Fire ecology

Last updated: Thursday 19 May, 2016

Fire plays a big role in Australian ecosystems and has been used extensively for thousands of years by Aboriginal people.

Controlled burn on Carnarvon. Photo Emma Burgess.

Controlled burn on Carnarvon. Photo Emma Burgess.

Since European settlement and the introduction of agriculture, the nature of fire (its extent, patchiness, frequency, intensity and seasonality) has changed significantly.

The consequences aren't well understood – in particular how fire management, including controlled burns, could be used more effectively to benefit biodiversity. It's important to assess and understand the likelihood and consequences of bushfire and the use of planned burns to prevent larger wildfires, stimulate regeneration and manage biodiversity. 

Our research addresses questions such as:

  • What's the influence of scale (how much), seasonality (when) and grain size (size of patch burns) of fire (planned and unplanned) on the viability of plants and animals? How does this vary between biomes?
  • Does pyrodiversity create biodiversity? What's the influence of grain size of the mosaic on this relationship?
  • What are the interactions between fire, macropods, predators and native and exotic grasses?

Case study: Pyrodiversity for biodiversity in the Brigalow Belt

Carnavon landscape

Carnarvon Station Reserve, Qld. Photo by Wayne Lawler / EcoPix

In Queensland’s Brigalow Belt, a five-year study is investigating how to manage fire for biodiversity and to protect vulnerable species. We've provided a scholarship through the Andyinc Foundation to support University of Queensland PhD candidate, Emma Burgess to help with this research.

On Carnarvon Reserve, in the midst of the Carnarvon Ranges in central Queensland, the study has demonstrated a clear link between fire history and habitat structure and plant species composition of sub-tropical woodlands.

Emma has also shown that at intermediate spatial scales (~1 km2), the amount of woodland habitat, and in particular relatively long-unburnt habitat, was the most important determinant of the richness of small woodland birds.

This research will help inform large-scale fire management practices that have a better chance of boosting the survival of threatened woodland birds, while containing unplanned wildfires.

Key projects

Managing fire for nature conservation in subtropical woodlands

See above – Emma Burgess from UQ, is examining the applicability of the ‘mosaic burning’ paradigm to vegetation structure and bird communities at the ‘meso-scale’ on Carnarvon Station Reserve.

Evaluation of fire management in tropical woodlands.

Bush Heritage-led research examining changes in vegetation structure and bird community composition (with help from Birdlife Australia’s North Queensland group) in response to prescribed burning and bushfire.

When and how frequently should we burn a senescing landscape to safeguard against loss of species?

Partnership with Dr. Ayesha Tulloch, formerly of UQ, now ANU to determine the extent, frequency and patterns of fire to maintain biodiversity in the kwongan shrublands of the Fitz-Stirling pathway in south-west Western Australia.

Fire regimes and their effects on vegetation at Charles Darwin Reserve.

Dr. Eddie van Etten and students from Edith Cowan University have been documenting patterns of fuel accumulation and plant species composition in different fire-age classes at Charles Darwin Reserve. This has been expanded recently to also examine bird species in relation to fire history.

Pyroherbivory and the nexus between Aboriginal fire mosaics and kangaroos.

University of Tasmania PhD candidate, Angie Reid will work with Wunambal Gaambera rangers in the Kimberley to study the interaction between fire, grass productivity and kangaroo diversity and abundance.

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