Humans are changing fire patterns, and it’s threatening 4,403 species with extinction



The Leadbeater’s possum, one of thousands of species threatened by changing fire regimes.
Shutterstock

Luke Kelly, University of Melbourne; Annabel Smith, The University of Queensland; Katherine Giljohann, University of Melbourne, and Michael Clarke, La Trobe University

Last summer, many Australians were shocked to see fires sweep through the wet tropical rainforests of Queensland, where large and severe fires are almost unheard of. This is just one example of how human activities are changing fire patterns around the world, with huge consequences for wildlife.

In a major new paper published in Science, we reveal how changes in fire activity threaten more than 4,400 species across the globe with extinction. This includes 19% of birds, 16% of mammals, 17% of dragonflies and 19% of legumes that are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.




Read more:
Click through the tragic stories of 119 species still struggling after Black Summer in this interactive (and how to help)


But, we also highlight the emerging ways we can help promote biodiversity and stop extinctions in this new era of fire. It starts with understanding what’s causing these changes and what we can do to promote the “right” kind of fire.

How is fire activity changing?

Recent fires have burned ecosystems where wildfire has historically been rare or absent, from the tropical forests of Queensland, Southeast Asia and South America to the tundra of the Arctic Circle.

Exceptionally large and severe fires have also been observed in areas with a long history of fire. For example, the 12.6 million hectares that burnt in eastern Australia during last summer’s devastating bushfires was unprecedented in scale.

The post-fire landscape in Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island, three months after an extremely large and severe bushfire last summer.
Luke Kelly

This extreme event came at a time when fire seasons are getting longer, with more extreme wildfires predicted in forests and shrublands in Australia, southern Europe and western United States.

But fire activity isn’t increasing everywhere. Grasslands in countries such as Brazil, Tanzania, and the United States have had fire activity reduced.

Extinction risk in a fiery world

Fire enables many plants to complete their life cycles, creates habitats for a wide range of animals and maintains a diversity of ecosystems. Many species are adapted to particular patterns of fire, such as banksias — plants that release seeds into the resource-rich ash covering the ground after fire.

But changing how often fires occur and in what seasons can harm populations of species like these, and transform the ecosystems they rely on.

We reviewed data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and found that of the 29,304 land-based and freshwater species listed as threatened, modified fire regimes are a threat to more than 4,403.

Most are categorised as threatened by an increase in fire frequency or intensity.

For example, the endangered mallee emu-wren in semi-arid Australia is confined to isolated patches of habitat, which makes them vulnerable to large bushfires that can destroy entire local populations.

Likewise, the Kangaroo Island dunnart was listed as critically endangered before it lost 95% of its habitat in the devastating 2019-2020 bushfires.

Large bushfires threaten many birds, such as the mallee emu-wren.
Ron Knight/Wikimedia, CC BY

However, some species and ecosystems are threatened when fire doesn’t occur. Frequent fires are an important part of African savanna ecosystems and less fire activity can lead to shrub encroachment. This can displace wild herbivores such as wildebeest that prefer open areas.

How humans change fire regimes

There are three main ways humans are transforming fire activity: global climate change, land-use and the introduction of pest species.

Global climate change modifies fire regimes by changing fuels such as dry vegetation, ignitions such as lightning, and creating more extreme fire weather.

What’s more, climate-induced fires can occur before the dominant tree species are old enough to produce seed, and this is reshaping forests in Australia, Canada and the United States.

Humans also alter fire regimes through farming, forestry, urbanisation and by intentionally starting or suppressing fires.

Introduced species can also change fire activity and ecosystems. For example, in savanna landscapes of Northern Australia, invasive gamba grass increases flammability and fire frequency. And invasive animals, such as red foxes and feral cats, prey on native animals exposed in recently burnt areas.




Read more:
Fire-ravaged Kangaroo Island is teeming with feral cats. It’s bad news for this little marsupial


Importantly, cultural, social and economic changes underpin these drivers. In Australia, the displacement of Indigenous peoples and their nuanced and purposeful use of fire has been linked with extinctions of mammals and is transforming vegetation.

