Australia, you have unfinished business. It’s time to let our ‘fire people’ care for this land



Rangers from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, conducting cool season burning on Martu Country.
Tony Jupp,The Nature Conservancy

David Bowman, University of Tasmania and Greg Lehman, University of Tasmania

Since last summer’s bushfire crisis, there’s been a quantum shift in public awareness of Aboriginal fire management. It’s now more widely understood that Aboriginal people used landscape burning to sustain biodiversity and suppress large bushfires.

The Morrison government’s bushfire royal commission, which began hearings this week, recognises the potential of incorporating Aboriginal knowledge into mainstream fire management.

Its terms of reference seek to understand ways “the traditional land and fire management practices of Indigenous Australians could improve Australia’s resilience to natural disasters”.

Incorporating Aboriginal knowledge is essential to tackling future bushfire crises. But it risks perpetuating historical injustices, by appropriating Aboriginal knowledge without recognition or compensation. So while the bushfire threat demands urgent action, we must also take care.

Accommodating traditional fire knowledge is a long-overdue accompaniment to recent advances in land rights and native title. It is an essential part of the unfinished business of post-colonial Australia.

Grant Stewart, a ranger from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa. The benefits of Indigenous fire practices are becoming well-known.
Louie Davis

A living record

Before 1788, Aboriginal cultures across Australia used fire to deliberately and skilfully manage the bush.

Broadly, it involved numerous, frequent fires that created fine-scale mosaics of burnt and unburnt patches. Developed over thousands of years, such burning made intense bushfires uncommon and made plant and animal foods more abundant. This benefited wildlife and sustained a biodiversity of animals and plants.

Following European settlement, Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land and the opportunity to manage it with fire. Since then, the Australian bush has seen dramatic biodiversity declines, tree invasion of grasslands and more frequent and destructive bushfires.




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In many parts of Australia, particularly densely settled areas, cultural burning practices have been severely disrupted. But in some regions, such as clan estates in Arnhem Land, unbroken traditions of fire management date back to the mid to late Pleistocene some 50,000 years ago.

Not all nations can draw on these living records of traditional fire management.

Indigenous people around the world, including in western Europe, used fire to manage flammable landscapes. But industrialisation, intensive agriculture and colonisation led to these practices being lost.

In most cases, historical records are the only way to learn about them.

Aborigines Using Fire to Hunt Kangaroos, by Joseph Lycett. Indigenous people have used cultural fire practices for thousands of years.
National Library of Australia

Rising from the ashes

In Australia, many Aboriginal people are rekindling cultural practices, sometimes in collaboration with non-indigenous land managers. They are drawing on retained community knowledge of past fire practices – and in some cases, embracing practices from other regions.

Burning programs can be adapted to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. These include the need to protect assets, and new threats such as weeds, climate change, forest disturbances from logging and fire, and feral animals.




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This process is outlined well in Victor Steffensen’s recent book Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia. Steffensen describes how, as an Aboriginal man born into two cultures, he made a journey of self-discovery – learning about fire management while being guided and mentored by two Aboriginal elders.

Together, they reintroduced fire into traditional lands on Cape York. These practices had been prohibited after European-based systems of land tenure and management were imposed.

Steffensen extended his experience to cultural renewal and ecological restoration across Australia, arguing this was critical to addressing the bushfire crisis:

The bottom line for me is that we need to work towards a whole other division of fire managers on the land […] A skilled team of indigenous and non-indigenous people that works in with the entire community, agencies and emergency services to deliver an effective and educational strategy into the future. One that is culturally based and connects to all the benefits for the community.

Making it happen

So how do we realise this ideal? Explicit affirmative action policies, funded by state and federal governments, are a practical way to protect and extend Aboriginal burning cultures.

Specifically, such programs should provide ways for Aboriginal people and communities to:

  • develop their fire management knowledge and capacity
  • maintain and renew traditional cultural practices
  • enter mainstream fire management, including in leadership roles
  • enter a broad cross section of agencies, and community groups involved in fire management.

This will require rapidly building capacity to train and employ Aboriginal fire practitioners.

In some instances, where the impact of colonisation has been most intense, action is needed to support Aboriginal communities to re-establish relationships with forested areas, following generations of forced removal from their Country.




Read more:
Our land is burning, and western science does not have all the answers


Importantly, this empowerment will enable Aboriginal communities to re-establish their own cultural priorities and practices in caring for Country. Where these differ from the Eurocentric values of mainstream Australia, we must understand and respect the wisdom of those who have been custodians of this flammable landscape for millennia.

Non-indigenous Australians should also pay for these ancient skills. Funding schemes could include training, and ensuring affirmative action programs are implemented and achieve their goals.

Involving Aboriginal people and communities in the development of fire management will ensure cultural knowledge is shared on culturally agreed terms.

Fire people, fire country

In many ways, last summer’s fire season is a reminder of the brutal acquisition of land in Australia and its ongoing consequences for all Australians.

The challenges involved in helping to right this wrong, by enabling Aboriginal people to use their fire management practices, are complex. They span social justice, funding, legal liability, cultural rights, fire management and science.

Fundamentally, we must recognise that Aborigines are “fire people” who live on “fire country”. It’s time to embrace this ancient fact.

Andry Sculthorpe of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre contributed to this article.The Conversation

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania and Greg Lehman, Pro Vice Chancellor, Aboriginal Leadership, University of Tasmania

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

After the bushfires, we helped choose the animals and plants in most need. Here’s how we did it



Daniel Marius/AAP

John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Rachael Gallagher, Macquarie University, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

No other event in our lifetimes has brought such sudden, drastic loss to Australia’s biodiversity as the last bushfire season. Governments, researchers and conservationists have committed to the long road to recovery. But in those vast burnt landscapes, where do we start?

We are among the wildlife experts advising the federal government on bushfire recovery. Our role is to help determine the actions needed to stave off extinctions and help nature recover in the months and years ahead.

