Four years ago the hills of pine plantations in the Snowy Mountains outside Tumut were black after the most severe fire season ever recorded in NSW.
Among houses, livestock and properties, the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires destroyed around a third of the region’s softwood pine plantations.
It was a significant blow to the local forestry industry, which accounts for more than half the jobs in the region.
This year Canadian firefighter Mike McGregor returned to Tumut to work for the Forestry Corporation of NSW for the first time since that fateful summer.
“When I left it looked like a nuke had gone off; everything was black and burnt,” Mr McGregor said.
“To see it all coming back to life pulls on your heart strings, there’s hope.”
Mr McGregor has returned to Australia following a record-breaking fire season in British Columbia.
He said devastating fire seasons were becoming a trend.
“Out of the 10 seasons of wildfire that I’ve been involved in, four to five have been recorded-setting.
“It’s raises the alarm that reactive fire management needs to be something our government funds immediately, because the bills for these wildfires are unsustainable.
“As taxpayers, we can’t afford to continue to foot the bill for these multi-billion-dollar emergencies summer after summer, whether you’re in Canada, the United States or Australia.”
Protecting the plantations
The Snowy Mountain region is home to 168,000 hectares of softwood plantation, which equates to around 16 per cent of Australia’s capacity.
Softwood is used for the production of cardboard, paper and construction materials.
The Black Summer bushfires wiped out 50,000ha of trees in the region, however 42 per cent of the burnt wood was able to be salvaged with state and federal assistance.
Although the years following Black Summer have been wet, severe fire patterns are likely to become more frequent as the climate warms, according to the NSW EPA.
Forestry Corporation stewardship and fire manager Charles Taylor watches over the 150,000ha of pine plantations from the Murray to Murrumbidgee rivers.
“We put a lot of effort into fire detection on the basis that it’s easier to extinguish once detected earlier.”
Mr Taylor said they had fire towers staffed during summer and were trialling fire-detection cameras.
“The cameras have been on a trial basis the last few years, given we haven’t had a lot of fire activity,” he said.
In terms of staffing, Forestry Corporation has 80 people in the area who can be deployed to fight fires over summer.
“There’s other forestry companies plus contractors, so in total there’s 150 people available to deploy to a fire,” Mr Taylor said.
“We have been aiming to increase staff but we’ve got to train and retain them.”
Increasing staff and detection resourcing isn’t the only change, as the replanting of millions of lost trees has created new challenges.
Silviculture supervisor Ellen Kromar said younger trees were more vulnerable to fire.
“You’re approaching more grassfires which can move very fast,” she said.
“The taller timber, it’ll take a bit longer for the fire to climb up and spread, so with more grass our response needs to be even faster.”
Ms Kromar said a key challenge since the Black Summer fires had also been managing the “wilding population”.
“A wilding is a pine grown from seed that hasn’t been produced in our nursery and doesn’t have the genetics that we want,” she said.
“Fleas on a dog’s back is the analogy being used to describe the problem — it’s our job to remove them and put that patch of land back into establishment.”
‘Can’t afford another fire’
However it’s not just the Forestry Corporation that wants to protect the timber.
A report on the economic impacts of the Black Summer fires commissioned by the Murray Region Forestry Hub showed the economies in Tumut, Batlow and Tumbarumba relied heavily on forestry.
Softwoods Working Group executive officer Carlie Porteous said fire management was a major concern for the future in terms of protecting local jobs.
“This region processes 90 per cent of the wood that it grows, which is extraordinary for Australia,” she said.
“We are concerned about the resources that we have, and there’s concern there would be rationalisation if there was another catastrophic fire.
“The report tells us the industry and the communities it supports cannot afford another fire.
“We’d like to get the right people around a table and talk about how we do manage and protect our resources better into the future.”
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