Australia experiences bush fires almost every summer, but the latest event was unprecedented in its scale in the forests of the eastern and southern part of the country. In total, at least 34 human lives and 1300 homes were lost. Fires in Australia have burned more than 12.6 million ha of land, including over 2 million ha of productive forests and plantations, destroyed an estimated 1 billion animals – including the loss of 25,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island with 50% of the island burned to ashes – and ravaged an eco-system that will take decades to recover. It is assumed that the fires have pumped more than 800 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (annual emissions in Germany) and the economic damage from the fires is likely to exceed the record $4.4 billion set by 2009’s Black Saturday. In this blog post, I would like to discuss some common myths and misunderstandings about wildfires in Australia from the perspective of European forester.
Bush wildfires in Australia – causes and consequences
The wildfires were started as a result of climate change
This is completely wrong as the main cause of fire ignitions of Australia’s bushfires was dry lightning (link). Also, people contributed to some extent either deliberately or accidentally. Dry lightning strikes have been long recorded and are nothing new. The concept of ‘climate change’ clearly ignores the documented histories of mega bushfires in Australia from Black Thursday 1851 onwards that had caused massive loss of life, houses and stock, and underscored the contribution of fuel to bushfire intensity.
Roger Underwood, who was awarded an Order of Australia in 2018 for his service to forestry and bushfire management in Western Australia and in 1963 helped develop aerial controlled burning and oversaw the introduction of aircraft fire thinks that the climate change position has two killer flaws: firstly, it ignores fuels, which are the main contributor to uncontrollable fires during a drought; secondly, it provides no practical solutions to the immediate problem.
Mr Underwood adds that if climate change caused the bushfires, no individual can be pinned, not even those ’fire chiefs’ who were in charge during the entire time the current disaster was incubating and who now suddenly know what was the problem (interview for Forestry & Timber Enews 2020).
Nevertheless, the warming and drying forest conditions lead to more risky and more extreme fire seasons. The year 2019 was the hottest and driest year ever in Australia since 1900. In this year the average temperatures have been 1.5 degrees higher than the average 1961-1990, the maximum temperatures were even over 2°C higher, and more than a third of the rain that usually falls on the continent has been missing.
Droughts and high fire danger ratings are enhanced by El Niño and the Indian Ocean Dipole
Without doubt, Australia’s weather is influenced by many climate drivers. Perhaps the strongest impact on year-to-year climate variability Down Under has El Niño and La Niña, which are a part of a natural cycle known as the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). El Niño and La Niña are associated with many months of warming (El Niño) or cooling (La Niña) in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. Interestingly, the ENSO cycle loosely operates over timescales from one to eight years. Potential effects of El Niño on Australia include, among others, reduced rainfall, warmer temperatures, a shift in temperature extremes or increased fire danger in southeast Australia.
For instance, 9 of the 10 driest winter-spring periods on record for eastern Australia occurred during El Niño years. However, although most major Australian droughts have been associated with El Niño, analysis of past El Niño events shows that widespread drought does not occur with every event, and the strength of an El Niño is not directly proportional to the rainfall impacts.
El Niño years tend to see warmer-than-average temperatures across most of southern Australia, particularly during the second half of the year.
As a result of decreased rainfall and increased maximum temperatures, the frequency of high fire danger ratings and risk of a significant fire danger season in southeast Australia are significantly higher following an El Niño year, particularly when combined with a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) event. Some El Niño years have been followed by very severe summer fires, including Ash Wednesday (16 February 1983) and the 2002–03 and 2006–07 seasons.
However, not all major fires follow El Niño years. The spring bushfires in the Blue Mountains during October 2013 occurred during a neutral ENSO year, while Black Saturday (7 February 2009) followed a weak La Niña (but notably, a positive IOD).
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In September in 2017 and 2018 Australia experienced periods of severe drought. In September 2019 the drought was enhanced by the oscillation of the Indian Ocean Dipole which caused a persistent high temperature and low rainfall in the east of the continent. These events significantly impacted microclimates in many forests in Australia and made them more vulnerable to wildfires.
Vegetation in Australia is fire resistant
Yes, but only its small part, particularly deciduous trees that have high moisture content and no combustible oils in their leaves, but also their leaves get quickly breakdown by fungi what helps to create humus, which is absorbing water quite well.