Our first step was to systematically determine which plant and animal species and ecosystems needed help most urgently. So let’s take a closer look at how we went about it.

Plants and animals are recovering from the fires, but some need a helping hand.
David Crosling/AAP

Sorting through the smoke

One way to work out how badly a species is affected by fire is to look at how much of its distribution – or the area in which it lives – was burnt.

This is done by overlapping fire maps with maps or records showing the species’ range. The greater the overlap, the higher the potential fire impact. But there are several complicating factors to consider:

1. Susceptibility: Species vary in how susceptible they are to fire. For instance, animals that move quickly – such as red-necked wallabies and the white-throated needletail – can escape an approaching fire. So too can animals that burrow deeply into the ground, such as wombats.

Less mobile animals, or those that live in vegetation, are more likely to die. We also considered post-fire recovery factors such as a species’ vulnerability to predators and reproductive rate.

The white-throated needle tail can escape the flames.
Tom Tarrant/Flickr

2. What we know: The quality of data on where species occur is patchy. For example, there are thousands of records for most of Australia’s 830 or so bird species. But there are very few reliable records for many of Australia’s 25,000-odd plant species and 320,000-odd invertebrate species.

So while we can estimate with some confidence how much of a crimson rosella’s distribution burned, the fire overlaps for less well-known species are much less certain.

3. The history of threats: The impact of fires on a region depends on the extent of other threats, such as drought and the region’s fire history. The time that elapses between fires can influence whether populations have recovered since the last fire.

For instance, some plants reproduce only from seed rather than resprouting. Fires in quick succession can kill regrowing plants before they’ve matured enough to produce seed. If that happens, species can become locally extinct.


Authors supplied

4. Fire severity: Some areas burn more intensely than others. High severity fires tend to kill more animals. They also incinerate vegetation and can scorch seeds lying in the soil.

Many Australian plant species are exquisitely adapted to regenerate and resprout after fire. But if a fire is intense enough, even these plants may not bounce back.

5. Already threatened?: Many species affected by these bushfires were already in trouble. For some, other threats had already diminished their numbers. Others were highly vulnerable because they were found only in very limited areas.

The bushfires brought many already threatened species closer to extinction. And other species previously considered secure are now threatened.




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Which species made the list?

With these issues in mind, and with contributions from many other experts, we compiled lists of plant, invertebrate and vertebrate species worst-affected by the 2019-20 fires. A similar assessment was undertaken for threatened ecosystems.

Some 471 plant, 213 invertebrate and 92 vertebrate species have been identified as a priority for interventions. Most had more than half their distribution burnt. Many have had more than 80% affected; some had 100% burnt.

The purple copper butterfly is listed as a priority for recovery efforts.
NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment

Priority invertebrates include land snails, freshwater crayfish, spiders, millipedes, beetles, dragonflies, grasshoppers, butterflies and bees. Many species had very small ranges.

For example, the inelegantly named Banksia montana mealybug – a tiny insect – existed only in the foliage of a few individuals of a single plant species in Western Australia’s Stirling Range, all of which were consumed by the recent fires.

Some priority plants, such as the Monga waratah, have persisted in Australia since their evolution prior to the break-up of the Gondwanan supercontinent about 140 million years ago. More than 50% of its current range burned, much at high severity. During recovery it is vulnerable to diseases such as phytophthora root rot.




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Some priority vertebrates have tiny distributions, such as the Mt Kaputar rock skink that lives only on rocky outcrops of Mt Kaputar near Narrabri, New South Wales. Others had large distributions that were extensively burnt, such as the yellow-bellied glider.

The priority lists include iconic species such as the koala, and species largely unknown to the public, such as the stocky galaxias, a fish that lives only in an alpine stream near Cooma in NSW.

Half the Monga waratah’s range burned in the fires.
Wikimedia

What’s being done

A federal government scheme is now allocating grants to projects that aim to help these species and ecosystems recover.

Affected species need immediate and longer-term actions to help them avoid extinction and recover. Critical actions common to all fire-affected species are:

  1. careful management of burnt areas so their recovery isn’t compromised by compounding pressures

  2. protecting unburnt areas from further fire and other threats, so they can support population recovery

  3. rapid surveys to identify where populations have survived. This is also the first step in ongoing monitoring to track recovery and the response to interventions.

Targeted control of feral predators, herbivores and weeds is also essential to the recovery of many priority species.

In some rare cases, plants or animals may need to be moved to areas where populations were reduced or wiped out. Captive breeding or seed collection can support this. Such restocking doesn’t just help recovery, it also spreads the risk of population loss in case of future fires.

Feral animals such as cats threaten native species in their recovery.
Hugh McGregor, Threatened Species Recovery Hub

Long road back

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some challenges in implementing recovery actions. Like all of us, state agency staff, NGOs, academics and volunteer groups must abide by public health orders, which have in some cases limited what can be done and where.

But the restrictions may also have an upside. For instance, fewer vehicles on the roads might reduce roadkill of recovering wildlife.

As states ease restrictions, more groups will be able to continue the recovery process.




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Scientists find burnt, starving koalas weeks after the bushfires


As well as action on the ground, much planning and policy response is still required. Many fire-affected species must be added to threatened species lists to ensure they’re legally protected, and so remain the focus of conservation effort.

Fire management methods must be reviewed to reduce the chance of future catastrophic fires, and to make sure the protection of biodiversity assets is considered in fire management planning and suppression.

Last bushfire season inflicted deep wounds on our biodiversity. We need to deal with that injury. We must also learn from it, so we can respond swiftly and effectively to future ecological disasters.


