As bushfire season approaches, we need to take action to recruit more volunteer firefighters




Amanda Davies, University of Western Australia

Across rural Australia, volunteer-run bushfire brigades have long been a central part of the life of the towns. Volunteer brigades provide the frontline defence against bushfires, and also undertake bushfire prevention and mitigation activities.

These frontline volunteer firefighters are supported by many others, including those who step up to support the families and businesses of volunteer firefighters while they are away fighting fires.

With rural Australia already facing a major volunteer shortage, and bushfires projected to become increasingly frequent and prolonged, it is vital we consider new ways to support the rural volunteer labour force.

Volunteer saturation in rural Australia

Rural Australia has long relied on an army of volunteers. However, an increase in the demands on volunteers’ time has eroded the capacity for further work to be absorbed.

The increase in demand on volunteers has been driven, in part, by the consolidation of government services into larger cities and centres, meaning smaller communities need to provide more essential and social services through volunteer organisations. It has also been driven by an increase in regulation of volunteer activities, particularly essential service provision, with more time needed to be dedicated to training, reporting and compliance activities.




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Our research revealed that population change across rural Australia has also presented challenges. For some places, population decline and ageing have had the dual impact of increasing the need for volunteer services, while reducing the number of available volunteers.

For other places, particularly those experiencing people moving to the town for lifestyle reasons population growth has increased the pool of potential volunteers. But newer residents have been less likely to become involved in traditional volunteering organisations.

For volunteer bushfire brigades, our research revealed an intensification in centralised regulation and compliance requirements. This in turn increased the time volunteers needed to commit to their local bushfire brigade. This increased time commitment presented a barrier to volunteers either remaining involved or becoming involved in their local brigade.

Our research also found this greater regulation has come at a time when people are increasingly seeking to volunteer in less formal and more occasional ways. For volunteer bushfire brigades, where regular engagement is required, this preference for episodic volunteering is a concern.




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Why do we rely on volunteers?

The collective volunteering effort put towards fighting bushfires in Australia is immense, and it would be too expensive to fully professionalise firefighting services. Australia’s volunteer firefighters contribute between A$1.2 billion and A$2 billion in labour per year.

This assessment is based only on reported incidents, and does not include time volunteers spend on small fires, mitigation activities, gear maintenance, fundraising and training. This assessment of value also does not include the efforts of those who support volunteers while they are on the front line.

Fire events are also sporadic, with the risk greatly increased in some years and much less in others. Given the geographic spread of Australia’s population, effectively distributing a professional volunteer fire service would be exceptionally challenging.

Being involved in volunteering is also important for well-being and social connections. For many, being a volunteer firefighter is a way of life and a part of who they are.

Could new volunteer firefighters be recruited from cities?

With rural volunteering at saturation, it might be time to look further afield for volunteer labour.

Australia’s devastating bushfires of 2019-20 thrust into broader public consciousness the crucial role of rural volunteer firefighters. This period saw huge bushfires burn up to the outskirts of the largest cities and population hubs – and on numerous fronts.

Just over 10% of Australia’s population faced a direct threat from the bushfires and more than 14 million people were impacted by bushfire smoke. With the fires burning more than 18 million hectares, volunteer and professional firefighters were spread thin across the extensive fronts. The Australian Defence Force was mobilised to assist, including evacuating trapped residents and holidaymakers.

During this period, many people sought ways to help not just those directly impacted by bushfires, but also those fighting the fires.




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However, firefighting is something that requires extensive training, and regular commitment. Past volunteers who sought to be involved in the firefighting effort had to be turned away as they did not have current training.

There is a need to expand the volunteer bushfire labour force. There is very little, or no more, capacity in rural communities. If we are going to turn to city populations to assist, then planning and preparation are needed.

We are now on the cusp of the next fire season. The Royal Commission into the National Natural Disaster Arrangements is set to deliver its findings on October 28. A huge volume of material has been submitted to its hearings, including more than 1,700 submissions from the public.

There seems an appetite for change. However, this summer we will again be looking to the same fire crews, the same volunteers, who spent last summer fighting fires on multiple fronts.The Conversation

Amanda Davies, Professor, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley faces a critical test: will she let a mine destroy koala breeding grounds?


Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle

In the next few weeks, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley will decide whether to approve a New South Wales quarry expansion that will destroy critical koala breeding grounds.

The case, involving the Brandy Hill Quarry at Port Stephens, is emblematic of how NSW environment laws are failing wildlife — particularly koalas. Efforts to erode koala protections hit the headlines last week when NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro threatened to detonate the Coalition over the issue.




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Koala populations are already under huge pressure. A NSW parliamentary inquiry in June warned the koala faces extinction in the state by 2050 if the government doesn’t better control land clearing and habitat loss.

Ley could either continue these alarming trends, or set a welcome precedent for koala protection. Her decision is also the first big test of federal environment laws since an interim review found they were failing wildlife. So let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake in this latest controversy.

A koala clinging to a tree branch
This female koala is under threat from the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion.
Lachlan Howell, Author provided

The Brandy Hill Quarry expansion

The NSW government gave approval to Hanson Construction Materials, a subsidiary of Heidelberg Cement, to expand the existing Brandy Hill Quarry in Seaham in Port Stephens.

The project would provide concrete to meet Sydney’s growing construction demands, as the state fast-tracks infrastructure projects to help the economy recover from COVID-19.

The approval came despite the known presence of koalas in the area. A koala survey report, completed on behalf of the developer in 2019, determined the project would “result in a significant impact to the koala”.

The report recommended the quarry expansion be referred to the federal Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, for its potential impacts on “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.




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The expansion site intersects habitat with preferred high quality koala feed and shelter trees. This habitat is established forest containing various key mature Eucalyptus trees, including the forest red gum and swamp mahogany.

The survey report didn’t propose any mitigation strategies to sustain the habitat. Instead, it suggested minimisation measures, such as ecologists to be present during habitat clearing, low speed limits for vehicles on site, and education on koalas for workers.

A disaster for koalas

In support of a community grassroots campaign (Save Port Stephens Koalas), we produced an report on the effect of the quarry expansion on koalas. The report now sits with Ley ahead of her decision, which is due by October 13.

Male koalas will bellow during the breeding season to attract females.

The expansion will clear more than 50 hectares of koala habitat. We found koalas breeding within 1 kilometre of the current quarry boundary, which indicates the expansion site is likely to destroy critical koala breeding habitat.

During the breeding season, male koalas bellow to attract females. Within 1km of the boundary we observed a female koala and a bellowing male koala 96m apart. A second male was reported bellowing 227m from the quarry boundary.

What’s more, the site expansion occurs within a NSW government listed Area of Regional Koala Significance. The expansion site actually has higher average koala habitat suitability than all remaining habitat on the quarry property.

The Koala Habitat Suitability Model from our independent report. The red boundary represents the Quarry expansion site containing high habitat suitability.
Map produced by S. A. Ryan using the Koala Habitat Information Base and arcGIS 10.6., Author provided

CSIRO research from 2016 suggests koalas in Port Stephens can move hundreds of metres in a day and up to 5km in one month. Movement is highest during the breeding season. This potential for koalas to move away was a key reason the NSW government approved the expansion.

Koalas can move in to the remaining property to breed, or they can move away from it. But habitat outside the expansion site is, on average, lesser quality, and this is where the expansion would force the koalas to move to.




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This habitat fragmentation would not only result in lost access to potential breeding grounds, but also further restrict movement and expose koalas to threats such as predation or road traffic.

Lastly, the expansion would sever a crucial East–West corridor koalas likely use to move across the landscape and breed.

Approved under the state’s weak environmental protections

It may seem surprising this destructive project was approved by the NSW government. But it’s a common story under the state’s protections.

Alarm over the weaknesses of NSW environmental protections has been raised by NSW government agencies including the Natural Resources Commission and NSW Audit Office.




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The expansion approval is an example of how the NSW government relaxed the regulatory requirements for land clearing between 2016 and 2017. This led to a 13-fold increase in land clearing approvals, and tipped the balance away from sustainable development.

Female and male koalas spotted 1 km from the quarry boundary. The male was observed bellowing 96 m from the female koala. Photo: Lachlan Howell.

