Wednesday, December 6, 2023

FROM THE RIDGE: Forest fires don’t capture any carbon

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The Australian bushfires have given many of us reason to consider potential future scenarios on this side of the Tasman.
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But first, let’s consider what we are seeing as spectators. The nightly viewing on the news channels gives some idea of how terrifying and overwhelming the fires are for the folk involved.

There are terrible stories of whole farms devastated – all the farm buildings gone, the home gone, infrastructure like fencing gone, animals burnt to death and dogs dead on their chains.

Just trying to imagine how I’d deal with a similar situation invokes huge sympathy and empathy for those fellow farmers.

But it is not just farmers affected but people’s homes and communities wiped out by the random nature of wind changes and the inability to successfully fight the fires, such is their scale. And, of course, there’s a terrible impact on the landscape and on the lives and habitats of Australian wildlife.

Bushfires are an annual feature of the Australian summer. I can remember as a kid being impressed that we could see the smoke from fires so far away in our own air, which affected the sunlight. Parts of New Zealand are seeing the phenomenon again this year.

But this year is particularly bad. The ongoing drought that has been relentless for several years has completely dried the place out and severely diminished water supplies. Temperatures are already in the high 30s and gale winds have been making a deadly cocktail. Sap from eucalyptus trees caught up in a big fire can boil and be ejected, alight, ahead of the fire front, making them even harder to predict and fight.

The fires began in September, two months earlier than usual. In New South Wales alone, 11,000 square kilometres have been burnt. Our biggest fire for some time, the Port Hills fire in 2017, was 2000 hectares, big by our scale but just a scrap compared to theirs.

Last week’s escalation to catastrophic’ conditions saw Sydney, home to six million people, under threat. If it had got into those outer suburbs, trying to quickly evacuate hundreds of thousands of people would turn into a logistical and deadly disaster.

It was only a decade ago in 2009 when what is now called the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria killed 180 people.

The fires are bringing out the very best and the worst in people. Stories of men dressing up to impersonate firefighters and ordering people to evacuate and then looting their homes are sickening. Several fires have been lit by arsonists. And then there is the political posturing over whether this is climate change induced.

However, there are the heroic battles by the firefighters and other volunteers. People are taking the displaced into their homes and communities and there is much support for those affected.

They seem to have a few of those huge planes that pour out fire retardant. I’m not sure how long those chemicals remain in the environment but we have just seen the Middlemarch fires have closed down a large chunk of Dunedin’s water supply and that was just from ground-based operations.

So, we are starting to think of the implications here if the climate becomes hotter, the winds stronger and rainfall reduced. And, in particular, the prospect of widescale planting of forestry for carbon and the log markets.

We are used to the scale of the Kaingaroa Forest. In Bay of Plenty it covers 2900 square kilometres in an area of reasonable rainfall, higher so lower temperatures and ample water bodies and planned dams for firefighting.

But what might happen in the drier areas like the coast east of me in Tararua District with whole areas already being planted and the potential for much more?

There are no major rivers out there, it can get bloody dry and, man, can it blow. I’d be interested to know if the companies doing these plantings are putting in water bodies to fight the inevitable fires. You don’t capture any carbon if it goes up in smoke and ash.

Maybe they better buy some of those big planes and a lot of fire retardant.

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