Grose Fires 2006 – forum actions ignored

In November 2006, two separate bushfires that were allowed to burn out of control for a week as well extensive deliberate backburning, ended up causing some 14,070 hectares of the Blue Mountains National Park to be burnt.

This wiped out a significant area of the Grose Valley and burnt through the iconic Blue Gum Forest in the upper Blue Mountains of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA).

In the mind of Rural Fire Service (RFS) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service of New South Wales (NPWS), National Parks and World Heritage do not figure as a natural asset worth protecting from bushfire, but rather as an expendable liability, a ‘fuel’ hazard, when it comes to bushfire fighting.

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This massive firestorm has since been branded the ‘Grose Valley Fires of 2006‘.

To learn more about the background to this bushfire read article:    >’2006 Grose Valley Fires – any lessons learnt?

Pyrocumulous ‘carbon’ smoke cloud
above the firestorm engulfing the Grose Valley 20061123

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About a month after the fire, on Tuesday 19th December 2006 there was apparently an ‘Inter-Agency Review‘ which took place at Katoomba behind closed doors by members of bushfire management and operating personnel involved in the fire fighting. Despite requests by this Editor, no minutes or reports of that meeting were ever forthcoming.  The meeting was internal and secret.

Immediate local community outrage called for explanations and accountability from the Rural Fire Service (RFS) (the government agency responsible for rural fire fighting throughout the State of New South Wales) in charge of fighting the bushfires and for a review of bushfire management practices with a view to ensuring that the highly valued  Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and iconic Blue Gum Forest in particular is protected from bushfire in future.  Many members of the local community called for an independent and public review or enquiry.

One local resident wrote in the local Blue Mountains Gazette newspaper:

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‘Questioning the RFS’

by Dr Jackie Janosi, Katoomba, 20061204

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‘To start, this is directed at the upper levels of the RFS and not to the wonderful local volunteers – many of whom are loved and respected friends and colleagues.

To stop the loud community Chinese whispers and restore faith with the local community, could someone please respond with factual answers about the recent Grose Valley fire that are not reinterpreted with a political spin.

  1. How many hectares of bush was burnt by the Grose Valley wildfire and how many was burnt by the RFS mitigation efforts?
  2. How many houses and lives were at risk from the wildfire as versus to the RFS fire?
  3. How many millions of dollars were spent on water bombing the RFS fire?
  4. How many litres of precious water were used to put out the RFS fire?
  5. Is it true that soil-holding rainforest was burnt and that the real reason for the Mt Tomah road block was erosion from the RFS removal of this natural fire-break?
  6. Was local advice and expertise sought and followed or simply ignored?
  7. If mistakes were made, what measures will be taken to ensure that this does not happen again?

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I sincerely hope that if mistakes were made then the upper levels of the RFS can show the humility and good future planning that is now required to restore it’s good reputation. I hope that the RFS can show that it is still a community group that cares for the safety of our Blue Mountains residents, is able to respect and respond to our very special local environment and is able to make sound decisions about valuable resources.’

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Ed:  Her questions were never answered.  With the RFS rejecting calls for a public or independent review, there was a general sense amongst many in the local community of a cover up and of gross incompetence going unaccounted for.

One of two ignitions that got out of control
– this one in ‘Lawson’s Long Alley‘, north of Mount Victoria
(Photo: Eric Berry, Rural Fire Service, 2006)


A week later, a front page article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald 20061211 by journalist Gregg Borschmann entitled ‘The ghosts of an enchanted forest demand answers‘ ^http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/the-ghosts-of-an-enchanted-forest-demand-answers/2006/12/10/1165685553891.html   [>Read article].  A second in depth article by Borschmann was also run on page 10 ‘The burning question‘, ^http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/the-burning-question/2006/12/10/1165685553945.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1, [>Read article – scroll down].

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Community activists form ‘Grose Fire Group’ in protest

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Within days of the Grose Valley Fires finally coming under control, some 143 Blue Mountains concerned residents informally formed the ‘Grose Fire Group’ and collectively funded a full page letter in the local Blue Mountains Gazette 20061206 asking of the RFS a different set of questions:

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‘We call on the New South Wales government to:

1.    Undertake a thorough, independent review of the Grose Valley fire, involving all stakeholders, with particular attention to the following questions:

  •  Were fire detection and initial suppression timely and adequate?
  •  Were resources adequate, appropriate and supported?
  •  Were the adopted strategies the best available under the circumstances?
  •  Could other strategies of closer containment have offered lower risk to the community, better firefighter safety, higher probabilities of success, lower costs and less impact on the environment?
  •  Was existing knowledge and planning adequately utilised?
  •  Is fire management funded in the most effective way?

2.    Ensure adequate funding is available for post-fire restoration, including the rehabilitation of environmental damage.
3.    Pay for more research to improve understanding of fire in the Blue Mountains landscape and methods for fire mitigation and suppression.
4.    Improve training in strategies for controlling fires in large bushland areas.
5.    Improve pre-fire planning to support decision-making during incidents.
6.    Improve systems to ensure that local fire planning and expertise is fully utilised during incidents, and that the protection of the natural and cultural values of World Heritage areas and other bushland are fully considered.’

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On 20061220, my letter was published in the Blue Mountains Gazette on page 12:

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Blue Gum Lessons’

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‘One of our most precious natural heritage assets, the Blue Gum Forest, has been allowed to be scorched by bushfire. This demands an independent enquiry into current fire fighting practices to ensure such a tragedy is not repeated.