Many species experts and state/territory agency representatives contributed to the analyses of priority species. Staff from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (especially the Environmental Resources Information Network (Geospatial and Information Analytics Branch), the Protected Species and Communities Branch and the Threatened Species Commissioner’s Office) and Expert Panel members also contributed significantly to this work.The Conversation

John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Dale Nimmo, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Rachael Gallagher, Senior Lecturer/ARC DECRA Fellow, Macquarie University, and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

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

If you’re worried about bushfires but want to keep your leafy garden, follow these tips



Shutterstock/autau

Philip Gibbons, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Australian National University

As we witnessed last summer, the number of houses destroyed during bushfires in Australia has not been stemmed by advances in weather forecasting, building design and the increased use of large water-bombing aircraft.

At the latest count, more than 3,500 homes were destroyed the summer just gone, which makes this the most destructive bushfire season in Australia’s history.

The principal reason for the continually high rate of destruction is that so many homes are being built close to bushland. An estimated 85% of all houses destroyed in bushfires in Australia are within 100m of the bush.

It follows that clearing vegetation around houses is at the forefront of advice provided by fire authorities to homeowners in bushfire-prone areas.

A home without trees and shrubs around it is the safest option during a bushfire. But realistically, many people will want to retain some vegetation. And there are ways to do this sensibly.

Is clearing bushland the solution?

Research shows houses close to bushland are more effectively protected by clearing trees and shrubs within approximately 40m of the home.

There are laws in most states and territories, such as New South Wales’ 10/50 Vegetation Clearing Scheme, that permit this to some extent.

But if all homeowners in bushfire-prone areas exercised their right to clear trees and shrubs, places such as the Blue Mountains, Perth Hills, Mount Lofty Ranges, Dandenongs and our coastal towns like Mallacoota, Margaret River and Batemans Bay would be vastly different in character.




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Residents and tourists are attracted to these areas for the aesthetics, privacy, wildlife and shade native trees and shrubs provide.

A study of rural-residential areas north of Melbourne found property values were higher where there was a considerable cover of native vegetation. We not only like our native bush, we are prepared to pay for it.

Because many people value trees and shrubs around their homes, it is not realistic to expect uniformly low fuel loads within bushfire-prone parts of Australia.

Can we have our cake and eat it?

We analysed data collected before and after the 2009 Black Saturday Fires, in which 2,133 houses were destroyed.

We found that the extent of “greenness” of vegetation surrounding homes had a bearing on whether the structure withstood fire.

Greenness refers to the extent to which plants are actively growing. Houses with trees and shrubs within 40m were slightly less likely to be destroyed if the vegetation had relatively high values of “greenness”, as compared to houses surrounded by vegetation with low greenness value.

This makes sense because greener vegetation, typically with higher moisture content, has lower flammability, requires more energy to ignite and therefore can reduce the intensity of a fire.




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Thus, watering your garden through summer, if this is feasible, or choosing plants with high moisture content (such as succulents) may reduce the bushfire risk compared with the same amount of vegetation with a lower moisture content.

We also found the risk to houses during bushfire was slightly less where trees and shrubs within 40m were not continuous, but instead arranged as discrete patches separated by a ground layer with low fuel hazard, such as mown grass.

As trees and shrubs become less continuous the heat transfer between patches becomes less efficient and the intensity of the fire is likely to decline.

Provided bushfires in your area come from a predictable direction, retaining more trees and shrubs downwind of this direction from your house poses less risk than the same cover of trees and shrubs retained upwind from your house.

This makes sense because burning embers, which are the main cause of house losses during bushfires, travel in the direction of the wind.

You can’t eliminate risk from bushfires

We must emphasise that while these strategies can strike a balance between retaining trees and shrubs and preparing for bushfires, they will not guarantee your home will survive a bushfire – especially in severe fire weather.

So in addition to vegetation management, other strategies – such as building design, adequate insurance and evacuating early to a safer place – should be considered in every household’s bushfire planning.




Read more:
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The Conversation


Philip Gibbons, Professor, Australian National University and Geoff Cary, Associate Professor, Bushfire Science, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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

The world’s best fire management system is in northern Australia, and it’s led by Indigenous land managers


Rohan Fisher, Charles Darwin University and Jon Altman, Australian National University

The tropical savannas of northern Australia are among the most fire-prone regions in the world. On average, they account for 70% of the area affected by fire each year in Australia.

But effective fire management over the past 20 years has reduced the annual average area burned – an area larger than Tasmania. The extent of this achievement is staggering, almost incomprehensible in a southern Australia context after the summer’s devastating bushfires.




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The success in northern Australia is the result of sustained and arduous on-ground work by a range of landowners and managers. Of greatest significance is the fire management from Indigenous community-based ranger groups, which has led to one of the most significant greenhouse gas emissions reduction practices in Australia.

As Willie Rioli, a Tiwi Islander and Indigenous Carbon Industry Network steering committee member recently said:

Fire is a tool and it’s something people should see as part of the Australian landscape. By using fire at the right time of year, in the right places with the right people, we have a good chance to help country and climate.

Importantly, people need to listen to science – the success of our industry has been from a collaboration between our traditional knowledge and modern science and this cooperation has made our work the most innovative and successful in the world.

A tinder-dry season

The 2019 fire season was especially challenging in the north (as it was in the south), following years of low rainfall across the Kimberly and Top-End. Northern Australia endured tinder-dry conditions, severe fire weather in the late dry season, and a very late onset of wet-season relief.

Despite these severe conditions, extensive fuel management and fire suppression activities over several years meant northern Australia didn’t see the scale of destruction experienced in the south.

A comparison of two years with severe fire weather conditions. Extensive early dry season mitigation burns in 2019 reduced the the total fire-affected areas.

This is a huge success for biodiversity conservation under worsening, longer-term fire conditions induced by climate change. Indigenous land managers are even extending their knowledge of savanna burning to southern Africa.

Burn early in the dry season

The broad principles of northern Australia fire management are to burn early in the dry season when fires can be readily managed; and suppress, where possible, the ignition of uncontrolled fires – often from non-human sources such as lightning – in the late dry season.