In contrast, a eucalyptus forest tends to promote fire because of the volatile and highly combustible oils produced by the leaves, as well as the production of large amounts of litter high in phenolics, preventing its breakdown by fungi and thus accumulating as large amounts of dry, combustible fuel. We should remember that concerning extreme fire events, no vegetation is fire resistant and fire-resistant plants refer to plants that possess several characteristics that make them less likely to ignite, including foliage and stems that retain moisture, such as hosta.
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Also, we should remember that most of the wooded parts of present-day Australia have become sclerophyll dominated. Simply speaking, sclerophyll is a type of vegetation that has hard leaves and is very liable to be burnt with varying frequencies. Common plants include the Proteaceae (grevilleas, banksias and hakeas), tea-trees, acacias, boronias, and eucalypts and many of these plants have developed adaptations to survive and minimise the effects of fire.
Eucalyptus globulus = Blue gum
Eucalyptus trees are usually called gum trees, but one species Eucalyptus globules (Tasmanian blue gum) is one of the most fire-intensive plants due to a) significant amount of fuel on the ground they produce as they shed bark, leaves and twigs, but also b) to volatile compounds in foliage cause explosive burning.
The name blue gum probably refers to the fact that the eucalyptus forests are sometimes shrouded in a smog-like mist of vaporised volatile organic compounds (terpenoids). For instance, the Australian Blue Mountains take their name from the haze (see photo below).
Koalas suffered the most
It is not true. Dr Bidda Jones -Chief scientist at the Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said that bush wildfires had the major impact on biodiversity and wildlife overall. He said:
“And not just on those iconic species like koalas. You have to think of this in terms of how it affects the entire ecosystem. You have animals relying on the eucalyptus trees for their primary diet – greater gliders are another example of that. Then you have a whole range of other species living off nectar or the insects in that environment, and there’s going to be a considerable loss of insect life in those fires.”
Dr Jones added that we also should add old large trees for nesting that were destroyed during fires as well, not to say leaf litter and all the understorey which is providing food and refuge to many different animals.
Are 2019-2020 wildfires unusual from the past fires?
Yes, the 2019/20 fire season losses were the worst recorded in Australia’s history in terms of area of forests impacted. In terms of lives lost, homes burned other fire events were much worst. The seven deadliest bush wildfires on record (ranked according to the number of fatalities) were:
- Black Saturday (Vic) Feb 7-8 2009 caused 173 fatalities and the destruction of more than 2000 homes. Temperatures were up to nearly 48 degrees and strong winds after a season of intense drought made conditions extremely difficult to handle. Interestingly, out of Victoria’s tragedy in 2009, officials were told by a royal commission to lift the rate of off-season hazard reduction burning … but just one-third of the burning target was met to the present day.
- Ash Wednesday (Vic, SA) Feb 16-18 1983. Wildfires were started by accidents and arsonists, which spread rapidly through scenic residential regions near Melbourne and Adelaide, resulting in the death of 75 people and the destruction of nearly 1900 homes. Interestingly, Ash Wednesday salvage operations in SA were biggest ever attempted. By Christmas, the job was almost complete with more than 1,250,000 m3 salvaged. Practically all of this was prime quality sawlog up to 1 m in diameter, the largest part being in 12.3 m lengths. Sawmills in the region converted 800,000 cub m between March and December while another 900,000 cub m was put under water sprays.
- Black Friday (Vic) Jan 10-13 1939. In total, 71 people were killed and 650 houses were destroyed. A Royal Commission investigation into the fires led to increased fire awareness and prevention efforts throughout Australia.
- Black Tuesday (Tas) Feb 7 1967. This year at least 80 different wildfires were present across southern Tasmania. The fires killed 62 people and razed almost 1300 homes.
- Gippsland fires and Black Sunday (Vic) Feb 1-March10 1926. Over the two-months, a total of 60 people were killed.
- Queensland, NSW, Victoria summer fires Dec 26-Jan 9 2020. The most recent fires killed at least 34 people and burned more than 6000 buildings, including over 2204 homes. Total of 12.6 million ha burned across three states and it was estimated that 1 billion animals were lost.
- Black Thursday 1851. Probably the oldest recorded devastating series of wildfires that swept the state of Victoria, Australia, on 6 February 1851, burning up 5 million hectares. Twelve human lives were lost, along with one million sheep, thousands of cattle and countless native animals.
What about the plantations?
FWPA (2020) recently published a report prepared by David Geddes, which provides a database of significant-scale Australian forestry plantation fire losses since 1920. The figure below shows an Australian plantation area losses from individual wildfires exceeding 1,000 ha in size. We can easily see that fires in 2019/2020 have distorted the picture since Ash Wednesday (1983).