Not a witch hunt, but what is needed is a constructive revision into improving bushfire fighting methods incorporating current research into the issue. The intensity and frequency of bushfires have become more prevalent due to disturbances by man, including climate change.

An enquiry should consider the assets worth saving; not just lives, homes and property but natural assets of the World Heritage Area. Fire fighting methods should seek to protect all these values.   It seems back-burning, however well-intentioned, burnt out the Blue Gum. This is unacceptable.   What went wrong? The future survival of our forests depends on how we manage fire.’

Blue Gum Forest shortly after the firestorm
(Photo:  Nick Moir, Sydney Morning Herald 20061210)

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Ed:  The above community questions and demands were ignored by the RFS and the New South Wales Government.  Many within the ranks of the RFS came to its defence, as the following letters to the Blue Mountains Gazette reveal.

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[>Read PDF version]

 

As letters to the editor continued over the Christmas holiday break, by January 2007, Local Member for the Blue Mountains and Minister for the Environment, Bob Debus MP finally responded by proposing that community members be given an opportunity to discuss their concerns with fire authorities and be encouraged to contribute to the development of revised fire management strategies, policies and procedures which may arise from the routine internal reviews of the 2006-07 fire season, and particularly the Grose Valley fire.

The ‘Grose Valley Fire Forum‘ was scheduled for Saturday 17th February 2007, but it was invitation only.  I requested permission to attend, but by was rejected.

The incinerated remains of the Grose Valley
– now devoid of wildlife, also incinerated

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Grose Valley Fire Forum

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The following is an edited account of the official ‘Report on (the) Grose Valley Fire Forum‘, which was arranged and co-ordinated by the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute (BMWHI) and which took place at Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah on  Saturday 17th February 2007.  The Report is dated 16 March 2007.  ‘The content of this report reflects the Forum discussion and outcomes and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute‘ – BMWHI.

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The Grose Valley Fire Forum and report were undertaken by the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute at the request of the NSW Minister for the Environment, the Honourable Bob Debus MP.

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Forum Participants

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  1. Associate Professor Sandy Booth – Forum Chairman and Facilitator (BMWH Institute)
  2. Professor Ross Bradstock Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong
  3. Mr Ian Brown BM Conservation Society
  4. Mr Don Cameron BM Conservation Society
  5. Mr Matthew Chambers Environmental Scientist, Blue Mountains City Council (Observer)
  6. Dr Rosalie Chapple Forum Co-Facilitator, BMWH Institute
  7. Mr Bob Conroy Director Central, Parks and Wildlife Division, DEC
  8. Ms Carol Cooper Darug and Gundungurra Nations (Observer)
  9. Superintendent Mal Cronstedt Blue Mountains District, Rural Fire Service
  10. Mr Grahame Douglas Acting Chair, BM Regional Advisory Committee
  11. Group Captain John Fitzgerald Blue Mountains District, Rural Fire Service
  12. Mr Shane Fitzsimmons Executive Director Operations, Rural Fire Service (Observer)
  13. Mr Richard Kingswood Area Manager Blue Mountains, Parks and Wildlife Division, DEC
  14. Mr Geoff Luscombe Regional Manager Blue Mountains, Parks and Wildlife Division, DEC
  15. Dr Brian Marshall President, BM Conservation Society (Observer)
  16. Mr Hugh Paterson BM Conservation Society & NSW Nature Conservation Council
  17. Dr Judy Smith GBMWH Advisory Committee Member
  18. Inspector Jack Tolhurst Blue Mountains District, Rural Fire Service
  19. Mr Haydn Washington GBMWH Advisory Committee Member
  20. Mr Pat Westwood Bushfire Program Coordinator, Nature Conservation Council
  21. Members of the general public were not permitted to attend, including this Editor, who had requested permission to attend

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List of Acronyms used in this Report

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AFAC    Australasian Fire Authorities Control
ARC    Australian Research Council
BFCC    Bush Fire Coordinating Committee
BM    Blue Mountains
BMCC    Blue Mountains City Council
BMWHI    Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute
BFMC    Blue Mountains District Bush Fire Management Committee
BMCS    Blue Mountains Conservation Society
CERMB    Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, Faculty of Science, University of Wollongong
CRC    Co-operative Research Centre
DEC NSW    Department of Environment & Conservation
GBMWHA    Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area
GIS    Geographic Information System
NCC    NSW Nature Conservation Council
NPWS    NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service, Department of Environment & Conservation
RAFT    Remote Area Fire-fighting Team
CRAFT    Catchment Remote Area Fire-fighting Team
RFS    NSW Rural Fire Service

The Grose Valley from Govetts Leap, Blackheath
(Photo by Editor 20061209, free in public domain, click photo to enlarge)

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Forum Agenda

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10.00    Welcome to Country – Carol Cooper

Introduction by the Forum Chair -Sandy Booth:

  • Purpose
  • Process
  • Agreements
  • Outcomes
  • Reporting

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10.10   Introduction and opening statement by each participant without comment

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10.30   Presentations (10 mins each) by:

  •  Mal Cronstedt (RFS) – report on agency debrief Dec 19
  •  Richard Kingswood (NPWS) – national parks and fire management
  •  Dr Brian Marshall President, Blue Mountains Conservation Society – local community perspective
  •  Ross Bradstock (Wollongong University) – gaps and priorities in bushfire research for the BM

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11.10   Points of Clarification

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11.20   Grose Valley Fire Management

  • Issues not covered in RFS official Section 44 Debrief Report

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11.40   Fire Management and the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (WHA)   (Ed: the region affected by the fire)

  • Longer term and landscape scale management issues relating including climate change implications

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12.00  Grose Valley Fire Management

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1.00-2.00  Lunch

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Grose Valley Fire Management and the WHA   (continued)

  • Identification of agreed list of actions, with nominated organisations and recommended timeframes

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Close & Afternoon Tea  (Ed: no specific time set. 5pm?)