Traditional Indigenous fire management involves deploying “cool” (low intensity) and patchy burning early in the dry season to reduce grass fuel. This creates firebreaks in the landscape that help stop larger and far more severe fires late in the dry season.

Relatively safe ‘cool’ burns can create firebreaks.
Author provided

Essentially, burning early in the dry season accords with tradition, while suppressing fires that ignite late in the dry season is a post-colonial practice.

Savannah burning is different to burn-offs in South East Australia, partly because grass fuel reduction burns are more effective – it’s rare to have high-intensity fires spreading from tree to tree. What’s more, these areas are sparsely populated, with less infrastructure, so there are fewer risks.




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Satellite monitoring over the last 15 years shows the scale of change. We can compare the average area burnt across the tropical savannas over seven years from 2000 (2000–2006) with the last seven years (2013–2019). Since 2013, active fire management has been much more extensive.

The comparison reveals a reduction of late dry season wildfires over an area of 115,000 square kilometres and of all fires by 88,000 square kilometres.

How fire has changed in northern Australia.
Author provided

Combining traditional knowledge with western science

The primary goals of Indigenous savanna burning projects remain to support cultural reproduction, on-country living and “healthy country” outcomes.

Savanna burning is highly symbiotic with biodiversity conservation and landscape management, which is the core business of rangers.

Ensuring these gains are sustainable requires a significant amount of difficult on-ground work in remote and challenging circumstances. It involves not only Indigenous rangers, but also pastoralists, park rangers and private conservation groups. These emerging networks have helped build new savanna burning knowledge and innovative technologies.




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Our land is burning, and western science does not have all the answers


While customary knowledge underpins much of this work, the vast spatial extent of today’s savanna burning requires helicopters, remote sensing and satellite mapping. In other words, traditional burning is reconfigured to combine with western scientific knowledge and new tools.

For Indigenous rangers, burning from helicopters using incendiaries is augmented by ground-based operations, including on-foot burns that support more nuanced cultural engagement with country.

On-ground burns are particularly important for protecting sacred sites, built infrastructure and areas of high conservation value such as groves of monsoonal forest.

Who pays for it?

A more active savanna burning regime over the last seven years has led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of more than seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.




Read more:
Savanna burning: carbon pays for conservation in northern Australia


This is around 10% of the total emission reductions accredited by the Australian government through carbon credits units under Carbon Farming Initiative Act. Under the act, one Australian carbon credit unit is earned for each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent that a project stores or avoids.

By selling these carbon credits units either to the government or on a private commercial market, land managers have created a A$20 million a year savanna burning industry.

How Indigenous Australians and others across Australia’s north are reducing emissions.

What can the rest of Australia learn?

Savanna fire management is not directly translatable to southern Australia, where the climate is more temperate, the vegetation is different and the landscape is more densely populated. Still, there are lessons to be learnt.

A big reason for the success of fire management in the north savannas is because of the collaboration with scientists and Indigenous land managers, built on respect for the sophistication of traditional knowledge.

This is augmented by broad networks of fire managers across the complex cross-cultural landscape of northern Australia. Climate change will increasingly impact fire management across Australia, but at least in the north there is a growing capacity to face the challenge.The Conversation

Rohan Fisher, Information Technology for Development Researcher, Charles Darwin University and Jon Altman, Emeritus professor, School of Regulation and Global Governance, ANU, Australian National University

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

How fungi’s knack for networking boosts ecological recovery after bushfires



Doug Beckers/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Adam Frew, University of Southern Queensland; Andy Le Brocque, University of Southern Queensland; Dale Nimmo, Charles Sturt University; Eleonora Egidi, Western Sydney University; Jodi Price, Charles Sturt University, and Leanne Greenwood, Charles Sturt University

The unprecedented bushfires that struck the east coast of Australia this summer killed an estimated one billion animals across millions of hectares.

Scorched landscapes and animal corpses brought into sharp relief what climate-driven changes to wildfire mean for Australia’s plants and animals.

Yet the effects of fire go much deeper, quite literally, to a vast and complex underground world that we know stunningly little about, including organisms that might be just as vulnerable to fire, and vital to Australia’s ecological recovery: the fungi.

Fungi play a crucial role in ecosystems around the world. Amanita sp, Geastrum sp and Aseroe sp.
Adam Frew

Plants and fungi: a match made underground

The aftermath of wildfires can make landscapes appear devoid of life. Yet under the ash beds lies a vast living network of fungi.

One group of fungi, called arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, form symbiotic relationships with most of the world’s land plants. This means most plants and AM fungi rely on each other to grow and thrive.

Fungi provide access to nutrients such as phosphorus, and plants provide carbon as sugar and fats.
Adam Frew via BioRender

Extensive networks of AM fungal mycelium (a vegetative part of a fungus, akin to plant roots) explore the soil to access nutrients beyond the reach of their plant partners. The mycelium forms a fungal underground highway, transporting the valuable nutrients back to the plants.




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Beyond nutrients, AM fungi can influence all aspects of plant ecology, such as seedling establishment, plant growth, defence against herbivores, and competition between different plant species. In fact, the number of species and abundance of AM fungi determine the success and diversity of plants.

In return for the nutrients they provide, AM fungi receive sugar made by plants through photosynthesis. For many species, this means without a plant host the fungi won’t last.

The responses of plants and AM fungi to fire are therefore deeply intertwined: the recovery of one is dependent on the other. Yet ecologists are only beginning to learn how fire affects fungi and what role they might have in hastening ecosystem recovery following wildfires.

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi colonising a plant root.
Adam Frew

Fungi and fire: what do we know?

Studies have shown fungi living near the soil surface are particularly susceptible to fire, often killed by high soil temperatures as the fire passes over. Fungi further below the surface are relatively more protected, and may provide the nuclei for recovery.

