Thursday, 10 January 2013


“Australians have stewardship of a beautiful, diverse and unique environment. Positioning Australia to respond to a changing climate, securing supplies of water to meet our domestic, agricultural and industrial needs, protecting our globally unique biodiversity and providing positive futures for Australian communities are the critical issues facing the nation.” - CSIRO

Bushfires once again are rampant throughout much of Southeastern Australia this Summer. The relatively wet climactic conditions over the last few years have created lush vegetation, which in the dry heat that we have been experiencing now, is perfect fuel for the wild fires that sweep through the wooded areas. Bushfire has been part of the Australian landscape for millions of years, but while we consider it a major threat, some of our flora and fauna depend upon it for their survival. Australia’s native vegetation encourages the spread of fire and as a consequence of evolution, bushfires create a number of surprising benefits for the Australian environment that cannot be created any other way.

Eucalyptus forest litter is coarse and decays slowly, ensuring that after several years there will still be an abundant build-up on the forest floor to carry the next fire. The bark of many native species is highly flammable and loosely attached to the trees, making ideal firebrands to carry fire across natural barriers. The green leaves contain highly flammable oils and resins that act as a catalyst to promote combustion before the leaves are fully dry. These factors predispose greatly to fires and sooner or later, in some part of Australia, weather patterns will occur so that strong, hot, dry winds will blow from the centre of the continent, so all that is needed is a spark to produce a conflagration. If these conditions of hot dry weather are associated with a drought of any length, the massive bushfire that develops will not be stopped until the weather moderates.

The Australian Aborigines lived in harmony with the environment before European settlement and they had learnt that they had to break up the forest fuel in order to survive within the landscape filled with many hazards. They burnt off vegetation extensively and often, so as to reduce forest litter. They learnt by observation the responses of the plants and animals to burning and took advantage of these responses to exist harmoniously and sustainably within the natural environment.

Since European settlement, the total amount of fire in the Australian landscape has declined. The bushland areas and particularly those around Sydney and Melbourne have thickened and accumulated more fuel. As a result, the infrequent fires that now occur under extreme weather burn much more intensely and have a significant impact on the built environment. Fragmentation of the bush by different land use practices, such as spreading urbanisation and agriculture, means that the Aboriginal fire regime is no longer possible or desirable in these areas.

Australian native flora and fauna have evolved to survive in a fire-prone environment. In order to maintain the biodiversity of the native areas of vegetation and its resident fauna, we have to accept that fire is a process that must be used to manage our bushland. Nothing else except bushfire does the following:
  • Fire produces the chemicals in the ash to stimulate new growth of vegetation;
  • Smoke stimulates the flowering and regeneration of particular species;
  • The heat pulse of a passing bushfire removes growth-inhibiting toxins in the litter;
  • Opens tightly-closed fruits to release new seed;
  • Penetrates deep into the soil to stimulate the germination of long-buried seed.
Nothing else except bushfire produces the succession of plant development to which our native fauna have adapted to meet their requirements for food, shelter and reproduction.

Australian bushfires fires threaten lives and property and cause millions of dollars of damage each year. To a large extent, this is because since European settlement we have modified the Australian native environment and have made it adapt to a land use and settlement pattern that is more suited to a northern European, cooler and wetter climate, which has a completely different flora and fauna. The introduction of many exotic tree species such as European and American deciduous trees and also the evergreen pines has meant that the response of the landscape to bushfires has become less characteristic and unpredictable. The construction of residences within or adjacent to wooded areas has increased the risk of property destruction and loss of life. People’s ideas regarding the aesthetics of the landscape – i.e. that it should be green and lush and unravaged by the effects of fire is contrary to the Australian environment and the wise management of the land that the Aborigines were in charge of so successfully for millennia.

We must learn to accept that in Australia, bushfire is an ecological process that is as natural as the sun and the rain. We must learn to accept that bushfire determines the composition of our flora and fauna and contributes to its success within Australia’s unique landscape. If we want to reduce the devastating and tragic effects of uncontrolled bushfires, we must make fire suppression a strategic and regular occurrence in our lives, in locations that are appropriate. We need to learn that it is the dry undergrowth and dead leaf, bark and twig litter that provides the fuel for bushfires, and use prescribed, planned burn-offs at appropriate times of the year in order to reduce fuel loads. This implies that people need to individually take responsibility for managing the fuels in their properties, and maintain their gardens and adjacent land so that they do not burn uncontrolled in summer.

Fire services and land management agencies need the support of individuals and community groups even when there is no fire emergency and accept the minor inconvenience of smoke in the air when fire is prescribed for hazard reduction, forest regeneration or biodiversity management. People living in areas adjacent to high fire hazards must plant wisely, manage the flora and potential bushfire fuel in their gardens and construct properties that are bushfire resistant and well-prepared for a wave of fire that may sweep through their property. As part of any bushfire survival plan, farmers and homeowners should assess how they can make their property defendable, consider what fire protection systems need to be in place and ensure they know the location of their nearest shelter in the event that they need to evacuate quickly. As fires can occur at unexpected times, it’s also important to plan for different scenarios, such as on a workday, during school holidays or at a social function. Above all, if people choose to evacuate, they must leave their property early.

We live in a vast, beautiful land. It is often that we find ourselves in a harsh and punishing environment. If we respect the land and work with it, we make our own survival more probable, while nurturing and sustaining the native flora and fauna that we are the custodians of.

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