Tenterfield fires trigger demand for new management approach

Conservationist Steve Haslam with an Eastern Grey kangaroo joey caught in the inferno which devastated his Talmoi Road property. Mr Haslam said we need new fire management strategies to cope with a new climate.
Conservationist Steve Haslam with an Eastern Grey kangaroo joey caught in the inferno which devastated his Talmoi Road property. Mr Haslam said we need new fire management strategies to cope with a new climate.

Fire management policies dictated to communities by state government haven't kept pace with climate change, and Tenterfield residents from all walks of life need to support a new approach before they're wiped out economically if not literally, leaders of a new campaign say.

A number of landholders are launching a community initiative to address measures to prevent a repeat of recent devastating fires, including engaging the services of a fire ecologist. A Rural Fire Service fire debrief meeting scheduled for next Wednesday, March 27, is the first rallying point.

Given the fires' impact not only on local agriculture but on wildlife, tourism and, by extension, local businesses and the town as a whole, they're urging as many people as possible to get along to demonstrate their support.

The meeting is in the Tenterfield RSL Pavilion (at the rear of the Memorial Hall in Molesworth Street), starting with a community barbecue at 5pm. At 6pm the RFS will conduct a debrief and receive feedback, and it's sure to get plenty.

Kim Rhodes and husband Neil have been trying to negotiate with their National Park neighbours for several years to deal with the fuel build-up, only to learn that staff are hogtied by legislation and policy.

Mrs Rhodes said the devastating fires spreading from Jennings and Tabulam came on top of crippling drought conditions generating water and feed shortages, and farmers are at breaking point.

This wasn't a fire, it was an inferno that's done permanent damage.

Steve Haslam

She said she is not interested in assigning blame for starting the blazes, nor with criticising the superhuman effort put in by the RFS, National Parks & Wildlife and other personnel, working with landholders to fight the fires.

The Rhodes do, however, take issue with the apparent low priority placed by governments at all levels on managing fire hazards on National Park landholdings.

"These fires put so many families, volunteers, properties, stock, feed and wildlife into danger, even though property owners have been trying to resolve the issues for many years with National Parks and Wildlife management and staff," Mrs Rhodes said.

She said the impact of the two recent fires on the environment and on the community is significant, and it spreads way beyond farmers.

​"One policy for the whole country is not good enough. We need to act to protect our assets and the broader community of Tenterfield."

She said the huge toll on the community from fighting fires -- both directly and through support efforts-- are resources better invested elsewhere. This time the fires didn't encroach on Tenterfield township itself but she wonders how many would stay to rebuild if the town was razed (especially given its current water woes), and what of the federation heritage contained in its buildings?

The current closure of surrounding national parks as a result of the fires has a large impact on the shire's tourism economy, just as Tenterfield Tours' Kevin and Jenny Santin are in Sydney promoting that and other aspects of the district's attractions to tourism operators.

Mrs Rhodes hopes to unite the community in discussing solutions at a local level rather than being dictated to by state government, ultimately to protect Tenterfield's assets.

Biodiversity is non-existent in areas hit hardest by the blazes.

Biodiversity is non-existent in areas hit hardest by the blazes.

Bring in a fire ecologist, conservationist says

Steve Haslam has a property, Quoll Headquarters, near Bald Rock with a perpetual conservation covenant over it with the aim of preserving its biodiversity and ecology.

Since the property was razed on the first day of the Jennings fire, he said it now boasts no biodiversity and no conservation.

On the property were 200-year-old trees that were around when Captain Cook visited our shores, and they've weathered many fires and storms since. Now they're incinerated.

In his two decades he has seen lots of fires go through and appreciates that they're a necessity to prevent fuel build-up. 

"But this wasn't a fire, it was an inferno that's done permanent damage."

He said there are going to be more of them as the landscape gets hotter and drier with climate change, and it's time for all land users -- from conservationists to cattle graziers -- to work together with a scientific basis to determine a strategy for dealing with it.

He is keen for Tenterfield Shire Council to engage a fire ecologist to advise on better management of the landscape in a changing climate.

Indigenous people are known to have better-managed the landscape with planned burn-offs, but Mr Haslam said they were few-and-far between and they were operating in a cooler climate, so there weren't too many large fires.

A fire ecologist would study the ecology of the land and devise a strategy that would best balance the needs of all, including humans.

"It could be 'x' number of fires every 'x' years, in certain seasons. Not every year, but a balance needs to be drawn," Mr Haslam said.

"We're renown for our national parks. If we let this continue we'll end up with open grassland, looking more like Moree country.

"We need to get some scientists in, to help us deal with this."

The fire passed underneath this cabin on Quoll Headquarters. People who have lived in the bush all their lives are reconsidering their safety.

The fire passed underneath this cabin on Quoll Headquarters. People who have lived in the bush all their lives are reconsidering their safety.

Mr Haslam said it's getting too dangerous to live in the bush. He's heard families who have lived in the bush all their lives say it's time to move out because of the risk of out-of-control bushfires.

"Council may need to look at DAs (development applications) and things like compulsory fire bunkers, and consider its role in keeping the community safe."

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