But, as with animals, surviving fire is only half the battle. When fire removes vegetation, it suddenly halts sugar and fats plants produce, delivered to the fungi below-ground.




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Another challenge is the ways fire influences the underground world, such as changes in soil acidity, soil carbon, nutrient dynamics, and soil water. For instance, soils with more acidity tend to have less diversity of AM fungi.

How exactly fungi and fire interact remains an ecological mystery. Coprinus sp.
Adam Frew

The combination of high temperatures and changed conditions appear to take a toll on fungi: a 2017 meta-analysis of 29 studies found fire reduces the number of fungal species by about 28%. And given the severity of last summer’s bushfires, we can expect that many fungal communities below the surface have been lost, too.

Lose fungi, lose function

When fire hits, the community of AM fungi may lose less resistant species. This is important because studies show different species of AM fungi are better at supporting their plant partners in different ways. Some are better at providing nutrients, while others are more helpful with defending plants from disease and herbivores.

Changes in the number and types of AM fungal species can strongly determine how well plants recover, and can influence the whole ecosystem after fire. For example, plants could be left more vulnerable to disease if fungi supporting native plant chemical or physical defences are reduced by fire.

Amanita muscaria (Fly agaric)
Adam Frew

Since we know fungi are particularly important to plants in times of ecological stress, their role may be paramount in harsh post-fire landscapes. But while firefighters and wildlife carers have gone to inspiring lengths to protect plants and animals, we know little about how to help AM fungi recovery from the bushfires, or if help is even necessary.

Helping fungi help ecosystems

Research from last year showed reintroducing AM fungal communities (usually as an inoculant or biofertiliser) to degraded and disturbed landscapes can increase plant diversity by around 70%, encourage recovery of native plants, and suppress invasive weeds.

Fire tends to change what species of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi are present in the soil as ecosystems recovery.
Adam Frew via BioRender

Taking a similar approach and actively putting fungi back into fire-affected environments could ensure more rapid or more complete recovery of native vegetation, including the survival of endangered plant species threatened by the fires.

However, it’s important to consider which AM fungi are reintroduced. They should be species normally present in the local area, and suited to support recovering plant communities.




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So as climate change leads to more frequent and intense bushfires, could fungi form a fundamental component of fire recovery efforts? Maybe.

But there is so much we’re yet to learn about these ancient and complex relationships. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface.The Conversation

Adam Frew, Lecturer, University of Southern Queensland; Andy Le Brocque, Associate Professor, University of Southern Queensland; Dale Nimmo, Associate Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University; Eleonora Egidi, Researcher, Western Sydney University; Jodi Price, Senior Lecturer in Vegetation Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Leanne Greenwood, PhD candidate, Charles Sturt University

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

Scientists find burnt, starving koalas weeks after the bushfires



david Mariuz/AAP

Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast and Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast

The plight of koalas during the recent bushfire crisis made headlines here and abroad. But the emergency for our wildlife is not over. Koalas that survived the flames are now dying from starvation, dehydration, smoke inhalation and other hazards.

Over the past three weeks in one wildlife conservation property alone, our rescue team found koalas recently crushed under fire-damaged trees, and koalas with burnt paws after descending to the smouldering ground after the inferno had passed, hoping to change trees and find food. One of our most recent rescues was an orphaned, emaciated koala with all four paws burnt.

Koalas are also at risk of dying from infections associated with these injuries, or from the ongoing effects of smoke inhalation. Even uninjured koalas are struggling to find food in their burnt habitat and may soon starve.

There is still time to act to avoid losing more koalas. But we need the public’s help.

Romane Cristescu with a koala that survived the bushfires, but died afterwards.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

A critically urgent task

The fires in Australia’s southeast destroyed huge swathes of koala habitat in areas where they were already vulnerable – dehydrated and malnourished due to prolonged drought, climate change and land-clearing.

Adding to the pressures, an estimated 5,000 koalas died as a result of the recent fires in New South Wales alone – potentially two out of every three.

Our team at Detection Dogs for Conservation rescues, trains and deploys dogs to find wildlife that needs help.

Since November last year, we’ve deployed our dogs to fire grounds in NSW and Queensland almost every week, urgently searching for surviving koalas. One of our detection dogs, Bear, is trained to find the koala itself – not just koala scats, as our other dogs are.




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The International Fund for Animal Welfare (https://www.ifaw.org/uk/projects/koala-habitat-protection-with-detection-dogs-australia) helps coordinate our activities with local wildlife rescue groups and other koala conservationists.

After bushfires, a koala’s territory is often no longer able to sustain them due to lack of food – which for koalas also provides water – or lack of shelter. Without canopy cover, koalas simply overheat.

Finding koalas can be difficult. They camouflage well, they are quiet, and usually sit still. But dogs can smell what we can’t see, including koalas. These dogs, together with our drone equipped with a thermal camera, greatly increase koala detection rates.

Without canopy cover, koalas easily overheat in hot weather.
Ben Beaden/AAP

What we found

We believe most koalas that died in the fires were reduced to ashes, and so could not be counted among the dead. But since November, in 39 days of searches, we’ve found more than 40 injured, sick, dehydrated or starving koalas and, sadly, six dead ones.

We’ve also observed koalas returning to their favourite trees in their home ranges, only to find the canopies completely burnt. Others survived in a small unburnt patch but are now isolated and surrounded by vast tracts of inhospitable habitat.

Romane Cristescu with detection dog Bear. The program makes wildlife detection far more efficient.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

When we find live koalas in the fire grounds, we attempt to catch them and transport them to a local wildlife triage centre or koala “hospital” to be urgently assessed by veterinarians. Burns are obvious, but smoke inhalation is less so. Koalas in poor condition must stay in care until they’ve fully recovered.