Ed:  Assuming that the forum concluded at around 5pm, the duration allocated for discussing and devising the ‘Actions’, including each Action’s Goal, Trends, Causes and Conditions, Delegation and Timeframe was just 3 hours, presuming the forum ended at 5pm. 

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Since there are and remain some 50 listed Actions out of this forum within a 3 hour allocated period (2pm to 5pm), just 3.6 minutes was allowed for discussing and devising the details of each Action.  It is highly implausible that this could have been completed at the forum.  So the question remains: were many of the Forum’s 50 Actions in fact devised outside the forum either by the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute on its own or in consultation with some of the forum attendees?

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In any case none of the Actions has been undertaken.  There has been no follow up report on the performance of the Actions. 

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This Grose Valley Forum of 2007 was just a politically contrived token talk-fest behind closed doors.  Its glossy motherhood report was designed to appease critics of the RFS management of this devastating fire. 

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The forum was not open to the general public, nor was it independent of bushfire management’s selective bias. 

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The only benefit was that bushfire management would appease the critics of its handling of the fire fighting by producing a report and that most would forget.  Well the purpose of this article is, out of respect for the ecology and wildlife of the Grose Valley, to reveal that report and to help ensure people do not forget.

Forum Introduction

 

In November 2006, fire caused by lightning strikes burnt a significant area of the Grose Valley in the upper Blue Mountains of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (GBMWHA). Like many areas throughout the GBMWHA, the Grose Valley is an area of high natural and cultural value, including the iconic Blue Gum Forest. The two original ignitions were designated as the Burrakorain Fire and the Lawson’s Long Alley Fire, and they came jointly under the jurisdiction of an emergency declaration under Section 44 of the Rural Fires Act.

Community members called on the State Government to undertake a thorough and independent review of the management of this fire, involving all stakeholders. Principal among the issues raised by the concerned residents were backburning, impacts of frequent fires, under-utilisation of local expertise, and economic costs. The community members also called for adequate funding for rehabilitation and environmental restoration works, to conduct more research and training in certain areas of fire management, to improve pre-fire planning
and to develop management systems to better capture and utilise local knowledge.

Local Member for the Blue Mountains and Minister for the Environment, Hon. Bob Debus responded to these concerns by proposing that community members be given an opportunity to discuss their concerns with fire authorities and be encouraged to contribute to the development of revised fire management strategies, policies and procedures which may arise from the routine internal reviews of the 2006-07 fire season, and particularly the Grose Valley fire. The Minister also noted the opportunity for the community to be informed of, and
contribute to, the development of future research projects concerning climate change and fire regimes.

The Minister invited the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute (BMWHI) to organise and chair a forum of representative community members and fire authorities. The Institute is an independent non-profit organisation that supports the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the GBMWHA, with a key objective to “support the integration of science, management and policy within and adjoining the GBMWHA properties.

The purpose of the forum was to:

  1. Brief the community on the management of the Grose Valley fire and the framework and context for the management of fire generally within the World Heritage Area
  2. Identify any issues that relate specifically to the management of the Grose Valley fire, and that haven’t already been captured and/or responded to within the s.44 debrief report
  3. Identify longer term and landscape scale issues relating to the management of fire in the Greater Blue Mountains WHA, particularly in this time of climate change
  4. Develop an action plan, which responds to any unresolved issues identified above.

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In accordance with the Minister’s brief (Ed: Bob Debus), the following organisations were represented at the forum:

  • NSW Dept of Environment and Conservation;
  • NSW Rural Fire Service
  • Blue Mountains Conservation Society
  • Nature Conservation Council of NSW
  • Blue Mountains City Council
  • NPWS Regional Advisory Committee
  • GBMWHA Advisory Committee.

 

In addition to senior representatives of the agencies involved, representatives also came from the principal community-based organisations that had expressed concern and called for a review process. It should be noted that one of the main public calls for a review was made by an informal coalition of residents that was not formally represented at the forum, but a number of these residents were members of those organisations represented.

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(Ed: the general public were not permitted to attend, there was no public notice of the forum in advance, and this Editor was specifically excluded from attending.)

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Forum Process

 

An open invitation was given to the community organisations to identify the issues of community interest and concern to be discussed at the Forum.

From these issues, a consolidated list of 22 issues (Table 1.2) was prepared by the Institute, and then circulated to all participants prior to the forum. To facilitate the workshop discussions and the detailed consideration of the identified issues, the ‘5R Risk Management Framework‘ was used to group the issues.

Following a Gundungurra and Darug ‘Welcome to Country’ by Carol Cooper, and an introduction by the Forum Chair, self-introductions and personal opening statements were made by each participant without comment. These were followed by a series of briefins on management of the Grose Valley Fire and fire management generally within the World Heritage Area. The Forum began by acknowledging that fire management in the Blue Mountains is close to best practice in many ways.