We need bolder conservation strategies

A suite of emerging actions — some established but receiving increasing attention, others new — could help us navigate this new fire era and save species from extinction. They include:

In Africa, reintroducing grazing animals such as rhinoceros create patchy fire regimes.
Sally Archibald, Author provided

Where to from here?

The input of scientists will be valuable in helping navigate big decisions about new and changing ecosystems.

Empirical data and models can monitor and forecast changes in biodiversity. For example, new modelling has allowed University of Melbourne researchers to identify alternative strategies for introducing planned or prescribed burning that reduces the risk of large bushfires to koalas.

New partnerships are also needed to meet the challenges ahead.

At the local and regional scale, Indigenous-led fire stewardship is an important approach for fostering relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations and communities around the world.

Frank Lake, a co-author on our new paper, works with Yurok and Karuk fire practitioners, shown here burning under oaks.
Frank Lake, U.S Department of Agriculture Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.

And international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming are crucial to reduce the risk of extreme fire events. With more extreme fire events ahead of us, learning to understand and adapt to changes in fire regimes has never been more important.




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


The Conversation


Luke Kelly, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Centenary Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Annabel Smith, Lecturer in Wildlife Management, The University of Queensland; Katherine Giljohann, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Melbourne, and Michael Clarke, Professor of Zoology, La Trobe University

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

3 billion animals were in the bushfires’ path. Here’s what the royal commission said (and should’ve said) about them


Ashleigh Best, University of Melbourne; Christine Parker, University of Melbourne, and Lee Godden, University of Melbourne

The Black Summer bushfires were devastating for wildlife, with an estimated three billion wild animals killed, injured or displaced. This staggering figure does not include the tens of thousands of farm animals who also perished.

The bushfire royal commission’s final report, released on October 30, recognised the gravity of the fires’ extraordinary toll on animals.




Read more:
Click through the tragic stories of 119 species still struggling after Black Summer in this interactive (and how to help)


It recommended governments improve wildlife rescue arrangements, develop better systems for understanding biodiversity and clarify evacuation options for domestic animals.

While these changes are welcome and necessary, they’re not sufficient. Minimising such catastrophic impacts on wildlife and livestock also means reducing their exposure to these hazards in the first place. And unless we develop more proactive strategies to protect threatened species from disasters, they’ll only become more imperilled.

What the royal commission recommended

The royal commission recognised the need for wildlife rescuers to have swift and safe access to fire grounds.

In the immediate aftermath of the bushfires, some emergency services personnel were confused about the roles and responsibilities of wildlife rescuers. This caused delays in rescue operations.

To address this issue, the royal commission sensibly suggested all state and territory governments integrate wildlife rescue functions into their general disaster planning frameworks. This would improve coordination between different response agencies.




Read more:
The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow


Another issue raised by the commission was that Australia does not have a comprehensive, central source of information about its native flora and fauna. This is, in part, because species listing processes are fragmented across different jurisdictions.

For example, a marsupial, the white-footed dunnart, is listed as vulnerable in NSW, but is not on the federal government’s list of threatened species.

To better manage and protect wild animals, governments need more complete information on, for example, their range and population, and how climate change threatens them.

As a result, the royal commission recommended governments collect and share more accurate information so disaster response and recovery efforts for wildlife could be more targeted, timely and effective.

A wildlife rescuer holds a koala with burnt feet in a burnt forest
Adelaide wildlife rescuer Simon Adamczyk takes a koala to safety on Kangaroo Island.
AAP Image/David Mariuz

Helping animals help themselves

While promising, the measures listed in the royal commission’s final report will only tweak a management system for wildlife already under stress. Current legal frameworks for protecting threatened species are reactive. By the time governments intervene, species have often already reached a turning point.

Governments must act to allow wild animals the best possible chances of escaping and recovering on their own.

This means prioritising the protection and restoration of habitat that allows animals to get to safety. As a World Wildlife Fund report explains, an animal’s ability to flee the fires and find safe, unburnt habitat — such as mesic (moist) refuges in gullies or near waterways — directly influenced their chances of survival.