The biggest loser of bush wildfires?
Before the wildfires, the NSW government was looking to reap up to A$1 billion ($671 million, 612 million Euros) from the sale of its commercial softwood plantation business, which consisted of about 230,000 hectares of radiata pine forests, primarily producing timber for use in house construction. Plantations were managed by Forestry Corporations and after bush wildfires devastated about 25% of softwood division, the NSW government had to drop the forestry privatisation plan.
Geddes (2020) argues that there is a reasonable likelihood that in 2020, values of Australian plantations will reduce because Discount Rates used in formal valuations will rise as a result of increased perceived risks.
Problem with fuel load
Fuel load in eucalyptus native forests is the main problem. In Australia, there is 132 million ha of native forest (green colour on the map shows native forest) which are dominated by eucalypts (77%) and acacias (8%), and many people claim that these forests have to be actively managed as a connected landscape.
Are they now? Not. According to Mr Ross Hampton (AFPA CEO), nationally, over three decades, the average annual area treated for fuel reduction has fallen by more than 30%, whilst the area burnt in bush wildfires has tripled. When comparing 2000-2018 to 1990-2000 there has been a strong decline in the average prescribed burn area in all states. Victoria is covering about 2.2% and NSW is burning around 2.4% of bushland in any given year.
It is a scientifically verifiable fact that the Australian bush has evolved and developed in fired landscapes introduced by traditional aboriginal firestick burning and the vitality, health and sustainability of this ecosystem and the ecological processes therein need periodic fire.
Dr Gary Bacon, a former executive director of Queensland Forestry said:
“We need to mimic the aboriginal approach to landscape vegetation and fire management using all the modern-day tools now available. “The conversion of large tracks of multiple-use native state forests into conservation/park reserves has resulted in loss of resource rental, reduced maintenance of access roads and fire trails, massive losses of on-site personnel and a passive approach to fuel management”
The challenge related to forest tenure in Australia
It can be expected that climate warming will bring more rather than less of challenges related to bush wildfires in the future and the question arises: how forest owners and managers should act to best mitigate and minimize the fire hazard? Professor Peter Kanowski from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University claims that the answer is not straightforward, for many reasons. In the article published in Timber & Forestry ENEWS, he mentioned that there is a significant challenge related to forest tenure as most of the forests affected by fires were largely in the public domain (primarily national park and state forest). Nevertheless, privately-owned native forests in most states (36% in NSW and 17% in Victoria) are also important and bushfire risk reduction also depends on how these forests are managed.
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Professor Kanowski pointed also that the management of Australia’s public forests has been strongly contested for the last 50 years what resulted in converting managed forests into conservation reserves. Conservation reserves have increased over the past 20 years of 81% in NSW and 21% in Victoria, and now the most public forest is dedicated to conservation in all states.
Solutions to mitigate wildfires
Taking above into account, 2019/2020 fires provided a significant wake-up call in terms of a need to better understand risks, fuel loads, firefighting capability, future supply shortfalls, availability of plantation insurance in the future, and impacts on plantation valuations.
The potential solutions include two sides. One side is about managing the fire, and the second one refers to forest management.
Australia has an enormously competent and dedicated workforce of professional and volunteer firefighters and an increasingly sophisticated array of firefighting technology and assets. What can be improved then? Here is the list of potential activities that can help in the future:
- Stronger restrictions on activities that might lead to ignitions are needed on high fire danger days
- Arson should be treated as terrorism?
- Greater collaboration across the forest industry and fire agencies is critical
- Better coordination between fire agencies and other stakeholders is needed to identify excessive fuel loads on private property, and determine how the fuel loads are managed going forward.
- Early detection of ignition and response will also have a significant impact on reducing fire damage
- Early intervention with aviation resources provides the greatest opportunity to limit the extent of bush wildfires.
- need sufficient aerial bombers at times of peak fire activity
- Implementing new technologies can fundamentally change the way fire is managed
- invest more in the day-to-day management of our forests, and in the restoration of forests that were lost. Public expenditure on forest management other than firefighting has decreased significantly over the past decades as governments slim budgets and staff and redirect priorities to urban Australia. Governments have similarly disinvested in supporting farmers, other private landowners and indigenous communities to manage their land and forests sustainably.