It was unfortunate that copies of the Section 44 debrief report were not available for the forum as anticipated (Ed: a copy is provided in the ‘Further Reading‘ appendix below).

While this was partly overcome through verbal presentation and comment, it limited the ability to reach consensus on the factual basis of what happened on the fire ground and to move forward productively from this point of consensus. Community representatives expressed their dissatisfaction with this situation, and it must be noted that the forum was therefore not able to engage effectively on specific issues of the control strategies used on the Grose Valley Fires.

After a brief session on points of clarification, the issues presented to the forum were explored in detail by working through a problem orientation process that asked a series of questions about each issue, to reach consensus on the exact nature of the problem. As this work progressed, a series of agreed actions were identified to effectively address key aspects of the issues as these unfolded. It is noted that the issues addressed toward the end of the day were examined in less detail due to time constraints, but warrant further attention (e.g. the issue about remote area fire-fighting teams). The original list of 22 issues was consolidated into 11 goal statements, with 50 associated actions.

The main body of this report presents the goals and actions along with documentation of the discussion that took place on the day. It utilises the structured approach to systematically work through the issues, and identify the actions required to bring about more sustainable bushfire management for the Blue Mountains. Within a week of the Forum, the Institute circulated a copy of the forum proceedings to all participants for comment and clarification. The Institute also sought identification of responsibilities for the 50 Actions identified by the Fire Forum.

It is strongly recommended that implementation of the Action Plan be reviewed annually by the representative organisations, to assess progress and effectiveness of actions. It is proposed that the BMWH Institute co-ordinate this review process in partnership with the Nature Conservation Council, with a workshop held after the 2007/08 fire season, to re-address the issues and their progress.  (Ed: This was never done)

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Forum Overview

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A big challenge in bushfire management is how to better integrate valid community interests with those of fire management agencies. Over recent years, the public has come to demand and expect a greater say in decision-making processes that impact upon their local environment. The Grose Valley Fire Forum represents a step forward in this process of better integrating community knowledge and interests into local natural resource management.

The Forum also illustrated that the Blue Mountains community is both a great supporter of fire authorities, and of the role of volunteer firefighters for the outstanding effort that they are prepared to undertake on behalf of the community.

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The concerns and questions addressed at the forum included:

  • Identifying weaknesses and gaps in fire management plans and processes
    • How well are plans being implemented and what are the barriers to implementation e.g. financial, institutional, political?
    • How should fire authorities and land managers respond to climate change impacts?

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  • Integrating scientific knowledge into fire management plans
    • How can bushfire management policy allow for the incomplete knowledge of complex ecological systems?
    • What roles should science and other research play in decision processes, given the uncertainty arising from incomplete understanding of ecosystem dynamics and insufficient scientific information?

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  • The role of fire as an ecological process
    • How do we resolve the conflict between rapid fire suppression to reduce risk versus the fire-dependency of the ecosystem?
    • What does it take to more effectively mitigate against the risk?

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  • Concern that fire control strategies do not compromise the significant natural and cultural heritage values of the Greater Blue Mountains region.
    • How can bushfire management policy better account for protection of World Heritage values?
    • How adaptive is bushfire management and policy to the specific circumstances of the Blue Mountains?

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The Forum recommended actions in relation to:

  • Better interpretation of ecological data into decision-making and practical fire-fighting procedures
  • Improvements in bushfire risk management planning
  • Better translation of legislated objectives for protection of natural and cultural values into operational guidelines
  • Improved information flow between fire authorities and the community during and after major fires, including more transparency and public involvement in the review processes
  • Increasing funding for fire-related research, planning, risk mitigation, and post-fire ecological rehabilitation
  • Enhancing the preparedness, detection and rapid fire response capacity of fire authorities in response to fire ignitions
  • Modelling the effects of different control strategies and suppression.

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The Forum acknowledged the increasing and serious challenges arising from risks associated with liabilities and litigation. These trends are of principal concern to fire management agencies and the fire fighters themselves, and many in the general community share these concerns.

Bushfire management is a cultural phenomenon, inextricably bound up between nature and culture. It involves the interaction of multiple, complex systems, including:

  • organisational/institutional behaviour and decision-making
  • fire fighting strategies and technologies
  • science, research and ecosystem behaviour
  • variable fire behaviour and weather, including climate change
  • politics; and
  • personal values and attitudes.

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The complexity is increasing, especially with climate change, along with pressure for bushfire management to be more adaptive and responsive to the needs of the present and the future.
Facilitating the necessary changes in the behaviour of any of these systems is highly challenging for both government and the community. These systems often have severe constraints including limited resources, threats of litigation, and limited data on which sound decisions can be confidently made. Where these systems are not continuing to learn and adapt, is where attention is needed, not on individual accountabilities. Sound decision-making at the time of a fire event is crucial and the process by which these decisions are made requires careful
analysis. The system should be able to support open reflection after a fire, without blame or litigation. This is where a process of scientific analysis should come into its own: what the fire did, what was done to control it, what worked, what didn’t, why or why not, and what can be done to make things better. How can the system be changed and improved to make success more likely?

Research and adaptive management are essential in helping to address both current challenges and the issues arising from climate change. But alone, these will not bring about the required changes as neither of these domains explicitly addresses the overall policy process or the political realm in which bushfire management happens. Conflict and uncertainty are becoming increasingly common, as evidenced by the Four Corners Program “Firestorm” broadcast on Monday 12th March. The program featured the 2004 Canberra Bushfires and also
raised the Grose Valley fire and resulting Fire Forum.

