For those willing to look, the evidence has been available for years: logging increases fire severity. Industry advocates continue to claim that ‘logging reduces fire risk’. But it should be obvious to any impartial observer that ‘removing large established trees actually increases the amount of flammable fuel, with unshaded stumps and new-grown saplings dried out by the sun and wind serving as ‘kindling’ for the flames’.

This has been backed up again by range of prominent scientists.

According to reporting by the ABC, a new opinion piece, co-authored by Dr James Watson, a professor of conservation science at University of Queensland and director of the Wildlife Conservation Society shows that “logging increases fire risk dramatically”.

“That’s clear from the evidence of different scientists who have studied this at sites and landscapes across Australia.”

The scale of logging had a “profound” effect on the severity of the summer’s fires.

“The evidence is showing that when you log around towns in forest landscapes, which they’re doing right now, you’re making the entire landscape more fire prone and therefore putting people more at risk,” Dr Watson said.

The piece, called Recent Australian wildfires made worse by logging and associated forest management, was authored by David Lindenmayer, Robert Kooyman, Chris Taylor, Michelle Ward and James Watson. (Details here).

They say ‘The recent fires in southern Australia were unprecedented in scale and severity. Much commentary has rightly focused on the role of climate change in exacerbating the risk of fire. Here, we contend that policy makers must recognize that historical and contemporary logging of forests has had profound effects on these fires’ severity and frequency’.

As a side note, work published in early 2020 showed that climate change drove the ferocity of this summer’s fires (story here).

Reporting by Lisa Cox in The Guardian notes that:

The scientists  ‘highlight this as a concern because land management policy was “well within the control of Australians” and the fires had been used by some sectors of the industry to call for increased logging in some areas.

The paper says industry data showed that some 161m cubic metres of native forest was logged in the period from 1996 to 2018.

“Beyond the direct and immediate impacts on biodiversity of disturbance and proximity to disturbed forest, there is compelling evidence that Australia’s historical and contemporary logging regimes have made many Australian forests more fire prone and contributed to increased fire severity and flammability,” the scientists write.

This occurs because logging leaves debris at ground level that increases the fuel load in logged forests. It also changes forest composition and leaves these areas of forest both hotter and drier, they say.

The article says during the bushfire season fire had spread from logged areas adjacent to old growth eucalypts and rainforests in the Gondwana world heritage reserves.

In Victoria’s East Gippsland region, “extensive areas of logged and regenerated forest have burned repeatedly in the past 25 years”.

What should we do?

(The quotes in italics come from The Guardian story).

The scientists make a number of recommendations:

1/ stop logging where it will add to fuel loads

They suggest a number of responses to reduce the risk of further catastrophic fire seasons, including the “removal of logging from areas where it adds considerably to fuel loads and creates forest structures that increase fire severity and risks to human safety”.

“Logging causes a rise in fuel loads, increases potential drying of wet forests and causes a decrease in forest height.”

2/ restore logged forests and protect them

They also call for restoration of previously logged forests to build resilience to future fire events.

“In the event of wildfires, land managers must avoid practices such as ‘salvage’ logging – or logging of burnt forests – which severely reduces recovery of a forest,” Lindenmayer said.

3/ transition the timber industry out of native forests

‘Governments need to confine timber supply to plantations and look at ways to accelerate the industry transition in states such as Victoria, which plans to phase out native forest logging by 2030’.

4/ protect towns in forested areas by stopping logging

David Lindenmayer has previously suggested that, given the fact that logging increases fire risk, it should be banned within ‘5 or 10’ kilometres of towns. This is based on research from the Australian National University (ANU) and Melbourne University after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, which found that the increased fire risk began about seven years after an area had been logged and lasted for another 50 years.

Many towns in areas that have experienced recent logging, such as Healesville, Toolangi, Warburton, Noojee and Marysville, must now exist with heightened fire risk as a result of logging. Professor Lindenmayer said there should be no logging within five to 10 kilometres of towns to ensure “that we don’t add extra risk through extra logging”.

Take action

The Victorian government has committed $120 million to assist the timber industry to transition out of native forests (this was announced in November 2019). But no details have yet been announced.

Please tell the Victorian government to get on with implementing the plan by signing this petition.