Skip to content

Adapting to 'black swan' fire events

Richard Geddes (Fire Manager)
Published 17 Dec 2019 by Richard Geddes (Fire Manager)

The haze of bushfire smoke has been lingering across the region in NSW where I live for months now. On days when the smoke is really thick, most living beings that breathe start to feel pretty edgy and quickly tire of the lack of fresh air. The Black Cockatoos that normally slowly drift past our place just on sunset looking for their night-time roost were flying at a frantic pace again the other day; urgently calling out to their family somewhere through the smoke as they chased them through the gloom.

When bushfire season starts in August, we have a major problem. Fire efforts have been going on for months already, when by the calendar, they should have started around a fortnight ago. Resources of all kinds are stretched paper thin ahead of this week’s grim predicted heatwave.

Bushfires have continued to spread nearby in the World Heritage listed rainforest and wet eucalypt forests in the mountains to the west over the last few months. Further to the south near Rappville, some remote properties and sheds were literally getting blown to pieces from the violent winds whipped up by pyrocumulus clouds that moved ahead of the fire front.

Then came the fire which swept through and burnt everything in its path except where it was heroically defended by the Rural Fire Service including many volunteers.

None of the local people or experienced fire professionals had ever seen fire behaviour in that area like this before. Unfortunately, this type of unprecedented ‘black swan’ event is an all too familiar tale repeating across Australia and throughout the world in recent years.

For the forested areas of the eastern seaboard the 2019 fire season has been like no other, with millions of hectares of land along the coast and adjacent ranges being impacted by bushfires.

Over the last three months hundreds of homes have been destroyed, and tragically, lives have been lost. Many of these bushfires have also been burning through areas that don't normally experience fire, like rainforest.

Some of the largest bushfires have been burning for months and are unlikely to go out anytime soon. It’s a grim start to the fire season and the fire threat is now shifting south as the heat of summer approaches. Sydney recorded its first ever catastrophic fire danger rating on record in November this year, while bushfires were burning to the north west of the city in the Wollemi National Park.

With years of dry conditions before it, the bushfire season began early in 2019 and by August there were fires spreading across NSW, QLD, the NT and northern WA.

Our Yourka Reserve in north QLD experienced the first bushfire of the season in early September, as a fire from unknown sources spread towards the eastern boundary. Reserve Manager Paul Hales had prepared this boundary for the risk of bushfire early in the year by establishing a strategic network of planned burns through the eucalypt forest and woodlands while leaving most of the reserve unburnt. This included working closely with national parks and other neighbours to complete a strategic planned burn across the south east boundary of Yourka as well as through the surrounding national park and neighbouring pastoral properties.

This is a perfect example of ‘tenure blind’ fire management where neighbours work closely together to establish firebreaks across boundaries rather than just stopping at the fence.

These planned burn areas on Yourka were used to establish containment lines and in combination with fire fighting activities were the key to stopping the bushfire on Yourka. This fire was contained to less than 1,040 hectares (or approximately 3% of the reserve) after six long days and nights by Bush Heritage staff supported by other fire crews including National Parks staff and Rural Fires volunteers. Over 90% of the reserve has remained unburnt again this year.

At Carnarvon Reserve, the dry conditions continued through November, and Bush Heritage staff were constantly monitoring weather forecasts and lightning storms. At this time of year, dry lightning storms with little to no rain regularly move in from the west, with the passage of low pressure troughs that travel across the country.

Lightning struck near the western boundary of Carnarvon a few weeks ago and started a fire in such conditions. Bush Heritage staff responded immediately and with the assistance of a neighbouring National Parks fire crew were able to contain this fire overnight and limit the extent of country that was burnt to less than 50 hectares.

With a combination of a network of small strategic planned burns and firefighting efforts Bush Heritage has managed to significantly reduce the extent of bushfires on Carnarvon Reserve in recent years. This is despite most of the region being extensively burnt by bushfires since last year when Queensland recorded its first ever Catastrophic Fire Danger rating on record.

Carnarvon Reserve has also recently enlisted a PhD student to help assess the ecological impact of fires on small mammals and reptiles. This research work in combination with ongoing ecological surveys will help guide our fire management work into the future.

In the last couple of weeks, fires have also been started by lightning in other Bush Heritage reserves in NSW, QLD and WA, but these are perhaps stories for another time. For the rest of our reserves across the country preparations are continuing to be made for the upcoming fire season including working with our neighbours and local rural fire agencies to have a plan and actions in place for when bushfires do start in the area.

Australia has such highly diverse landscapes and associated bushfire risk for each area which changes over time and requires innovative and flexible solutions tailor made for each case and moment in time.

The complexity and challenges of managing bushfire risk and its impact on communities and the environment are no doubt increasing with climate change. However, the technology, strategies and experience to mitigate bushfire risk in Australia are also improving and will be the key to managing the bushfires of the future.

