Adapting to 'black swan' fire events

Richard Geddes
Published 17 Dec 2019 
about  Yourka Reserve Carnarvon Reserve  
A controlled fuel-reduction burn on Carnarvon Reserve.<br/>Photo by Alison WIlson A controlled fuel-reduction burn on Carnarvon Reserve.
Photo by Alison WIlson

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?