Read more:
Summer bushfires: how are the plant and animal survivors 6 months on? We mapped their recovery


Wildlife corridors also assist wild animals to survive and recover from disasters. These connect areas of habitat, providing fast moving species with safe routes along which they can flee from hazards.

And these corridors help slow moving species, such as koalas, to move across affected landscapes after fires. This prevents them from becoming isolated, and enables access to food and water.

Hazard reduction activities, such as removing dry vegetation that fuels fires, were also a focus for the royal commission. These can coexist with habitat conservation when undertaken in ecologically-sensitive ways.

As the commission recognised, Indigenous land and fire management practices are informed by intimate knowledge of plants, animals and landscapes. These practices should be integrated into habitat protection policies in consultation with First Nations land managers.

The commission also suggested natural hazards, such as fire, be counted as a “key threatening process” under national environment law. But it should be further amended to protect vulnerable species under threat from future stressors, such as disasters.




Read more:
Let there be no doubt: blame for our failing environment laws lies squarely at the feet of government


Governments also need to provide more funding to monitor compliance with this law. Another new World Wildlife Fund report warns that unless it is properly enforced, a further 37 million native animals could be displaced or killed as a result of habitat destruction this decade.

And, as we saw last summer, single bushfire events can push some populations much closer to extinction. For example, the fires destroyed a large portion of the already endangered glossy black-cockatoo’s remaining habitat.

What about pets and farm animals?

Pets and farm animals featured in the commission’s recommendations too.

During the bushfires, certain evacuation centres didn’t cater for these animals. This meant some evacuees chose not to use these facilities because they couldn’t take their animals with them.

To guide the community in future disasters, the commission said plans should clearly identify whether or not evacuation centres can accommodate people with animals.




Read more:
Seven ways to protect your pets in an emergency


Evacuation planning is crucial to effective disaster response. However, it is unfortunately not always feasible to move large groups of livestock off properties at short notice.

For this reason, governments should help landholders to mitigate the risks hazards pose to their herds and flocks. Researchers are already starting to do this by investigating the parts of properties that were burnt during the bushfires. This will help farmers identify the safest paddocks for their animals in future fire seasons.

Disasters are only expected to become more intense and extreme as the climate changes. And if we’re to give our pets, livestock and unique wildlife the best chance at surviving, it’s not enough only to have sound disaster response. Governments must preemptively address the underlying sources of animals’ vulnerability to hazards.




Read more:
How we plan for animals in emergencies


The Conversation


Ashleigh Best, PhD Candidate and Teaching Fellow, University of Melbourne; Christine Parker, Professor of Law, University of Melbourne, and Lee Godden, Director, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

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

Frequent extreme bushfires are our new reality. We need to learn how to live with smoke-filled air



Shutterstock

Gabriel da Silva, University of Melbourne

As fires ravaged large sections of the Australian bush last summer, cities and towns all along the coast were blanketed in toxic smoke. Air pollutants were measured at unheard of levels across the country.

Hazardous air descended on cities hundreds of kilometres away from the fires themselves. This air was the most dangerous to breathe on the planet.




Read more:
The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow


The bushfire royal commission was tabled on October 30, with some sobering findings about fires and air pollution. Unfortunately, it showed that as a nation we were not prepared to deal with this public health emergency.

These disasters are inevitable under climate change, and while we need to urgently act on climate change to protect future generations, we also need to make changes now to mitigate the risks that already face us.

Australia must get better at communicating how to identify and then stay safe in hazardous air. A national set of air quality categories would go a long way to achieving this.

Over 400 deaths attributed to bushfire smoke

The royal commission heard that air pollution from the summer fires likely caused more than 400 deaths. Thousands of additional hospital admissions put added strain on our hospitals. All up the added burden to our health system was estimated at almost A$2 billion.

Even in the absence of extreme natural disasters, air pollution is one of Australia’s biggest public health concerns. Pollution from all sources causes thousands of deaths per year. This includes emissions from coal-fired power stations, diesel cars and wood-fired heaters.

Better preparing ourselves to deal with bushfire smoke will have flow-on benefits in tackling these problems.