The expansion shines another spotlight on NSW’s poor biodiversity offset laws.

Biodiversity offsets involve compensating for environmental damage in one location by improving the environment elsewhere. Under the expansions approval, the developer was required to protect an estimated 450 hectares of habitat as offset.

But the recent parliamentary inquiry into NSW koalas recommended offsetting of prime koala habitat — such as that involved in the quarry expansion — be prohibited, which would mean not destroying the habitat in the first place.




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The NSW decision also does not account for the Black Summer Bushfires which claimed 5,000 koalas and burned millions of hectares of koala habitat. The Port Stephens population was unburned but more than 75% of its habitat has been lost since colonial occupation. Securing this population is important for the overall security of koalas in the state.

The koalas are in Sussan Ley’s hands

Sussan Ley will now assess the expansion under the EPBC Act. A recent interim report into the laws said they’d allowed an “unsustainable state of decline” of Australia’s environment.

Rejections under these laws are rare; just 22 of 6,500 projects referred for approval under the act have been refused. However, it’s not impossible.

Earlier this year Ley rejected a wind-farm in Queensland which threatened unburned koala habitat. If Ley gives full consideration to the evidence in our report, she should make the same decision.




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The Conversation


Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian stinging trees inject scorpion-like venom. The pain lasts for days



Fig B Dexcelsa.

Irina Vetter, The University of Queensland; Edward Kalani Gilding, The University of Queensland, and Thomas Durek, The University of Queensland

Australia is home to some of the world’s most dangerous wildlife. Anyone who spends time outdoors in eastern Australia is wise to keep an eye out for snakes, spiders, swooping birds, crocodiles, deadly cone snails and tiny toxic jellyfish.

But what not everybody knows is that even some of the trees will get you.

Our research on the venom of Australian stinging trees, found in the country’s northeast, shows these dangerous plants can inject unwary wanderers with chemicals much like those found in the stings of scorpions, spiders and cone snails.

The stinging trees

In the forests of eastern Australia there are a handful of nettle trees so noxious that signs are commonly placed where humans trample through their habitat. These trees are called gympie-gympie in the language of the Indigenous Gubbi Gubbi people, and Dendrocnide in botanical Latin (meaning “tree stinger”).

A casual split-second touch on an arm by a leaf or stem is enough to induce pain for hours or days. In some cases the pain has been reported to last for weeks.

A gympie-gympie sting feels like fire at first, then subsides over hours to a pain reminiscent of having the affected body part caught in a slammed car door. A final stage called allodynia occurs for days after the sting, during which innocuous activities such as taking a shower or scratching the affected skin reignites the pain.




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How do the trees cause pain?

Pain is an important sensation that tells us something is wrong or that something should be avoided. Pain also creates an enormous health burden with serious impacts on our quality of life and the economy, including secondary issues such as the opiate crisis.

To control pain better, we need to understand it better. One way is to study new ways to induce pain, which is what we wanted to accomplish by better defining the pain-causing mechanism of gympie-gympie trees.

How does these plants cause pain? It turns out they have quite a bit in common with venomous animals.

The plant is covered in hollow needle-like hairs called trichomes, which are strengthened with silica. Like common nettles, these hairs contain noxious substances, but they must have something extra to deliver so much pain.

Earlier research on the species Dendrocnide moroides identified a molecule called moroidin that was thought to cause pain. However, experiments to inject human subjects with moroidin failed to induce the distinct series of painful symptoms seen with a full Dendrocnide sting.

Finding the culprits

We studied the stinging hairs from the giant Australian stinging tree, Dendrocnide excelsa. Taking extracts from these hairs, we separated them out into their individual molecular constituents.

One of these isolated fractions caused significant pain responses when tested in the laboratory. We found it contains a small family of related mini-proteins significantly larger in size than moroidin.

We then analysed all the genes expressed in the gympie-gympie leaves to determine which gene could produce something with the size and fingerprint of our mystery toxin. As a result, we discovered molecules that can reproduce the pain response even when made synthetically in the lab and applied in isolation.

The genome of Dendrocnide moroides also turned out to contain similar genes encoding toxins. These Dendrocnide peptides have been christened gympietides.