Forest management side
But, as this season’s fires are reminding us, what firefighters can do in extreme conditions is limited. Thus it can be inferred that there are some ways to make their task less difficult and dangerous by better addressing the management of the fire-prone forests.
The bush fires in Australia also bring back another fundamental problem related to traditional Indigenous burning practices and its impact on fire risk reduction. Many claims that the long-standing dispossession of Aboriginal peoples resulted in the loss of traditional knowledge and, in consequence, reduced cultural burning practices to very small scale ACT, NSW and Victoria. The current knowledge how Aboriginal people managed the fire risk is limited and it is based on the experience of the past few decades in the very different savannah landscapes of northern Australia, what makes a challenge to directly translate it to southern Australia’s forests.
Put foresters back in the forests
Forestry professionals over the past 80 years claim that insufficient hazard reduction is the main reason for the severity of bushfires. In other words, the fire intensity is proportional to and severely aggravated by fire loads created by undergrowth and forest floor debris accumulation.
And this is very well known in Australia. For instance, a DELOITTE Access Economics report produced for the Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA) in 2014 showed that the economic benefit of aggressive fuel load reduction massively outweighs the costs. The report provided the background for undertaking a full cost-benefit analysis of a policy of greater use of fuel reduction burning in combination with the mechanical removal of trees and understorey biomass. Besides, a newspoll published in The Australian newspaper in 2020 asked the question: “Which do you think was the main cause of the severity of the recent bushfires?” Interestingly, of the more than 1500 people polled, 56% cent cited inadequate hazard reduction.
The fuel reduction can be achieved by winter back burning, firewood removal and general debris clearance, but also by thinnings, which in many regions has proven highly effective in keeping communities safe and helping preserve forests areas. From the landscape perspective, it makes sense that grasslands and forests need to be covered with a mosaic of burnt and unburnt zones determined by a prioritisation of risk and effectiveness.
AFPA CEO Ross Hampton said:
“Surely we must no longer listen to those who say ‘protect’ the bush by locking it up and removing roads, people and machinery and instead look at ways to better manage our valuable forest assets. It’s clear that under many current forest policies, protected clearly means the opposite. A drying climate is making things worse but whatever policy makers do it this space will have no effect next summer or the one after. The only meaningful action we can take to make our communities safer is reduce fuel load especially around towns and key strategic locations.”
VAFI CEO Tim Johnston said:
“The timber industry stands ready to do its part in protecting our community through sustainable forest management practices. Reducing the density of trees in forest stands can also encourage the remaining trees to grow to a fire-resilient size in shorter times than in unmanaged forests. Therefore, applying an appropriate thinning program in state forests could protect our timber resource and reduce bushfire impacts across the landscape.”
Professor Rod Keenan said research has shown forest thinning in a vital additional tool we can use to make our communities safer:
“We found mechanical thinning plus burning in silver top ash reduces fire fuel hazard, with major reductions in dead trees, stumps and understory,” Prof. Keenan said. “We compared thinned and unthinned alpine ash forests using computer modelling, simulating severe to extreme weather conditions; we found modelled fire intensity decreased by 30% and the rate of fire spread and spot fires moving ahead of the main fire decreased by 20% with thinning.”
Based on experience, one may say that every locked-up, unmanaged, un-burnt forest inevitably breeds disastrous wildfires. The combination of heavy fuel load, poor access for firefighters, drought, hot winds, arsonists and dry lightning has only one assured outcome – a bushfire tragedy for the forest and the neighbours. Therefore, I think that proper management of forests together with the improvement of firefighting technology and assets can help to mitigate against catastrophic bush wildfires in short/medium term.
In the long term, I believe that Australian leaders should become more committed to international efforts to tackle climate change and to transform their country into highly energy-efficient, low carbon economy. The role of forests within this effort should focus on two basic approaches: renewable energy and forest carbon sequestration. Regarding the latest one, three such possibilities are to stimulate for additional forest carbon sequestration and reduced emissions through changes in forest management, product substitution and storage in long-lived forest products.
Geddes D. 2020. Database capture of individual significant-scale Australian forestry plantation fire losses. Prepared for Forest & Wood Products Australia.
A Transcontinental Legacy: Fire Management, Resource Protection, and the Challenges of Tasmanian Blue Gum (PDF)(Report). U.S. Government Printing Office. March 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-08-11. Retrieved 2011-07-09.
Main photo: Forest fire close to Port Macquarie (NSW). Credit: Rafal Chudy