In the past three weeks, we’ve made particularly tragic discoveries. In the Snowy Mountains, two koalas that survived the inferno had been crushed and killed under fire-damaged trees. We sighted one of these koalas three days in a row. The first two days, he was in trees he could not be safely rescued from. The third day, he was fatally crushed.

As recently as last week we found koalas suffering burns, predominantly on their paws. These animals would have continued to suffer severe pain trying to climb trees had we not rescued them. One of our last rescues was an 2kg orphaned koala with four burnt paws and the lowest possible body condition on the scale – emaciated.

We did expect to find koalas killed by the fires. But it was especially heartbreaking to find those that died afterwards. It’s hard then to not think, perhaps with more detection dogs and a bigger team, we might have saved them.




Read more:
To save koalas from fire, we need to start putting their genetic material on ice


We can do more

A full search-and-rescue team comprises Bear and his handler, a drone pilot and a koala-catching crew. These missions cost money. To date, our deployments have been entirely funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

We’ve established an online fundraiser to help pay for further rescue work. We are also learning from this year’s deployment how to be more efficient next year – including having the equipment, team and budget secured prior to the fire season, which we hope this fundraiser helps us achieve.

After the devastating fire season, rescuing and rehabilitating surviving koalas is critical. Koalas reproduce slowly. The more rescued and able to breed this year, the quicker the population will increase. And every koala we rescue comes with a specific genetic make-up; the genetic diversity we can preserve now will help the species cope with future challenges.The Conversation

Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast and Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

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

Sure, save furry animals after the bushfires – but our river creatures are suffering too


Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

The hellish summer of bushfires in southeast Australia triggered global concern for our iconic mammals. Donations flooded in from at home and around the world to help protect furry species.

But there’s a risk the government and public responses will not see the fish for the koalas.

Of the 113 priority fauna species identified by the federal government as worst impacted by bushfires, 61 (54%) are freshwater species that live in or around our inland rivers, such as fish, frogs, turtles and the iconic platypus.

These animals and ecosystems were already struggling due to prolonged drought and mismanagement of the Murray Darling Basin. Saving koalas and other mammals is of course important, but freshwater species should also be a priority for post-fire environmental programs.

A picture of devastation

The government’s priority species list includes three turtle species, 17 frogs, 22 crayfish, 17 fish and the platypus. Rounding out the list is an alpine stonefly, although many other invertebrates are also likely to be affected (as well as other species that depend on moist, streamside forest habitats).

Excluding tropical savannah, the recent bushfires burnt more than 7.7 million hectares in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. Rainforests and riparian (riverside) forests were extensively damaged along the Australian east coast and alps. These are normally moist environments, which are not adapted to fire.

Plant and animal species at the edge of waterways, in peat wetlands and in riverside forests are likely to have been burnt or killed by heat, such as crustaceans , lizards, and corroboree and mountain frogs in the alps and east coast rainforests.




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Fire almost wiped out rare species in the Australian Alps. Feral horses are finishing the job


Burnt riverside forests no longer shade the water, making water temperatures hotter and leading to increased evaporation that may stress surviving wildlife. The loss of vegetation cover also leaves prey exposed to predators.

Following recent rain, water flowing into rivers has washed ash into streams. This clogs fish gills and brings nutrients that drive algal blooms. Sediment washed into waterways fills in the gaps between rocks and holes in river beds – places where many species shelter and breed. For instance, the River Murray catchment’s last population of Macquarie perch was impacted as rain washed ash and sediment into Mannus Creek in southern NSW.

Fires tend to burn forests in patches, sometimes leaving refuges for land-based animals. However fire damage to waterways flows downstream, systematically degrading the habitat of aquatic animals by leaving little clean water to hide in.

Bushfire silt clogging the usually pristine Tambo river in the Victorian high country in January.
David Crosling/AAP

Long-term damage

The devastating impact of the fires in river environments may be long-lived.

When aquatic animals species are wiped out in particular rivers, they may not be able to recolonise from surviving populations in other unconnected rivers.

Some species will invariably now be closer to extinction. For example many key peat swamp habitats of the critically endangered northern corroboree frog have been burnt in the Bogong Peaks and Brindabella mountains of NSW and the ACT.




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The sweet relief of rain after bushfires threatens disaster for our rivers


And after fires, fast-growing young eucalyptus forests transpire much more water than older burnt trees. This may reduce inflows into streams for a century.

The recent bushfires followed several years of extreme drought across much of Australia. In the Murray-Darling Basin, these challenges were compounded by poor water management that contributed to dried-up rivers and mass fish deaths.

Water-sharing rules in the basin determine how much water is allocated to agriculture and the environment. Current water-sharing plans do not explicitly include allocations to manage losses due to climate change, and as the plans will only be updated once a decade, it is questionable whether they will be adjusted to sustain flows needed to conserve threatened species.

Much corroboree frog habitat was destroyed during the fires.
Melbourne Zoo

Here’s what to do

After the fires, government officials and scientists rescued a number of “insurance” populations of threatened aquatic animals such as turtle and fish species, and took them to captive breeding facilities, such as the stocky galaxias fish in the alps. We must ensure healthy habitat is available for these animals to re-establish viable populations when released.

In the short term, we must protect surviving and regenerating habitat. Government programs are off to a good start in promising to cull feral predators such as cats and foxes, as well as grazing animals such as pigs, deer and goats. The NSW and Victorian governments must also remove feral horses in the Australian Alps that are damaging the swamp habitats and streams.

Now so many infested riverside forests are accessible, it is a key time to control weed regrowth.




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In the medium term, we should expand programs to fence livestock out of waterways, install other watering points for these animals and revegetate stream banks.

Deep holes in rivers and streams with cool water are important refuges for aquatic animals, and ways to restore them should be investigated.

Impediments to fish migration, such as weirs, should be removed or fish “ladders” installed to aid fish movement. Aquatic species often won’t breed unless the water is the right temperature in the right season; to prevent the release of overly cold water from the bottom of dams, better water release structures should be installed.