A plant with a straight narrow green stem covered in fine hairs and large flat leaves.
The most toxic of the stinging trees, gympie-gympie or Dendrocnide moroides.
Edward Gilding, Author provided

Gympietides

The gympietides have an intricate three-dimensional structure that is kept stable by a network of links within the molecule that form a knotted shape. This makes it highly stable, meaning it likely stays intact for a long time once injected into the victim. Indeed, there are anecdotes reporting even 100-year-old stinging tree specimens kept in herbariums can still produce painful stings.

What was surprising was the 3D structure of these gympietides resembles the shape of well-studied toxins from spider and cone snail venom. This was a big clue as to how these toxins might be working, as similar venom peptides from scorpions, spiders, and cone snails are known to affect structures called ion channels in nerve cells, which are important mediators of pain.

Specifically, the gympietides interfere with an important pathway for conducting pain signals in the body, called voltage-gated sodium ion channels. In a cell affected by gympietides, these channels do not close normally, which means the cell has difficulty turning off the pain signal.




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Better understanding may bring new treatments

The Australian stinging trees make a neurotoxin that resembles a venom in both its molecular structure and how it is deployed by injection. Taking these two things together, it would seem two very different evolutionary processes have converged on similar solutions to win the endgame of inflicting pain.

In the process, evolution has also presented us with an invaluable tool to understand how pain is caused. The precise mechanisms by which gympietides affect ion channels and nerve cells are currently under investigation. During that investigation, we may find new avenues to bring pain under control.The Conversation

Irina Vetter, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, The University of Queensland; Edward Kalani Gilding, Postdoctoral Research Officer, The University of Queensland, and Thomas Durek, Senior Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New Zealand invests in growing its domestic recycling industry to create jobs and dump less rubbish at landfills



Shutterstock/corners74

Jeff Seadon, Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand’s government recently put more than NZ$160 million towards developing a domestic recycling sector to create jobs as part of its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

New Zealanders recycle 1.3 million tonnes of materials each year, but 70% is currently exported. A recent NZ$36.7 million funding boost to upgrade recycling plants throughout the country followed a NZ$124 million injection into recycling infrastructure to grow processing capacity onshore. The investment signals a focus on supporting services that create employment and increase efficiency or reduce waste.

The potential for expansion in onshore processing of recyclable waste is enormous – and it could lead to 3.1 million tonnes of waste being diverted from landfills. But it will only work if it is part of a strategy with clear and measurable targets.

COVID-19 impacts

During New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown between March and May, general rubbish collection was classed as an essential service and continued to operate. But recycling was sporadic.

Whether or not recycling services continued depended on storage space and the ability to separate recyclables under lockdown conditions. Facilities that relied on manual sorting could not meet those requirements and their recycling was sent to landfill. Only recycling plants with automated sorting could operate.

New Zealand’s reliance on international markets showed a lack of resilience in the waste management system. Any changes in international prices were duplicated in New Zealand and while exports could continue under tighter border controls, it was no longer economically viable to do so for certain recyclable materials.

International cardboard and paper markets collapsed and operators without sufficient storage space sent materials to landfill. Most plastics became uneconomic to recycle.

Recycling and rubbish bins
New Zealanders recycle 1.3 million tonnes each year.
Shutterstock/Josie Garner

In contrast, for materials processed in New Zealand — including glass, metals and some plastics — recycling remains viable. Many local authorities are now limiting their plastic collections to those types that have expanding onshore processing capacity.

Soft packaging plastics are also being collected again, but only in some places and in smaller quantities than at the height of the soft plastics recycling scheme, to be turned into fence posts and other farm materials.




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The investment in onshore processing facilities is part of a move towards a circular economy. The government provided the capital for plants to recycle PET plastics, used to make most drink bottles and food trays. PET plastics can be reprocessed several times.

This means items such as meat trays previously made from polystyrene, which is not recyclable from households, could be made from fully recyclable PET. Some of the most recent funding goes towards providing automatic optical sorters to allow recycling plants to keep operating under lockdown conditions.

Regulation changes

The government also announced an expansion of the landfill levy to cover more types of landfills and for those that accept household wastea progressive increase from NZ$10 to NZ$60 per tonne of waste.

