Jon Kleinschmidt and operations manager James Hyne from head office in Maryborough met with fire and rescue strike teams to understand the reassuring fire prevention measures and readiness they had in place. 

RFS volunteers from Hyne Kim Ferguson and Alan French met with many Rural Fire Service volunteers and emergency services, many of whom are Hyne team members. 

“Today, the town is busy rebuilding and Hyne remains focused on supporting the community through the long-term operations at the mill,” Mr Kleinschmidt said. 

“Once small volumes of existing log yard stocks have been processed, we will be prioritising the processing of salvaged burnt log. Once we remove the burnt bark, the structural grade timber will be the same quality our customers value.” 

Mr Kleinschmidt welcomed preliminary meetings with NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who has also been appointed the state’s Minister for Disaster Recovery. 

“I look forward to continued dialogue and support from all levels of government to secure ongoing log supply and longer distance freight support, among other challenges for the industry moving forward. 

“As with support for individuals and wildlife, government support for the industry and associated economy will be critical as part of the ongoing recovery efforts.” 

AKD Softwoods is incredibly grateful for the efforts of those who battled bushfires in southern NSW, many of them still at the front. 

Timber products at both the Tumut and Gilmore sites continue to be dispatched to customers in Victoria and NSW, drawn from healthy finished goods stock levels. 

CEO Shane Vicary is confident supplies will be maintained to all customers from existing stockpiles and available production capacity at AKD’s other sawmills. 

“The impact on the plantation estate in NSW and Victoria will obviously be significant and in time the flow-on effect on sawmills in the region will become clear,” he said. 

“However, existing stock levels and available production capacity should provide comfort to customers and the industry that supply can be maintained despite the short-term interruption.”