To overcome the key problems identified by the Grose Valley Fire Forum and achieve real and lasting triple bottom line outcomes, change and innovation need to take place in the realm of governance. This is particularly the case in the areas of science, policy and decision-making.

The Grose Valley Fire Forum has brought fire management agencies and interested representatives of the community together in a spirit of co-operation to consider issues critical to the management of bushfires. Driven by the high conservation values of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, the implications of the issues raised at this Forum have obvious relevance to other regions and states. Protecting people as well as the environment should not be mutually exclusive. Our efforts to address this challenge in the Blue Mountains will increasingly come in for close scrutiny.

Notwithstanding the existing mechanisms of review and community consultation surrounding bushfire management, the Institute recommends to the Minister that the issues and actions identified herein by the Grose Valley Fire Forum warrant special consideration and support.

Properly pursued with senior political and agency commitment and support, they offer key insights and potential pathways for the continued adaptive development and implementation of state of the art fire fighting for which NSW, and in particular, the Blue Mountains are justifiably renowned.

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Issues of Community Interest and Concern

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A.   Research, information and analysis

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1.  Commitment in fire management to conservation of natural and cultural values of World Heritage Area as well as human life and property.
2.  Understanding and consideration (including on-ground knowledge) both by those involved in pre-fire planning and those required to make operational decisions during fire events -of the WH values for which the GBMWHA was inscribed on the world heritage list, and of other values, such as geodiversity, cultural values and beauty, which have the potential to be nominated for World Heritage listing in the future.
3.  Biodiversity impacts of frequent fires in Grose Valley for last 40 years, including impacts of the recent fire on World Heritage values.
4.  The ecological basis for fire policy (knowledge base for response of local biota to fire regimes) e.g. biodiversity loss associated both with high fire frequency and intensity, and with fire exclusion.
5.  Translation of NPWS Blue Mountains Fire Management Plan (e.g. risks to natural heritage particularly World Heritage values) to S.52 operational plans during Grose Valley fire.
6.  Effectiveness of review processes in generating real improvements for the future; current debriefing process performed by BFMCs [i.e. BFCC Policy 2/2006].
7.  Assessment of community values – protection of property versus protection of the natural environment.
8.  Implications of climate change for increased fire frequency and intensity.
9.  Adequate funds for fire suppression versus inadequate funds for research, planning and fire mitigation.

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B.   Risk modification

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10. Effectiveness of current risk strategies in managing fire regimes for biodiversity and community/asset protection (e.g. upper Grose Valley).
11. Implications of climate change for risk modification (e.g. fuel reduction).

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C.   Readiness

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12. Skills in implementing fire control strategies for large bushland areas e.g. back-burning.
13. Ecological sustainability of current responses to fire (both suppression & bushfire risk management) e.g. knowledge and skill of plant operators in sensitive environments (environmental damage from machine work e.g. bulldozer lines).
14. Community understanding of control strategies used.
15. RAFT capacity (e.g. for night-time work).
16. Efficiency of fire detection technologies.

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D.   Response

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17. Back-burn control strategy from “Northern Strategic Line” and Bell’s Line of Road in large bushland area: overriding consideration for asset protection versus lack of consideration and recognition of impacts on ecological values.
18. Application of planning, guidelines, procedures & local information & expertise during fire suppression.
19. Rapid containment of lightning strike or arson fires.
20. Aerial attack efficiency and effectiveness.
21. Media – inaccurate and misleading use of language and presentation of information.

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E.   Recovery

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22. Funding for post-fire assessment, strategy review and ecological restoration including addressing activation of weed seed banks.

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Problem Orientation Process

(Problem Solving Methodology applied by the BMWHI to the Forum)

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1. Clarify goals in relation to the issue

  • What goals or ends do we want?
  • Are people’s values clear? (there may be an over-riding goal and then more specific goals to operationalise the over-riding goal)

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2. Describe trends

  • Looking back at the history of the issue, what are the key trends?
  • Have events moved toward or away from the specified goals?  Describe both past and current trends.

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3. Analyse causes and conditions

  • What factors, relationships, and conditions created these trends, including the complex interplay of factors that affected prior decisions? (e.g. environmental, social, political factors) i.e. what explanations are there for the trends?
  • What management activities have affected the trends?
  • What are the conflicts about different approaches to address the issue?

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4. Projection of developments (e.g. if no action is taken to address the issue)

  • Based on trends and conditions, what is likely to happen in the future (e.g. if nothing is done differently).
  • If past trends continue, what can we expect?
  • Is the likely future the one that will achieve the goals?
  • What future possible developments are there (e.g. politically, environmentally e.g. how will climate change affect the problem)?

 

5. Decide on any Actions to address the problem

  • If trends are not moving toward the goal, then a problem exists and actions need to be considered.
  • What other policies, institutional structures, and procedures might move toward the goal?
  • What research, analysis, or public education may be needed?