This will provide more money for the Waste Minimisation Fund, which in turn funds projects that lead to more onshore processing and jobs.

Last year’s ban on single-use plastic bags took more than a billion bags out of circulation, which represents about 180 tonnes of plastic that is not landfilled. But this is a small portion of the 3.7 million tonnes of waste that go to landfill each year.

More substantial diversion schemes include mandatory product stewardship schemes currently being implemented for tyres, electrical and electronic products, agrichemicals and their containers, refrigerants and other synthetic greenhouse gases, farm plastics and packaging.

An example of the potential gains for product stewardship schemes is e-waste. Currently New Zealand produces about 80,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, but recycles only about 2% (1,600 tonnes), most of which goes offshore for processing. Under the scheme, e-waste will be brought to collection depots and more will be processed onshore.

Landfilling New Zealand’s total annual e-waste provides about 50 jobs. Recycling it could create 200 jobs and reusing it is estimated to provide work for 6,400 people.




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But all these initiatives are not enough. We need a coordinated strategy with clear targets.

The current Waste Strategy has only two goals: to reduce the harmful effects of waste and improve resource use efficiency. Such vague goals have resulted in a 37% increase in waste disposal to landfill in the last decade.

An earlier 2002 strategy achieved significantly better progress. The challenge is clear. A government strategy with measurable targets for waste diversion from landfill can lead us to better resource use and more jobs.The Conversation

Jeff Seadon, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Government targets emerging technologies with $1.9 billion, saying renewables can stand on own feet


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has unveiled a $1.9 billion package of investments in new and emerging energy and emission-reducing technologies, and reinforced its message that it is time to move on from assisting now commercially-viable renewables.

The package will be controversial, given its planned broadening of the remit of the government’s clean energy investment vehicles, currently focused on renewables, and the attention given to carbon capture and storage, which has many critics.

The latest announcement follows the “gas-fired recovery” energy plan earlier this week, which included the threat the government would build its own gas-fired power station if the electricity sector failed to fill the gap left by the scheduled closure of the coal-fired Liddell power plant in 2023.




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Unveiling the latest policy, Scott Morrison said solar panels and wind farms were commercially viable “and have graduated from the need for government subsidies”.

The government was now looking to unlock new technologies “to help drive down costs, create jobs, improve reliability and reduce emissions. This will support our traditional industries – manufacturing, agriculture, transport – while positioning our economy for the future.”

An extra $1.62 billion will be provided for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to invest.

The government will expand the focus of ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to back new technologies that would reduce emissions in agriculture, manufacturing, industry and transport.

At present ARENA can only support renewable energy and the CEFC can only invest in clean energy technologies (although it can support some types of gas projects).

The changes to ARENA and the CEFC will need legislation.

The government says it will cut the time taken to develop new Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) methods from two years or more to under a year, involving industry in a co-design process.

This follows a review of the fund, which is a centrepiece of the Coalition’s emissions reduction policy. The cost of the changes is put at $24.6 million. The fund has had trouble attracting proposals from some sectors because of its complex administrative requirements.

Other measures in the policy include a new $95.4 million Technology Co-Investment Fund to support businesses in the agriculture, manufacturing, industrial and transport sectors to take up technologies to boost productivity and reduce emissions.

A $50 million Carbon Capture Use and Storage Development Fund will pilot carbon capture projects. This technology buries carbon but has run into many problems over the years and its opponents point to it being expensive, risky and encouraging rather than discouraging the use of fossil fuels.

Businesses and regional communities will be encouraged to use hydrogen, electric, and bio-fuelled vehicles, supported by a new $74.5 million Future Fuels Fund.

A hydrogen export hub will be set up, with $70.2 million. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has been a strong advocate for the potential of hydrogen, saying Australia has competitive advantages as a future hydrogen exporter.

Some $67 million will back new microgrids in regional and remote communities to deliver affordable and reliable power.

There will be $52.2 million to increase the energy productivity of homes and businesses. This will include grants for hotels’ upgrades.

The government says $1.8 billion of the package is new money.

Here are the details of the package:

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.