Years of drought meant rivers and aquatic life were already vulnerable before the fires.
Dean Lewins/AAP

An opportunity for change

Successive governments have been asleep at the tiller when it comes to threatened aquatic animals. Official recovery plans for many fire-affected species have not been adequately funded or implemented.

In the Murray-Darling Basin for example, a native fish strategy was shelved in 2013 after the NSW government reportedly pulled funding.

The impending release of a new fish strategy, and other post-fire recovery actions, are an opportunity for governments to right past wrongs and ensure our precious freshwater species thrive into the future.The Conversation

Jamie Pittock, Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

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

B&Bs for birds and bees: transform your garden or balcony into a wildlife haven



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-NC

Judith Friedlander, University of Technology Sydney

Just like humans, animals like living near coastal plains and waterways. In fact, cities such as Sydney and Melbourne are “biodiversity hotspots” – boasting fresh water, varied topographies and relatively rich soil to sustain and nourish life.

Recent research showed urban areas can support a greater range of animals and insects than some bushland and rural habitat, if we revegetate with biodiversity in mind.




Read more:
How you can help – not harm – wild animals recovering from bushfires


Urban regeneration is especially important now, amid unfathomable estimates that more than one billion animals were killed in the recent bushfires. Even before the fires, we were in the middle of a mass extinction event in Australia and around the world.

Losing animals, especially pollinators such as bees, has huge implications for biodiversity and food supplies.

My team and I are creating a B&B Highway – a series of nest boxes, artificial hollows and pollinating plants – in Sydney and coastal urban areas of New South Wales. These essentially act as “bed and breakfasts” where creatures such as birds, bees, butterflies and bats can rest and recharge. Everyday Australians can also build a B&B in their own backyards or on balconies.

City living for climate refugees

I spoke to Charles Sturt University ecologist Dr Watson about the importance of protecting animals such as pollinators during the climate crisis. He said:

The current drought has devastated inland areas – anything that can move has cleared out, with many birds and other mobile animals retreating to the wetter, more temperate forests to the south and east.

So, when considering the wider impacts of these fires […] we need to include these climate refugees in our thinking.

Native birds like the white-winged triller have been spotted in urban areas.
Shutterstock

Many woodland birds such as honeyeaters and parrots have moved in droves to cities, including Sydney, over the last few years because of droughts and climate change, attracted to the rich variety of berries, fruits and seeds.

I also spoke to BirdLife Australia’s Holly Parsons, who said last year’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count recorded other inland birds – such as the white-winged triller, the crimson chat, pied honeyeater, rainforest pigeons and doves – outside their usual range, attracted to the richer food variety in coastal cities.




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What’s more, there have been increased sightings of powerful owls in Sydney and Melbourne, squirrel gliders in Albury, marbled geckos in Melbourne, and blue-tongue lizards in urban gardens across south-east Australia.

With so many birds and pollinators flocking to the cities, it’s important we support them with vegetated regions they can shelter in, such as through the B&B Highway we’re developing.

The B&B Highway: an urban restoration project

B&Bs on our “highway” are green sanctuaries, containing pollinating plants, water and shelters such as beehives and nesting boxes.




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We’re setting up B&Bs across New South Wales in schools and community centres, with plans to expand them in Melbourne, Brisbane and other major cities. In fact, by mid-2020, we’ll have 30 B&Bs located across five different Sydney municipalities, with more planned outside Sydney.

The NSW Department of Education is also developing an associated curriculum for primary and early high school students to engage them in ecosystem restoration.

One of the biodiversity havens the author developed to attract pollinators.
Author provided

If you have space in your garden, or even on a balcony, you can help too. Here’s how.

For birds

Find out what bird species live in your area and which are endangered using the Birdata directory. Then select plants native to your area – your local nursery can help you out here.

The type of plants will vary on whether your local birds feed on insects, nectar, seed, fruit or meat. Use the guide below.



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

More tips

Plant dense shrubs to allow smaller birds, such as the superb fairy-wren, to hide from predatory birds.

Order hollows and nesting boxes from La Trobe University to house birds, possums, gliders and bats.

Put out water for birds, insects and other animals. Bird baths should be elevated to enable escape from predators. Clean water stations and bowls regularly.

For native stingless bees

If you live on the eastern seaboard from Sydney northward, consider installing a native stingless beehive. They require very little maintenance, and no permits or special training.

These bees are perfect for garden pollination. Suppliers of bees and hives can be found online – sometimes you can even rescue an endangered hive.

A blue banded bee at a B&B rest stops in NSW.
Author provided

Also add bee-friendly plants – sting or no sting – to your garden, such as butterfly bush, bottlebrush, daisies, eucalyptus and angophora gum trees, grevillea, lavender, tea tree, honey myrtle and native rosemary.

For other insects

Wherever you are in Australia, you can buy or make your own insect hotel. There is no standard design, because our gardens host a wide range of native insects partial to different natural materials.

An insect hotel. Note the holes, at a variety of depths, drilled into the material.
Dietmar Rabich/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Building your insect hotel

Use recycled materials (wooden pallets, small wooden box or frames) or natural materials (wood, bamboo, sticks, straw, stones and clay).

Fill gaps in the structure with smaller materials, such as clay and bamboo.

In the wood, drill holes ranging from three to ten millimetres wide for insects to live in. Vary hole depths for different insects – but don’t drill all the way through. They shouldn’t be deeper than 30 centimetres.

Give your hotel a roof so it stays dry, and don’t use toxic paints or varnishes.

Place your insect hotel in a sheltered spot, with the opening facing the sun in cool climates, and facing the morning sun in warmer climates.