Different state, different health advice

The royal commission found “there is an urgent need for national consistency in the categorisation of air quality”. At the moment, every state has their own system to categorise air quality and communicate it to the public.




Read more:
How does bushfire smoke affect our health? 6 things you need to know


But there are major discrepancies with how different states identify the worst air quality.

Air quality is the sum impact of the concentration of various unhealthy chemicals in the air. These include ozone, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and fine particulate matter. To communicate this to the public, most countries convert these chemical concentrations into an Air Quality Index (AQI).

In the US, there is a standardised AQI categorisation for the whole country.

In Australia, the situation is very different. Every state has its own bands, with their own colour codes. These bands trigger at different pollutant levels and carry different health advice. The Royal Commission told us this needs to be standardised, and now.

For example, in NSW the worst air quality category is “Hazardous”, which triggers at an AQI of 200. South Australia, however, only recognises “Very Poor” as the worst class of air quality, with an AQI of 150 and above.

During the summer bushfires, AQI values as high as 5,000 were measured. It’s clear the highest bands of air pollution are no longer appropriate.

We need a national air quality system

We have faced a similar problem before. After Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in 2009, we recognised that our fire danger ratings were inadequate.

The Black Saturday royal commission found we needed a higher category for the most dangerous fire conditions. The “Catastrophic” category (“CODE RED” in Victoria) was added. It carried clear advice about what to do in such dangerous conditions, instructing people to safely leave as early as possible.

Fire danger rating sign in front of a grass fire
The ‘CODE RED’ or ‘Catastrophic’ fire danger rating was added after the Black Saturday fires.
Shutterstock

Something similar now needs to happen with air quality ratings.

When facing future extreme bushfires, we need a way to identify when catastrophic conditions have led to air so unhealthy that everyone should take precautions, such as staying indoors and wearing masks. We then need to get clear health advice out to the public.




Read more:
Our buildings aren’t made to keep out bushfire smoke. Here’s what you can do


A national air quality rating system could achieve this, and would also help address other important recommendations of the Royal Commission: That we need improved means of getting reliable information out to the public, along with better community education around what to do when air quality plummets.

There’s work to do

An Australian AQI should be featured on national weather reports and forecasts, providing important health information to the public every day of the year. At the same time it would familiarise Australians with air quality measures and actions that need to be taken to protect ourselves from unhealthy air.

But there is work to do. First, we need to develop a new set of air quality categories that work for the entire country, and reflects both the everyday hazards of industrial pollution and the extreme dangers of bushfires. These categories also need to be matched with sound health advice.




Read more:
The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow


And if we are going to report these measures more widely then we also need to get better at measuring and predicting air quality across the nation — two other important royal commission recommendations.

Achieving all of this won’t be easy. But if we can get it right then we will be much better placed to deal with smoke risk the next time severe bushfires inevitably happen.The Conversation

Gabriel da Silva, Senior Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, University of Melbourne

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

Set up national air fleet to fight fires, says royal commission, warning of worsening weather



original.

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Australia should develop a national aerial fire fighting capability and fuel load management strategies should be more transparent, the inquiry set up following last summer’s devastating bushfires has recommended.

In its 80 recommendations, including many shared between federal and state governments, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements calls for a bigger federal role in dealing with disasters but stresses

there are compelling reasons for state and territory governments to continue to be responsible for disaster management.

The 2019-20 fires took 33 lives, nine of them firefighters including three Americans.

The recommendations are aimed at increasing national co-ordination to prepare better for natural disasters, respond more rapidly (including through the army), and ensure the recovery is focused on making communities more resilient.

Natural disasters have changed, and so must the management arrangements, the report says.

Extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable. Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise.

Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.

But the report does not make recommendations on climate change policy.

Calling for a “national” approach to natural disasters, the commission says this doesn’t mean the federal government taking over, but rather a “whole of nation” level of cooperation and effort.




Read more:
To reduce disasters, we must cut greenhouse emissions. So why isn’t the bushfire royal commission talking about this?


As part of playing a greater role, the federal government should be able to declare “a state of national emergency”.

