Some Thoughts on the Fires Down Under

I recently received some comments on my post describing our PNAS paper from the end of 2008 in which we demonstrated that aboriginal burning increases grassland biodiversity.  The comments were very angry -- and a little incoherent.  Clearly, emotions were (and are) running high in Aus following the the tragic bushfires in Victoria that have killed at least 181 people. An interesting, though rather vague, editorial appears in today's The Australian in which foreign editor Greg Sheridan argues it's time to get serious about preventing future tragedies of this kind.  He rightly notes that all the hysteria over global warming is of little practical consequence for managing wildfires. Global warming is, in my opinion, a reality and the best evidence we have suggests it is driven by human action.  Nonetheless, we can not attribute any one event, however dramatic, to global climate change.  Furthermore, blaming the fires on global warming does nothing to mitigate the effects of future fires (which are inevitable both in Aus and here in the American West). If anything, I fear that the linking of these fires to global warming disempowers people for action because they feel like they have no control over forces so much larger than themselves.

One of the comments on Sheridan's editorial really struck me (and I thank Brian Codding for bringing this to my attention).  "Steve from Hobart" wrote quite eloquently on the topic (I have attempted to edit some of the characters that didn't translate from Steve's word processor to The Australian):

The call for controlled burning has long been sounded in this country without being seriously implemented by State and Commonwealth governments of either political persuasion. The Royal Commission after the 1939 fires clearly indicated that such land management practices should be diligently implemented -- long before there were any "greenies". Similar calls came after 1967 in Tasmania, 1983 in SA and Victoria, and more recently in NSW and certainly in Canberra. Conclusion: the inaction on implementation of a systematic, cyclical prescribed burning regime is not new, so be careful about laying the blame on any particular group. Issue 2.: controlled burns a threat to biodiversity??? Perhaps it might be if such burns are only carried out when the fuel load reaches ridiculous proportions, and/or it's allowed to cover very large areas. Controlled burning is something that the ecology and biodiversity of this country thrives on, and it would appear that it has actually evolved to take advantage of a cyclical fire regime. Ask the indigenous people, they practised it for millennia. We need to make a serious effort to revisit that strategy, and not just on the urban fringe. We need to do the ecology and biodiversity of our magnificent and unique country a favour, and try to develop a modern-day fire-stick farming regime for our forests. Regular patchwork burning of smaller areas, repeated on a regular cyclical basis. And, in so doing, we'll protect human life and property.

Well said, Steve!

Here, I will copy what I wrote in response to the heckling I received regarding my previous post because the points are, I think, worth emphasizing. I was responding to extreme skepticism that ecology had anything to do with fire control and that human agency has anything to do with ecology. Again, I will edit slightly.

The tragic fires currently devastating large tracts of Victoria actually highlight the need for carefully done fire ecology. The recent events in Australia dramatically underscore this as do the enormous wildfires that have beset us here in California and the American West more generally over the past decade. So far, we have not experienced the degree of human tragedy that you are seeing in Victoria, but I fear it is just a matter of time.

Following the classic definition by Andrewartha and Birch, ecology is the scientific study of the distribution and abundance of life. If human burning affects either the distribution or abundance of plant or animal species — which it certainly does — then it is the proper subject for ecological analysis. Furthermore, ignoring human agency in such a case would yield a trivial and incomplete ecology.

In our paper on the fire-stick farming hypothesis, we actually make no claims of relevance to contemporary problems. We are trying to understand the dynamics of this particular system. That said, I nonetheless think there are findings of policy relevance embodied in this work. Fire needs fuel and the fuel for wildfires is the vegetation in “wild” areas. As you note, there are no parts of the world untouched by human influence either directly or indirectly. By setting many, small, low-intensity fires through their subsistence hunting, the Martu alter the landscape and make it less flammable. In effect, the successional mosaic that arises from this practice creates a landscape of firebreaks. This is precisely what back-country fire-control teams do in battling wildfires. The Martu just do it preemptively.