Apartment-dwellers can place their insect hotels on a balcony near pot plants. North-facing is often best, but make sure it’s sheltered from harsh afternoon sunshine and heavy rain.The Conversation

Judith Friedlander, Post-graduate Researcher, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

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

Logging is due to start in fire-ravaged forests this week. It’s the last thing our wildlife needs


David Lindenmayer, Australian National University and Doug Robinson, La Trobe University

New South Wales’ Forestry Corporation will this week start “selective timber harvesting” from two state forests ravaged by bushfire on the state’s south coast.

The state-owned company says the operations will be “strictly managed” and produce timber for power poles, bridges, flooring and decking.

Similarly, the Victorian government’s logging company VicForests recently celebrated the removal of sawlogs from burnt forests in East Gippsland.

VicForests says it did not cut down the trees – they were cut or pushed over by the army, firefighters or road crews because they blocked the rood or were dangerous. The company said it simply removed the logs to put them “to good use”.

However the science on the impacts of post-fire logging is clear: it can significantly impair the recovery of burned ecosystems, badly affect wildlife and, for some animal species, prevent recovery.

We acknowledge that for safety reasons, some standing and fallen burnt trees must be removed after a fire. But wherever possible, they should remain in place.

Damaging effects

Hollows in fire-damaged trees and logs provide critical habitat for animal species trying to survive in, or recolonise, burned forests.

Detailed studies around the world over the past 20 years, including in Australia, have demonstrated the damage caused by post-fire logging.

Indeed, the research shows post-fire logging is the most damaging form of logging. Logging large old trees after a fire may make the forests unsuitable habitat for many wildlife species for up to 200 years.




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Long-term monitoring data from extensive field surveys shows hollow-dependent mammals, such as the vulnerable greater glider, generally do not survive in areas burned and then logged. Research by the lead author, soon to be published, shows populations are declining rapidly in landscapes dominated by wood production.

Forests logged after a fire have the lowest bird biodiversity relative to other forests, including those that burned at high severity (but which remain unlogged). Critical plants such as tree ferns are all but eradicated from forests that have been burned and then logged.

Soils remain extensively altered for many decades after post-fire logging. This is a major concern because runoff into rivers and streams damages aquatic ecosystems and kills organisms such as fish.

A double disturbance

Fire badly disrupts forest ecosystems. Animals and plants then begin recovering, but most forests and the biota they support simply cannot deal with the second intense disturbance of logging so soon after a first one.

For example, young germinating plants are highly vulnerable to being flattened and destroyed by heavy logging machinery. And in an Australian context, post-fire logging makes no sense in the majority of eucalypt-dominated ecosystems where many tree species naturally resprout. This is an essential part of forest recovery.

Logs provide shade, moisture and shelter for plants, and rotting timber is food for insects – which in turn provide food for mammals and birds.




Read more:
Logged native forests mostly end up in landfill, not in buildings and furniture


Living and dead trees are also important for fungi — a food source for many animals, including bandicoots and potoroos which have been heavily impacted by the fires.

Similarly on burnt private land, removing damaged and fallen trees will only hinder natural recovery by removing important animal habitat and disturbing the soil. If left, fallen trees will provide refuge for surviving wildlife and enable the natural recovery of forests.

While the sight of burnt timber can be disheartening, landholders should resist the urge to “clean up”.

It doesn’t add up

Research in North America suggests debris such as tree heads, branches and other vegetation left by post-fire logging not only hinders forest regeneration, but can make forests more prone to fire.

And the economics of logging, particular after a fire, is dubious at best. Many native forest logging operations, such as in Victoria’s East Gippsland, are unprofitable, losing millions of taxpayer dollars annually.




Read more:
Yes, the Australian bush is recovering from bushfires – but it may never be the same


Timber is predominantly sold cheaply for use as woodchips and paper pulp and fire-damaged timber is of particularly poor quality. Even before the fires, 87% of all native forest logged in Victoria was for woodchips and paper pulp.

Post-fire logging certainly has no place in national parks. But for the reasons we’ve outlined, it should be avoided even in state forests and on private land. Million hectares of vegetation in Australia was damaged or destroyed this fire season. The last thing our forests need is yet more disturbance.


VicForests response: VicForests told The Conversation that timber currently being removed by VicForests, at the direction of the Chief Fire Officer, is from hazardous trees that were cut or knocked over to enable the Princes Highway to be re-opened.

It said the timber would be used for fence restoration, firewood and to support local mills “protecting jobs, incomes and families. It would otherwise be left in piles on the side of the highway”.

“Any further post-fire recovery harvesting will occur in consultation with government including biodiversity specialists and the conservation regulator, following careful assessment and protection of high conservation values,” VicForests said.

The company said post-fire recovery harvesting, particularly of fire-killed trees, does not increase fire risk.

“Sensitive harvesting including the retention of habitat trees and active re-seeding is more likely to result in a successfully regenerated forest and a supportive environment for threatened species. This regenerating forest will have the same fire risk as natural regeneration following bushfire.”


Forestry Corporation of NSW response: Forestry Corporation of NSW said in a statement that small-scale selective timber harvesting operation will begin on the south coast this week.

The company’s senior planning manager Dean Kearney said the Environment Protection Authority, with the input of scientific experts “has provided Forestry Corporation with site-specific conditions for selective timber harvesting operations in designated parts of Mogo and South Brooman State Forests. These areas were previously set aside for timber production this year but have now been impacted by fire.”

“Strictly-managed selective timber harvesting will help prevent the loss of some high-quality timber damaged by fire, including material that will be in high demand for rebuilding, while ensuring the right protections are in place for key environmental values, particularly wildlife habitat, as these forests begin regenerating,” he said.

“The harvesting conditions augment the already strict rule set in place for forest operations and include requirements to leave all unburnt forest untouched and establish even more stringent conditions to protect water quality, hollow-bearing trees and wildlife habitat.”The Conversation

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Doug Robinson, Honorary Visiting Fellow, Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, La Trobe University

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