 

* Adapted from Clark, T.W. 2002. “The Policy Process: a practical guide for natural resource professionals.” Yale University Press. U.S.
Vast hectares of the Blue Mountains’ native vegetation was either left to burn uncontrolled
or else deliberately burned by the RFS and NPWS

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Action Plan

~ a consolidated list of goals and actions  [organisations delegated for executing ‘Actions’ are shown in brackets  […]

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1.  Protection of Natural and Cultural Values

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GOAL:

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To protect natural and cultural heritage values, consistent with the protection of human life and property, by ensuring that bushfire management strategies:

• take a risk management approach toward protection of these values
• improve access to and interpretation of natural and cultural heritage values when deciding on fire suppression strategies and tactics
• ensure that these natural and cultural heritage guidelines for fire management are integrated throughout the entire planning framework for short, medium and long-term bushfire management and operational strategies.

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ACTIONS:

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1. Data collected within the “Managing ecosystem change in the GBMWHA” project, including the new GIS, to be effectively interpreted into decision-making and practical fire-fighting terms. [Responsibility for action: BMWHI & CERMB – ARC Linkage project, NPWS, BMCC, BMCS]

2. Monitor impacts of fires on Aboriginal cultural heritage values, and undertake opportunistic mapping of these values post-fire. Translate findings into decision-making and practical fire fighting terms. As a priority, undertake an opportunistic survey of Aboriginal cultural heritage post-Grose fire. [Aboriginal communities, BMWHI, NPWS]

3. Greater effort in general to be made in translating and interpreting research and other relevant information on the protection of ecological and cultural values to better inform decision-making and into practical fire-fighting terms wherever required. [CERMB, BMWHI, NPWS, BMCC, BMCS]

4. Consider further developments in environmental risk management planning by the BFCC for inclusion in the Bush Fire Risk Management Plan model template. [BFMC]

5. Effectively integrate the strategic hazard reduction plan being developed by BMCC, into the risk management plan and the operations plans. [BMCC, BFMC]

6. Translate the NPWS Fire Management Strategies objectives for protection of natural and cultural values into operational guidelines across the entire planning framework at all levels, using a risk management approach. [NPWS, BFMC]

7. Continue to identify the best mix of treatments i.e. prevention, mitigation, suppression and recovery, to achieve both fire management and land management objectives. [NPWS, RFS, BFMC]

8. Review risk management and operational plans to include relevant reserve fire management plan information, including aspects of mitigation and appropriate fire management guidelines from the RFS Environmental Code [BFMC].

9. Develop a single map-based approach for interagency use that depicts all relevant information in a user-friendly way and enables optimal use and consideration of this information under operational conditions. [NPWS, RFS, BMCC, BFCC, BFMC, BMCS]

10. Provide the outcomes of this forum to the BFCC for consideration in developing and reviewing policies and procedures such as for the Bush Fire Risk Management Policy and Bush Fire Risk Management Plan Model template. [NPWS, RFS]

11. Develop a quantitative framework for risk management: undertake research to evaluate the effectiveness of current strategies to inform the resources and strategies required to achieve integrated life, property, cultural and natural value protection outcomes. The research should identify what is the return on current ‘investment’ and the results then linked back to budgeting systems [BMWHI].

12. Undertake and improve community liaison and surveys to better capture community values within fire management plans [BFMC].

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2.  The Role of Fire as an ‘Ecological Process’

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GOAL:

(2?) To better understand the role of fire as an ecological process, including the long-term ecological effects of fire regimes on fauna and flora, as a basis for identifying fire regimes that sustain the ecology both locally and across the landscape.

.

ACTIONS:

13. Undertake a research project using the Grose Valley fire as a case study, to ascertain and explore the opportunities to improve fire management for protection of ecological impacts [NPWS, BMCC, CERMB, BMWHI].

14. Development of a threat abatement plan for the ecological consequences of high frequency fires. [DEC]

15. Use the Blue Mountains as a case study for modelling different control strategies and suppression (e.g. analysis of suppression operations) utilising historical raw data for retrospective mapping. [RBradstock/CERMB]

16. Source external funds for priority research and investigation projects [NPWS, RFS, BMCC].

17. Undertake ecological research into the impacts of fire regimes including intervals between fires, ensuring an appropriate focus on large-scale transformation [NPWS, BMCC, CERMB, BMWHI].

18. Undertake the necessary ground-truthing investigations to ascertain whether ecological predictions are being played out. That is, are observed trends in ecosystems matching the predictions from the models? Other research and investigation priorities include:
a. Threatened species and communities, including mapping of successional processes (e.g. woodland to heathland shifts and changes to hanging swamp boundaries) and wet sclerophyll forest (e.g. Blue Gum Forest, E. oreades) and warm temperate rainforest regeneration;
b. Species composition and structure comparison of those areas burnt in 2002;

c. Species composition and structure comparison of those fires burnt with high frequency;
d. Document / map / audit weed plumes that have occurred after past fires, and similarly for the weed plumes that will already be occurring after the 2006 Grose Valley fire;
e. Build upon current research results to further elucidate how the Grose Valley responded to the ‘94 fire.  [CERMB, NPWS, BMCC & BMWHI via ARC Linkage Grant]

19. Initiate appropriate involvement of the broader community in research and particularly Aboriginal people for Aboriginal cultural heritage research, in all relevant research projects. [BMWHI, NPWS, BMCC]

20. Develop mechanisms to effectively and promptly communicate research outcomes to agencies, fire-fighters and communities, and for application of these to risk management planning and human resource planning and assessment during fires. [BFMC]

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3. Review Processes and Public Communication

.

GOAL:

.

To ensure effectiveness of fire review and debriefing processes and their communication to the public by:

  • Communicating to the community the results of interagency review processesincluding an analysis of fire strategies and environmental impacts within major debriefs and review
  • Enabling greater community participation in major fire debriefs and fire reviews.

