6 Sep 2010, 4:25pm
History Management Policy
by admin

Baden-Powell and Australian Bushfire Policy: Part 2

By Roger Underwood

Editor’s Notes: This essay is one of a series (circulated to colleagues on the Internet, but unpublished) which examines reports, letters, stories and anecdotes from early volumes of The Indian Forester, the principal forestry journal of India since 1880.

It is the second to deal with Baden Baden-Powell. The first is [here].

Baden Henry Baden-Powell (1841-1901) entered the Bengal Civil Service at the age age of 20 and eventually became a Judge of the Chief Court of the Punjab and India’s first Inspector-General of Forests. He was among the first to bring European forestry to India. B. H. Baden-Powell was the son of Rev. Baden Powell (1796–1860), an English mathematician and Church of England priest, and brother of Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), the founder of the Boy Scouts.

Author Roger Underwood is a former General Manager of the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management and is Chairman of The Bushfire Front Inc.. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.

Baden-Powell and Australian bushfire policy: Part 2

By Roger Underwood

In an earlier paper on this issue [1] I discussed the profound influence of 19th century Indian colonial foresters on the development of bushfire policy in Australia and (indirectly) in the United States. The first senior foresters of the Indian Forest Service, men like Baden Baden-Powell, Dietrich Brandis, William Schlich and David Hutchins, were German, French or English-trained, and were wonderful pioneering foresters, but they had little practical understanding of fire behaviour or fire ecology and they were imbued with the desire to stock-up every acre of forest with commercial trees. Fire was seen as the principal enemy to this policy, and as an enemy to be ruthlessly expunged from the face of British India.

The imperial view on fire was not shared by the indigenous population, who had been using fire as a land management tool for perhaps thousands of years. There were also opposing views within the forestry profession, and some of these found voice at conferences of forest officers, or in published papers. A good example is the work of M. J. Slym a forest officer working in the Salween Division of British Burma in the 1870s. Slym presented a paper, entitled Memorandum on Jungle Fires, at a Forest Conference at Rangoon in 1875. The paper was subsequently published in The Indian Forester two years later [2].

Slym’s paper, which focuses on the monsoonal rainforest in which the principal timber tree is teak (Tectona grandis) addresses what he describes as

… the general belief among forest officers that fires do a great deal of harm.

but he points out that this view is not universally held, nor does it reflect the views of the native populace who have lived in and around the forest for centuries. He summarises the opposing views as follows: “while many have pronounced that [the effects of fire] upon the forests to be unqualifiedly injurious and that they must be prevented at any cost, others believe they act favourably towards [the forest].”

Both positions are deficient in Slym’s opinion; the first view “does not show how fires could be suppressed without doing harm in some other direction” while the second fails to “disclose how fires act favourably” towards the forest.

The causes of jungle fires in Slym’s district in Burma were many and varied. There were the inevitable “escapes from camp fires” a fire cause that still figured prominently in bushfire statistics in the jarrah forest when I was a young forester, but other causes are more exotic, for example, fires lit to drive game for hunting, to clear jungle pathways of snakes and to keep tigers at a safe distance from villages.

Of great interest to me was that Slym also lists as one of the main causes of forest fires

… the tradition of the hill people that burning the forest has a salutary effect.

This belief is

… kept alive by [their] actual experience of the increased healthfulness of the districts after fires.

This is a close parallel with the well-documented use of fire by Australian Aboriginal people for the purpose of “cleaning up the country”.

Slym then takes up, one by one, all of the standard arguments used to justify the banning of fire from the forest. It is claimed, he reports, that fires destroy seed, kill seedlings, char the stems of mature trees allowing access for insects, destroy the humus and impoverish the soil. Each of these he deals with in turn, systematically proving the fears to be groundless or requiring qualification, and basing his position on personal experience and observations in the forest. In particular he draws attention to what would later be called by Australian foresters “the ashbed effect” – that is, the increase in soil fertility arising from increased nutrient availability after a fire. “Many a forester” he adds “will have noticed the fine teak seedlings that spring up from almost every burnt heap and near every burnt log of wood.”

Modern Australian bushfire managers would applaud Slym’s understanding of the two most fundamental aspects of forest fire management: first, that fires cannot be prevented; and second, that fire damage is related to fire intensity. He does not advocate widescale annual burning, but rather a well-managed firing of the bush that is integrated with other management demands for the purposes both of minimising wildfire damage, and promoting forest health.

Eventually he concludes:

The collective inference I draw, is that [fires] should not be prevented entirely, but the strength of them sufficiently lessened to lessen their harm. This can only be affected by firing the forest ourselves…commencing early [in the dry season].

He goes on to say that in his opinion, the forest should be burned

… at an interval before the leaves accumulate, thus preventing a fire that harms the forest.

It is almost as if he is writing about bushfire management in the Australian eucalypt forests in modern times, so precisely does this view coincide with contemporary enlightened philosophies [3].

Furthermore, Slym concludes that the ideal of fire exclusion as promoted by the senior brass of the Indian Forest Service at that time has costs that do not outweigh the benefits.

[Fire exclusion] is all but impractical, and at best dangerous, as it may, as already has been shown, drive teak out altogether [4].

Again I hear the voices of modern fire ecologists, speaking of species that decline and eventually disappear in bushland where fire has long been un-naturally excluded.