How to manage highly flammable landscapes in more densely settled areas like coastal Australia and the American West is an enormous problem and I don’t claim to have the answers. However, ideas informed by landscape ecology are clearly part of the solution. Engineering human-dominated landscapes with greater structural heterogeneity seems essential for dealing with this emerging chronic problem of arid temperate and sub-tropical climates.

Doug Bird, Rebecca Bliege Bird and I are working on longer essay that addresses these vital problems of contemporary human ecology.  I will, no doubt, write about that again here soon.

4 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Fires Down Under”

  1. I won't weigh into the biodiversity debate. But here is one thought...

    The landscape and fuel loads in South-Eastern Australia look a lot different from those in North-Western Australia. So I wonder about the efficacy of periodic burns in SE Australia...(i.e., how do we get to there -- maintaining & managing small to moderate fuel loads with regular burns -- given the conditions on the ground now). Someone here in NSW was saying that there are 6 days a year when you could contemplate back-burning in the Blue Mountains; others say that "safe" back-burning on a doesn't do the job (doesn't burn enough, that you need a big fire to clean things out, you're not lowering the fuel load unless you're well, lowering the fuel load), others say that back-burning only promotes the growth of scrubby ground cover with high fuel loads. So there is a lot of chaff flying around in the debate here at the moment.

    Questions: is there any historical evidence for regular small/medium intensity fires in SE Australia? Or rather do we see catastrophic fires once every 50-75 years? Can we distinguish those kinds of fire histories? In turn, is/was "firestick farming" localized to more arid regions of the landmass?

    Finally, I can't but think something like what we just experienced in Victoria was inevitable, given increased population density in locales with high fuel loads, weeks of record temps, virtually zero humidity, then high winds. Game over.

    Perhaps we need to accept that if you want to live in the (Australian) trees, they will burn once in a while, and perhaps catastrophically once every 50-75 years, and you either run early or get into your concrete bunker.

  2. Simon raises a very important point, and identifies the the exact same concerns fire managers faced in dealing with the build up of fuels in the xeric montane of the American Southwest in the '60s (we're writing about this right now, so wait for the post). There's no easy answer - it is a very risky proposition to begin a program of prescribed burning after a long period of suppression, and indeed, sometimes you're going to burn down Yellowstone in the process (as was the case in 1988). Martu (see above) faced a similar dilemma when after more than a decade they returned to their desert homelands in the 80's to establish the Outstations at Parnngurr, Punmu, and Kunawarritji. Getting "there" from "here" actually requires clear definitions of both places; there's no pristine ideal - "here" and "there" have to be defined relative to particular goals and well understood ecology. This is really hard.

  3. Also... from what I gather, the jury is still WAY out on whether SE Australian fire regime was primarily anthropogenic or driven by longer term disturbance (or even density dependent). There's decent evidence for Aboriginal burning regimes occurring in the Center, Arnhem Land and WA (including our work), but for the SE, there's some suggestion that an open grassy understory resulted from long, fire free periods where the shrub/ woodland died out from old age without intermed. disturbance. I'll try to provide some more details and refs in the upcoming essay.

  4. a) OK so burning has influenced the ecology. We all know that.

    b) We also all know that the aboriginals burning their goannas out of the grass lead to small fires which changed the ecology Also well known fact.

    c) And we all also know that prescribed burning off reduces the fuel for bigger fires in the future.

    But just because the aborigianals changed the ecology in the past, unintentionally, does not mean that we can intentionally use fire to help diversify the ecology and so improve the environment.

    Your paper does and only says 1 and 2. Thats OK but by throwing around some "ecology" terms, putting it in the context of 'fire ecology" and saying it "part of the solution" to the bush fires in Victoria you are attributing some mystical power to burning off which we may be able to learn from the aboriginals and so study at the feet of primitive man, or at least at the feet of the anthropologists who study them. Its a simple case of embelishing your results.

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