.

ACTIONS:

.

21 Urgent distribution of the section 44 debrief report to all participants in the forum. [RFS]

22 Greater provision for earlier feedback to and from the community after a major fire, regarding fire control strategies, prior to release of formal report.  Also address what the barriers are to increasing community knowledge and what approaches are most effective. [RFS, BFMC]

23 Request the Coordinating Committee to revisit the s44 debrief policy and procedures and/or other appropriate mechanisms to develop an appropriate means for getting feedback from the community via a system that enables issues to be raised and feedback to be provided. The development of a policy and procedural framework for Incident Controllers may assist here. [NCC/NPWS, BMCS]

24 Undertake promotion and community education programs to familiarise the community with the framework that exists for debriefing processes and the arising information flows and decision-making processes. Incorporate this into existing Firewise program. [BFMC, RFS]

25 Encourage a culture of openness, learning and evidence-based decision-making, including understanding by volunteer fire fighters that criticism is of the process not of the implementer. [All organisations represented at forum]

26. Continue to undertake interpretation / education / media and fire-related Discovery activities. [NPWS]

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4.  Climate Change and Risk Mitigation

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GOAL:

To prepare for the more extreme conditions associated with climate change, by addressing the policy and management implications for control strategies and landscape management.

.

ACTIONS:

27. Research priorities include:

  • Investigate efficacy of current risk mitigation in the Blue Mountains. [NPWS, CERMB]
  • Climate change impacts on hanging swamps.
  • Build understanding of underlying shifts in environmental conditions and their effects on fire occurrence and fire behaviour.
  • Implications of climate change for fire behaviour and invasive species. [CERMB, BMWHI & ARC Linkage project]
  • Investigate plant dispersal in relation to climate change, quantifying ecological processes and habitat requirements critical to species persistence and their ability to move to new habitats given climate change. [CERMB, BMWHI & ARC Linkage project]

 

28. The results of this Forum should be used to advocate and lead improved dialogue and action to address the key issues pertaining to climate change and start to influence policy change. [NCC, BMWHI, CERMB, BMCS, NPWS, RFS, BMCC]

29. Investigate opportunities for increased resourcing for risk mitigation and for bushfire behaviour research. [NPWS, RFS, CERMB, BMWHI]

30. Enhance the preparedness, detection and rapid fire response capacity of fire authorities in response to fire ignitions. [Fire authorities]

31. Deliver a presentation about this forum, at the May 2007 conference of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW on bushfire and climate change. [DEC, BMWHI, NCC; 31 May-1 June 2007]

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5.  Resourcing and Investment

.

GOAL:

Increase the availability of resources for fire-related research, planning and fire mitigation.

.

ACTIONS:

32. Formally approach the Environmental Trust to consider the allocation of Environmental Trust funds for use in fire related research including investigation of fire impacts. [NPWS]

33. Raise the needs and investigate the opportunities for increased commitment to rehabilitation following fire with the Catchment Management Authorities. [BFMC]

34. Allocation of additional resources for the BFMC to implement the recommendations in this document, particularly for actions resulting in strengthening risk management objectives. [BFMC members]

.

6.   Risk Management Strategies for Multiple Outcomes

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GOAL:

.

To develop effective fire risk management strategies for mitigation and suppression in large bushland areas through:

  • Evidence-based plans and strategies;
  • Ensuring that fire fighters in wilderness and other remote areas have adequate support and training for safe and effective implementation of fire control strategies.

.

ACTIONS:

.

35. Address the issue of risk management planning, including investigating use of corridors for hazard reductions as part of an integrated approach that allows for ecological considerations. [Land managers/NPWS]

36. Seek more funding for community involvement in Local Government Area fire management (i.e. liaison officer position for community engagement prior to release of plan), which will assist administration/enforcement of regulatory processes. [BMCC]

37. Workshops held to provide further information regarding fire suppression in remote/wilderness areas, and BFMC to list potential contractors that could be eligible for such ecologically sound, operational training in fire control strategies for remote/wilderness areas including back-burning and bulldozer lines. [BFMC, NPWS]

.

7.   RAFT Capacity

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GOAL:

.

To improve RAFT (Remote Area Firefigfting Team) capacity to deal effectively with most remote ignitions.

.

ACTIONS:

.

38. Facilitate and support more RFS people to participate in RAFT [RFS]

39. Review and combine NPWS and RFS RAFT policy and procedures, including consideration for nighttime RAFT deployment [NPWS, RFS].
40. Address pre-deployment capacity in context of return on investment i.e. economically model across landscape to see how it meets needs and model against suppression costs [NPWS, RFS].

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8.   Fire Detection Technologies

.

GOAL:

.

To explore the potential of emerging technologies for higher efficiency in fire detection.

.

ACTIONS:

.

41. Consider the new technologies where appropriate and consider the benefits of Blue Mountains piloting new technologies for broad-scale remote surveillance, and evaluate cost effectiveness. [BF Coordinating Committee and NPWS]

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9.   Aerial Attack

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GOAL:

.

Continue to optimise effectiveness of aerial attack strategies and operations.

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ACTIONS:

.

42. Practically strengthen record keeping during operations to assist analysis by identifying a system that is capable of catching data in real-time. [DBFMA, BFCC]

43. Identify and use some simple decision rules for aircraft deployment to maximise aircraft cost-effectiveness. [BFMC]

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10.    Role of the Media

.