Improving our capacity to prevent the extent and severity of bushfires will rely on robust science, technology and policy which recognises all the challenges and potential solutions. These solutions include improving pre-fire season fire planning across all land tenures and regions as well as increasing the funding and opportunities for coordinated mitigation activities where required including firebreak construction, prescribed burning, vegetation management and improving the fire preparedness of property and assets in fire prone areas.

Another particular challenge for land owners – including government – for managing land for conservation or bushfire risk in dry years like 2019 is the reduced ability and window of time to control prescribed burning.

The safe window of good weather and soil moisture to control fires under current staffing and resourcing arrangements is not always available and the risk of escaped planned burns increases significantly in these areas. This can lead to prescribed burns not being completed as required for that season which in turn leads to larger and more severe bushfires in that area later in the year or season.

If more resources were at hand to implement these prescribed burns in dry years with an increased capacity to suppress these fires including more staff or aircraft if necessary, then more planned burns could be completed as required. Investing extra resources in the mitigation of bushfires would save significant amounts of public and private funds being used to fight fires and reduce the associated costs to the economy, environment and people’s lives from these natural disasters.

While prescribed burning is not the solution to bushfire risk in all cases, it is the most effective tool in combination with fire fighting across most of Australia to reduce the extent and severity of bushfires in fire prone areas.

We already have the strategies, technologies and experience to potentially control the size of these fires and protect the environmental and social values that we hold dear. The question is no longer “Do we have the support from the community and government, and appropriate funds and resources to do this?”; but what will remain if we don’t?

A controlled fuel-reduction burn on Carnarvon Reserve. A controlled fuel-reduction burn on Carnarvon Reserve.
Photo by Alison WIlson

Related stories

Prescribed burn at Pilunga Reserve, Wangkamadla Country. By Bee Stephens

BUSHTRACKS 27/10/2023

Land, bird, smoke and man

Prescribed burns on Pilungah and Ethabuka reserves, Wangkamadla Country, prepare the landscape for bushfire season and enhance biodiversity.

Read More
Bush Broadcast: Live from Boolcoomatta


Webinar: Climate change resilience

Live from Tarcutta Reserve (NSW) where staff on the ground will discuss managing our reserves to create bushfire-resilient landscapes.

Read More
Woodlands at Tarcutta Hills. By Annette Ruzicka

BUSHTRACKS 13/06/2023

The first of many flames

A cultural burn at Tarcutta Hills Reserve, Wiradjuri Country, lights the way for the revival of right-way fire practices.

Read More

BLOG 10/03/2023

2023 North Australia Savannah Fire Forum

We had several Bush Heritage representatives at the annual Savanna Fire Forum on Larrakia country last month. After two years of online events, savannah fire management experts from across the country were glad to meet face-to-face this year.

Read More

BLOG 08/02/2023

Fighting fire in the dry

A recent wildfire on Yourka Reserve has revealed the benefits of best practice controlled burning in tropical north Queensland.

Read More
Cool burn at Friendly Beaches Reserve, Tasmania. Photo Michael Bretz.

BUSHTRACKS 17/10/2022

A friendly fire

Led by truwana Rangers, cool burning at Friendly Beaches Reserve plans to create the healthiest possible habitat for the vulnerable New Holland Mouse.

Read More
Paul Hales conducting a controlled burn. Photo Martin Willis.

BUSHTRACKS 14/06/2022

The art of burning in the rain

How aerial, controlled burning is utilising climatic conditions at Yourka Reserve on Jirrbal and Warrungu country in Queensland.

Read More

BLOG 21/02/2022

What has all this rain meant for our fire team?

The 2021/22 La Nina has brought significant rainfall to the eastern seaboard of Australia, while the west has seen below average conditions. Here are some weather highlights from the first few months.

Read More
Grass fire. Photo Mark Jones.

BUSHTRACKS 07/10/2021

Fiery footprints

After 10 years of the Healthy Country Plan, Wunambal Gaambera country is thriving, with right-way fire lighting the way.

Read More

BLOG 27/04/2021

Bunuba right-way winthali

On Bunuba country in the Kimberley, essential winthali (fire) work is being undertaken to prepare the land for the dry season.

Read More

BLOG 07/01/2021

A summer fire near Naree

On Monday 28 December a fire, caused by a lightning strike from a recent thunderstorm, started on a neighbouring property to the west of Naree Station Reserve on Budjiti country in north​ western New South Wales. Thankfully, it was quickly contained.

Read More
A blazing wildfire.


Bushfire impact & recovery

A year on from the 2019 bushfire season, how Bush Heritage Australia and WIRES are working collaboratively to help secure the future of all native species.

Read More

BLOG 22/07/2020

A fire management first

Set between the harsh, arid desert uplands and escarpment of the Aramac range and the fertile black soil plains to the south, Edgbaston Reserve is a truly unique and diverse area. Last week Bush Heritage staff began its program of fire management activities on Edgbaston for the first time since purchase of this property.

