Australian Bushfires – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Bushfires in Australia can impact extensive areas, cause property damage and take the lives of humans and wildlife.  Since 1851, bushfires in Australia have accounted for the deaths of 800 people in Australia. This month, it has been estimated that over 1.25 billion animals have died during this ongoing Australian bushfire season.

The sad statistics from the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season, predominantly from over the past few weeks, continue to rise.  As of 10th January, more than ten million hectares have been burnt, more than 2,400 homes have been confirmed as destroyed; mostly in New South Wales, and tragically, 29 people have lost their lives.  Property loss numbers are expected to rise significantly, pending updated counts in Victoria’s East Gippsland region.

Bushfires have always been a part of Australia’s environment and indeed, the ecology.  Some of the country’s native flora have evolved to rely on bushfires for reproduction, and fire events have been an interwoven part of the ecology of the continent for thousands of years.  

The Good

A significant proportion of our threatened flora are known to emerge after bushfire, having possibly been dormant for decades or more prior to this.  The phenomenon usually has to do with hard seed coatings that rely on hot fires to crack them open, while some rely on “smoke water” for germination. Australia vegetation is remarkably resilient to fire, with an unrivaled ability to regenerate after being burnt.  In most cases, depending on the regional, seasonality and conditions such as rainfall, recovery is noticeable within months, and after a couple of years, vegetation will usually be flourishing.

As environmental consultants, recovery after bushfire is occasionally an aspect that is monitored, much like the monitoring of rehabilitated vegetation following the cessation of land uses such as mining.  Baseline vegetation surveys for the purposes of natural resource management or environmental impact assessment also need to take ‘fire age’ (time passed since fire) into account, so that results can be read in the right context.  Accordingly, ecologists in Australia become familiar with the way in which our native ecosystems recover from fire and the rate at which everything grows back and becomes functional once more. 

The Bad (the rest of it)

Although recovery from bushfires offers our vegetation rejuvenation and fresh, new life, the toll that significant bushfires can take on our native fauna, and ecology overall, especially if they are undesirable hot fires, is not good news.  Whilst interspersed, ‘cool’ fires offer the benefits and allow fauna opportunities for escape; hot, large-scale fires that burn out of control, consuming huge fuel loads can decimate wildlife populations and destroy important seed banks. Bushfires kill animals directly and also destroy local habitats, leaving the survivors vulnerable even once the fires have passed.  Recovery of vegetation and habitat from large-scale hot bushfires is slow and if seed banks have been largely destroyed, the recovered vegetation may lack biodiversity and become dominated by weeds. As if the loss of human lives, property and infrastructure wasn’t bad enough.

Professor Chris Dickman of Sydney University estimates that in the first three months of the 2019-2020 bushfires, over 800 million animals died in NSW, and more than 1 billion nationally.  

The Solution?

Australia’s indigenous ancestors are known to have used fire to clear grasslands for hunting and to clear paths through dense vegetation.  However, the Aboriginal people also knew only to do this during periods of high rainfall and in very small areas bordering desert or other areas that would not burn.

Fire management, logging and farming strategies changed significantly with the arrival of European settlers, which led to more frequent bushfires.  Heatwaves and drought have exacerbated the problem.

Tim Flannery wrote that “The use of fire by Aboriginal people was so widespread and constant that virtually every early explorer in Australia makes mention of it.  It was Aboriginal fire that prompted James Cook to call Australia ‘This continent of smoke’.”

When European settlers began to dictate fire management, this led to a shift away from traditional burning practices, known as ‘cultural burns’.  As we search for solutions to a repeat of the devastation seen in recent weeks, many are turning back to these ancient land management techniques. 

Cultural burning uses small, cool, controlled flames.  Local knowledge from traditional custodians guides the timing, fire size, shape and direction, as well as the duration of the burn.  All aspects are taken into account, including the habitat, vegetation, soil, moisture levels, and other subtle ecosystem characteristics.

Ideally, a cultural burn helps reduce fuel loads, prevent fire risks, rejuvenate vegetation and flora, protect fauna habitat and restore and maintain Aboriginal connection to country.

Whatever the solution, we can be sure that some significant thinking will be invested into the future of fire management in this country.