GOAL:

.

To have better processes in place to ensure accurate presentation of fire incident information through the media.

.

ACTIONS:

.

 

44. Work with the tourism industry to develop their risk management strategy. [BFMC]

45. Before/during a fire, convey explanations of what control strategies and why, to inform community. [BFMC]

46. Undertake pre-season briefs to journalists; discourage use of sensitised language (e.g. National Parks destroyed, trashed, destruction and horror, fire hell etc). [District Committee, RFS, NPWS, BFMC]

47. Engage local media in communicating exactly which areas are out of bounds, so they people don’t stop coming to remaining open areas. [BFMC]

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11.   Post Fire Recovery

.

GOAL:

.

To adequately fund ecological restoration after a large wildfire.

.

ACTIONS:

.

48. Approach the Environmental Trust regarding the establishment of a delineated fund (possibly from Trust Funds) to support ecological restoration which could be needed for several years post-fire and ensure initiative is appropriately linked to Section 44 state level response and also the SCA for post fire ecological funding to protect catchment values. [NPWS]

49. Ensure a strategic approach to site rehabilitation e.g. by placing an emphasis on rehabilitation of weedy sites that are a threat to natural values downstream. [Land managers]

50. NPWS to consider establishing a new dedicated staff position to coordinate and manage volunteers undertaking rehabilitation projects and activities within the Blue Mountains region of DEC. [NPWS]

.

This Forum was a Farce

.

None of these 50 Actions has been acted upon nor implemented since 2007; now five years ago.

.

The entire forum process was a farce from the outset.  It only served to allow those responsible to escape accountability and responsibility for incompetence and mass bush arson without reputational blemish. 

.

RFS Incident Controller, Mal Cronstedt, relocated himself back to West Australia (Fire & Emergency Services Authority), where he was from.  NPWS Blue Mountains Manager, Richard Kindswood, went on extended leave.  RFS Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, was seconded by the NSW Labor Party to become Minister for Blue Mountains (i.e. promoted).  Bob Debus was seconded by the Federal Labor Party to become Federal Member for Macquarie (i.e. promoted).  Blue Mountains Councillor Chris van der Kley stayed on as Chair of the Blue Mountains Bushfire Management Committee.

.

Blue Mountains Bushfire Fighting practice, strategy, management, culture  remains ‘RFS Business-as-usual’ status and similarly ill-equipped for the next bushfire catastrophe.

.

No lessons were learnt.  More tragically, no lessons want to be learnt.

.

RFS:  …’we know what we are doing and how dare anyone criticise us and our hard working bushfire fighting volunteers!

How it all started.
..as a small ignition ten days prior.

.

Further Reading

.

[1]   ‘2006 Grose Valley Fire – a cover up, article by The Habitat Advocate, 20101217, >https://www.habitatadvocate.com.au/?p=3220

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[2]  ‘2006 Grose Valley Fires – any lessons learnt?, article by The Habitat Advocate, 20120118, >https://www.habitatadvocate.com.au/?p=12859

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[3]  ‘Grose Valley Fire Forum Report – FINAL (BMWHI 20070402).pdf‘, >[Read Report]  (4.2 mb)

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[4]  Rural Fire Service’s  official report of Grose Valley Bushfires, report by Incident Controller Mal Cronstedt, Rural Fire Service, 20070208, >’Lawsons Long Alley Section 44 Report

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[5]   ‘Blue Mountains Council Business Paper 20070424 Item 7 Cost of Grose Fire’, Blue Mountains Council, >Blue-Mountains-Council-Business-Paper-20070424-Item-7-Cost-of-Grose-Fire.pdf

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[6]   ‘Blue Mountains World Heritage’, by Alex Colley (text) and Henry Gold (photography), published by The Colong Foundation for Wilderness, 2004, Foreward: “This book celebrates one of the greatest achievements of the Australian conservation  movement – the creation of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area” ~ Bob Carr, Premier of New South Wales, March 2004. ^http://www.colongwilderness.org.au/BMWH_book/BMWH_book.htm,  ^http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/917

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[7]   ‘Back from the Brink: Blue Gum Forest and the Grose Wilderness’, book by Andy Macqueen, 1997, ^http://infobluemountains.net.au/review/book/bftb.htm

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‘The Cradle of Conservation’

‘Everyone has been to the lookouts.  Many have been to the Blue Gum Forest, deep in the valley – but few know the remote and hiden recesses of the labyrinth beyond.  Here, an hour or two from Sydney, is a very wild place.

The Grose has escaped development.  There have been schemes for roads, railways, dams, mines and forestry (Ed:  ‘logging’), but the bulldozers have been kept out.  Instead, the valley became the ‘Cradle of Conservation’ in New South Wales when it was reserved from sale in 1875 – an event magnificently reinforced in 1931 when a group of bushwalkers were moved to save Blue Gum Forest from the axe.

This is story of the whole Grose Wilderness, and of the Blue Gum Forest in particular.  It is the story of people who have visited the wilderness: Aborigines, explorers, engineers, miners, track-builders, bushwalkers, conyoners, climbers…those who have loved it, and those who have threatened it.’

.

[8]   ‘Battle for the Bush: The Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps and the origins of the wilderness movement‘, book by Geoff Mosley, 1999, published by Envirobook in conjunction with The Colong Foundation for Wilderness Limited.  ^http://themountainjournal.wordpress.com/interviews-profiles/geoff-mosley/

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