Slym was familiar with the long-held burning practices of the Burmese hill people, and was close enough to it to enable him to see the way it was done, as well as its impacts. It is obvious from his conclusions that he understood the relationships between fuel levels, fire intensity and fire damage – concepts that are still not understood by many Australian academics today – and of the need to integrate fire management with other objectives, in his case timber production and regeneration. The silvicultural system adopted for teak forest by the Indian Forest Service was a selection system using a prescribed girth limit restriction which ensured the retention of growing stock, and allowed natural regeneration. This operated with great success for generations, something that could only be achieved through close attention to fire management at the same time [5].

There is another echo of modern times in the denouement of this story. Slym’s paper to the Rangoon conference was so unpopular with the senior staff of the Forest Service, that it was omitted from the published conference proceedings. Slym was told by the Conference President (presumably Dietrich Brandis, the Inspector-General of the Indian Forest Service at the time) that his paper “could not be recorded, neither could the reason for not doing so be mentioned”. Luckily for posterity the editor of The Indian Forester took a different view and agreed to publish it, although this may have been done provocatively, as later editions of the journal contained letters from correspondents who disagreed with Slym’s views [6].

The muzzling of voices critical of government policy was not, of course, and is not restricted to British India. I can remember when I started work as a forest officer in Western Australia in 1962 being briefed on the fact that there was a clause in the Public Service Act forbidding any government officer from voicing criticism of any government policy; severe penalties would apply to a transgressor [7]. As far as I am aware this rule persists to this day.

I am also reminded that a similar form of censorship operates in some scientific journals today, where editorial panels control what is, and what is not published according to whether or not it fits with the panel’s stance on issues such as fire or global warming. Slym’s paper would be very unlikely to appear today in, for instance, the journal of the Australian Ecological Society, or the lamentable Journal of Wildland Fire.

A direct line of descent to early Australian bushfire policy can be traced from the concepts espoused by Baden-Powell and his contemporaries at the upper echelons of the Indian Forest Service in the 1870s. It would be interesting to know how the policies evolved. The early Australian bushfire policies (largely derived from Indian colonial forestry) dictated fire exclusion and opposed prescribed burning, but were eventually overthrown in the 1950s and 1960s, having been undermined by two factors. First, they failed the ultimate test: they did not prevent damaging wildfires. Second, they were opposed from below by the people in the field – the forest officers who were responsible for implementing the policy and who knew it did not and could not work. Eventually, some of these men reached a position in which they could re-make the policy, and luckily they had the guts and the capacity to do so.

There is another factor. I remember a story once told to me by an old field forester who had worked in the jarrah forest in the late 1930s and early 1940s when the bushfire policy was still one of fire exclusion. “Beyond the narrow firebreak strips, we weren’t allowed to do any burning,” he said, “but what we did do, whenever possible, was to let the bush burn of its own accord.” In other words, if a fire started under the right conditions, there would be no hurry to put it out and, who knows, maybe some of these fires started quite accidentally from the escape of a forest officer’s billy fire, lit under exactly the right conditions.

The capacity to circumvent unpopular policy has been around as long as there have been unpopular policies. It is intriguing to think how M.J Slym managed it in British Burma in the 1870s, as I have no doubt he did.


[1] Underwood, Roger. 2010. Baden-Powell and Australian Bushfire Policy. Western Institute for Study of the Environment Forest and Fire Sciences Colloquium, January 2010 [here]

[2] Slym, M.J. 1877. Memorandum on Jungle Fires. The Indian Forester Volume 2 (3).

[3] It might be suggested that the differences between Burmese teak and Australian eucalypt forest are so different that no comparison over management can be made. It is true that teak is deciduous, but by the same token most eucalypts shed their entire leafy crown every 12-18 months. Furthermore, although mostly the teak forests are more humid, the dry sclerophyll eucalypt forests have a quite distinct wet and dry season, and in both the most suitable time to undertake low intensity burning is early in the dry season (late spring in southern Australia).

[4] Slym is referring here to a paper by a Colonel Pearson published in The Indian Forester in 1876, in which Pearson concluded: “In the Boree Forest of the Central Provinces, where fires have been put out for many years, it has been found that at least one hundred seedlings of Dalbergia and Pentaptera spring up for every one of teak.”

[5] My colleague, South Australian forester Jerry Leech, has worked in Burma on many occasions in recent years, and has described to me his delight in inspecting natural teak stands managed under a selection system, cut and regenerated four times over the last century, still magnificent today and the records of each cut still meticulously maintained.

[6] To give him credit, the Editor of the edition of The Indian Forester in which Slym’s paper was published was Baden-Powell. He added a footnote to the title of the paper as follows: “We trust the above memorandum will cause a vigorous discussion of the subject of fire protection.”

[7] My father, an agricultural scientist, fell foul of this law. In the 1920s he was a junior officer of the Department of Agriculture, and wrote a letter to The West Australian newspaper critical of the government for not insisting on the Pasteurisation of milk. My father got off lightly: he was hauled before the Director and officially reprimanded, but under the regulations he could have been fined or sacked. Ironically, a law was introduced not long afterwards making Pasteurisation of milk compulsory – a significant factor in reducing the prevalence of tuberculosis. My father took no credit for this, as the Pasteurisation of milk was universally adopted by western countries at about that time.

  • Colloquia

  • Commentary and News

  • Contact

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Recent Posts

  • Meta