Bushfire and our habitat

To: "Evan Beaver" <>
Subject: Bushfire and our habitat
From: "Chris Sanderson" <>
Date: Wed, 29 Oct 2008 12:46:37 +1000
Hi Evan,

The idea that bushfires are an integral part of Australia's environment is
true to a point.  You can't make that statement across the whole country.
The Mountain Ash in Victoria don't do so well with fires, nor do
rainforests.  However, most heath and dry sclerophyll habitats require fire
at some point in their lifecycle to stop them becoming something else
entirely.  Even Mallee needs fire to help it regenerate eventually (though
there is debate as to when exactly that should happen).  Wet sclerophyll
adjacent to rainforest will become rainforest unless fire intervenes (which
can be problematic for gliders).  There is very strong evidence that natural
fire has been a part of our environment for a very long time, and that the
arrival of Aboriginals 40 or 80k years ago (depending on which evidence you
choose to accept) changed the burning regime.  Where it had been natural
fires started by lightening previously, now you had human-caused fires
changing the environment to benefit humans. Open grassy woodlands benefit
kangaroos, which benefits people who hunt kangaroos.  Early wet-season burns
in Kakadu and surrounds promotes the growth of food plants without killing
the habitat completely and causing it to become grassland.  This also has
the added benefit of promoting specific species of grass that Gouldian
Finches require to survive the next season.  That's just two examples.

When you ask is the research rock solid, or what problems in fire management
exist you have to ask yourself some very important questions:
Are researchers asking the right questions?
What are fire managers trying to achieve with their burning practices?

I think you will find most researchers are asking what role fire plays in
the landscape they are studying, not what the optimum burning practice for
that environment is.  To decide an "optiumum" practice means you are
deciding what the habitat should look like.  Are you saying it should be
pre-white settlement?  Pre-aboriginal settlement?  Gondwanan?  How about
modern (i.e. burnt to a crisp to promote safety)?  The whole area is fraught
with decisions that are fairly arbitrary.  One burning practice might
benefit endangered reptiles, but completely force out endangered birds.  Or
kill a critically endangered tree species.  So the answers are not simple,
you get "mosaic burning" studies, and it gets more complex, then you get
optimisation modelling which is great, but almost beyond the understanding
of scientists, and just try and explain it to the guys lighting the

As for fire management, I suspect most if not all land managers who have
plans to burn have people as their number one priority and the environment
as number two.  It is up to you whether you think that is appropriate or
not, it's just a fact of life right now.

I will say this though.  I had the chance to look at a draft fire management
plan for Springbrook National Park in QLD a few months ago, and their plan
was (and maybe still is) to burn dry sclerophyll every 5 years and wet
sclerophyll every 7.  This is a terrible plan and all it will do is create
jobs for those doing the burning (which I suspect is the goal of the plan).

There has been a lot of science on fire in Australian environments, I
suggest if you are very interested in the topic you check out a textbook I
had for undergraduate ecology called Ecology: an Australian Perspective (  It has a section
on fire and cites research that you can start with to further your reading.


ps. I love your quote, where does it come from?

On Wed, Oct 29, 2008 at 12:12 PM, Evan Beaver <> wrote:

> Birders, on another forum I've been watching a debate (slanging match)
> about bushfires and CO2 release. Leaving that part of the madness
> aside, can anyone comment on this statement:
> "Bushfires are an integral part of the Australian ecosystem."
> Is the research rock solid? What problems with our current fire
> management practises have been identified?
> >From my own anecdotal evidence it seems pretty obvious; quite a few
> trees seem to require fire to cast seed, and some need it to
> germinate. I also have a crazy theory that the black cockatoos are
> black from evolving to live in the post-bushfire landscape, scavenging
> seeds as they open. But, to quote my favourite saying of the last few
> weeks; "the plural of anecdote is not data". So, what does the proper
> data say?
> EB
> --
> Evan Beaver
> Lapstone, Blue Mountains, NSW
> lat=-33.77, lon=150.64
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