Read More

BLOG 14/07/2020

Enriching grasslands after fire

In February this year about 73% (1006ha) of Scottsdale Reserve burnt in the Clear Range bushfire. Around 84% of its native grasslands were affected and more than 50% of the reserve’s woodlands burnt at such a high intensity that the native seed bank was destroyed.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 12/06/2020

Seeds of change

Fire can be as harmful as it is essential in the Kimberley of Western Australia. Maintaining that fine balance is at the heart of the Bunuba Rangers’ fire program, bringing right-way winthali back to country.

Read More
Raptors hunt around the edges of a burn. Photo Claire Thompson.

BUSHTRACKS 12/06/2020


The Mimal Rangers of central Arnhem Land are looking after country the right way, preventing damaging wildfires and reducing emissions, with a fire-spreading raptor at their side.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 12/06/2020

Six months on

Silver linings shine as Bush Heritage’s Yourka Reserve in far north Queensland regenerates following a significant bushfire last year.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 13/04/2020

The science of recovery

Two months after the North Black Range Fire swept across Bush Heritage’s Burrin Burrin Reserve in NSW, ecologist Dr Matt Appleby assesses the damage and recovery rate.

Read More

BLOG 28/02/2020

Bushfire on-ground assessments

It's been a very busy few weeks here at Bush Heritage. I have been out to our bushfire affected reserves in New South Wales to survey the impact alongside our Senior Leadership team, local reserve staff and ecologists.

Read More

BLOG 07/02/2020

Bushfire update from Scottsdale

On Saturday 1 February, the Orroral (Namadgi) and Clear Range fires swept over the Murrumbidgee River and onto the western half of our Scottsdale Reserve. This has been a tense and challenging time and we are eternally grateful for the heroic efforts of the RFS and the extraordinary people on the ground fighting for our beloved Scottsdale. Importantly, our people remain safe and our community strong.

Read More

BLOG 03/02/2020

Scottsdale under fire

As we know from this unrelenting bushfire season, a lot can change in the space of a weekend. When I wrote to you on Friday with an update, we were hopeful that our Scottsdale Reserve, located between Canberra and Cooma, would remain unscathed. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the NSW Rural Fire Service and our on-ground staff (themselves with personal property under threat), a large proportion of Scottsdale has been, and continues to be, impacted by bushfire. As you can imagine, it’s been a tense and challenging time.

Read More

BLOG 31/01/2020

Bushfires update

As we enter a new month, I would like to take a moment to update you on recent developments towards our post-bushfire recovery. The devastation wrought has been confronting. My heart remains with those affected, those still fighting fires and those on the ground beginning the long process of recovery.

Read More

BLOG 06/01/2020

Bushfires on our reserves

I wanted to personally update Bush Heritage supporters on the fire threat and impact to our reserves. At the end of 2019, our on ground staff and neighbours fought fires of varying severity on six Bush Heritage reserves in three states.

Read More

BLOG 17/12/2019

Adapting to 'black swan' fire events

Some thoughts on the Australian fire crisis and an update on Bush Heritage's fire control efforts by Richard Geddes, Bush Heritage Australia's National Fire Program Manager

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 22/03/2019

Burning the right way

Using Western technologies and traditional knowledge to keep country healthy and a millenia-old tradition alive.

Read More

BLOG 14/12/2018

Feral cats caught on camera

We've been testing the use of burn lines as a way to draw cats towards our new Felixer cat traps at Ethabuka Reserve. The results so far are super encouraging.

Read More

BLOG 10/05/2018

Preparing for Barrangga

Recently I had the pleasure of being part of the annual fire management work undertaken by the Bunuba Rangers and Traditional Landowners on Leopold Downs Station (Yarrangi) in the Kimberley.

Read More

BLOG 30/04/2018

Bringing fire back to Tassie Midlands

I was recently at Beaufront, a stunning property owned by farmer and private conservationist Julian von Bibra in the Tasmanian Midlands, working alongside University of Tasmania on an innovative new fire experiment that we hope will give us some insights into the effects of fire and grazing on vegetation composition and structure.

Read More

BLOG 23/01/2018

The raging wildfire debate

Many of you may have read an article in a recent Good Weekend magazine, debating the merits of conducting prescribed burning in Northern Australia. As Bush Heritage's National Fire Program Manager, with over a decade working in fire management and conservation in that region, I wanted to respond to some of the inaccuracies of this report.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 07/12/2017

In fiery footsteps

There are more than 6000 patches of rainforest on Wunambal Gaambera country, for which fire can be both protector and destroyer.

Read More

BLOG 27/10/2016

Fire fighting green team

Bunuba Rangers attended the recent Kimberley mega wildfire, which has burnt over 1.5 million ha of remote county across the indigenous protected areas (IPAs) and pastoral properties in the western Kimberley.

Read More

BUSHTRACKS 21/12/2015

Line of fire

Out on Bon Bon Station Reserve, the heat can sear your skin and leave you breathless. And yet this massive piece of land, which rivals the size of Sydney, is home to some of Australia’s most extraordinary creatures like the southern hairy-nosed wombat and the rare chestnut breasted whiteface. Here's how we manage wildfire risk for Bon Bon’s diverse plants and animals.

Read More
{{itemsInCart}} Items - {{formatCurrency(grandTotal)}}