Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Fighting fire with fire

In 2009, on the hottest day on record in Victoria, and at the end of a decade-long drought, the state experienced one of the worst bushfires since european settlement. Known as the Black Saturday fires, over 170 people died - the worst natural disaster in Australia's history. For many biologists familar with the ecology of southern Australia - one of the most fire-prone parts of the world - it was perhaps not unexpected that such a fire erupted on a day when the Fire Danger Index was literally off-the-scale.

Fighting (bush)fire with (prescribed)fire in the Top End
Photo: John Morgan
What could be learnt from such a day?

After the fires, the Black Saturday Royal Commission was established and it was to be the most comprehensive inquiry into bushfire in Australian history. Lots was discussed about fire ecology, house design, emergency warnings, fire preparedness, etc. Amongst the many recommendations, one of the most important was the recommendation pertaining to forest fuel management by prescibed burning.

The Royal Commission recommended a tripling of the annual prescribed burning in Victoria to reduce the risk of another Black Saturday. This equates to 5%, or 390,000 ha, of the state being burnt each year. This is now government policy, but there’s a fierce scientific debate over whether it will work, and the practical and ecological consequences of burning so much more of the state’s public land.

An excellent report on the ABC's Background Briefing went to air a few days ago where prominent fire ecologists - including Mike Clarke, Andrew Bennett, Ian Lunt, Kevin Tolhurst - talk about the ecological implications of setting targets for burning. It seems to me this is an arguement about "quantity versus quality" of prescribed burning and how asset protection needs to be weighed up with ecological impacts. It is well worth listening to. Follow this link  - http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/2012-02-19/3829372 -  to download the audio file. Questions we might ask ourselves include: does fuel reduction burning work to reduce the size, frequency and intensity of bushfires? What evidence is there that fuel reduction burning impacts (positively, negatively, neutrally) on native ecosystems? Which are the most resilient ecosystems to fuel reduction burning and why?

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