A declaration should be the catalyst for a quicker, clearer and more pre-emptive mobilisation of federal resources but should not give the federal government power to determine how state resources are to be used, the report says.

While usually a state or territory would have asked for help, “in some limited circumstances” the federal government should be able to take action during a natural disaster, “whether or not a state has requested assistance”.

In the bushfire crisis, there was tension between the NSW and federal governments over the deployment of military personnel.

The commission’s recommendations on the controversial issue of fuel loads concentrate on questions of clarity.

Public land managers should clearly convey and make available to the public their fuel load management strategies, including the rationale behind them, as well as report annually on the implementation and outcomes of those strategies,“ the reports says.

It also says governments should review the assessment and approval processes on vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction to make it clear what landholders and land managers need to do and minimise the time taken for assessments and approvals.

On air capability, the report says all Australian governments should develop a “modest, Australian-based and registered, national aerial firefighting capability”. This would be made up of “more specialised platforms … to supplement the aerial firefighting capability of the states and territories”.




Read more:
The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow


After some anger at charities’ use of money donated for bushfire victims, the commission has said federal, state and territory governments should create a single national scheme for the regulation of charitable fundraising.

The Minister for Emergency Management David Littleproud said cabinet would consider the report next week.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.

The bushfire royal commission has made a clarion call for change. Now we need politics to follow



Shutterstock

David Bowman, University of Tasmania

The bushfire royal commission today handed down its long-awaited final report. At almost 1,000 pages, it will take us all some time to digest. But it marks the start of Australia’s national disaster adaptation journey after a horrendous summer.

The report clearly signals the urgent need to improve disaster management capacity in Australia. Closer examination of the report will determine if other recommendations are needed. But overall, this seems a realistic report that incorporates a diverse and complex body of evidence. And it arrives at recommendations likely to enjoy broad political, institutional and community support.

As the report states, the 2019-2020 bushfires were the catalyst for, but not the sole focus of, the inquiry. It also looked at floods, bushfires, earthquakes, storms, cyclones, storm surges, landslides and tsunamis.

The recommendations demonstrate the Royal Commission is serious about shifting the status quo when it comes to managing Australia’s natural disasters – events that will become more frequent and severe under climate change. What’s needed now is political will for change.

Wildlife rescuer saves a koala from a forest fire.
Australia endured its own bushfire disaster just months ago.
David Mariuz/AAP

A picture of devastation

The commission received evidence from more than 270 witnesses, almost 80,000 pages of tendered documents and more than 1,750 public submissions. It recaps the damage wrought, including:

  • more than 24 million hectares burnt nationally

  • 33 human deaths (and perhaps many more due to smoke haze over much of eastern Australia)

  • more than 3,000 homes destroyed

  • thousands of locals and holidaymakers trapped

  • communities isolated without power, communications, and ready access to essential goods and services

  • estimated national financial impacts over A$10 billion

  • nearly three billion animals killed or displaced

  • many threatened species and other ecological communities extensively harmed.

The report noted every state and territory suffered fire to some extent, adding “on some days, extreme conditions drove a fire behaviour that was impossible to control”.

A new role for national government

The scope of the commission’s recommendations is vast. For government, it would mean changes across land-use planning, infrastructure, emergency management, social policy, agriculture, education, physical and mental health, community development, energy and the environment.

Broad areas of recommended change include a clearer leadership role for the federal government and establishing a national natural disaster management agency. The report notes while state and territory governments have primary responsibility for emergency management, during the bushfire crisis the public “expected greater Australian Government action”.

Other recommendations include:

  • nationally consolidating aerial firefighting capacity

  • more capacity in local government

  • nationally consistent warnings including air pollution (especially bushfire smoke) forecasts

  • acknowledgement of the role of Indigenous fire managers in mitigating bushfire risks.

The commission says preparing for natural disasters “is not the sole domain of governments and agencies”. Individuals and communities must also ensure they’re prepared. As the commission notes:

While we heard that some individuals and communities were well prepared for the 2019-2020 bushfire season, this was not always the case. For other individuals and communities, although they did prepare, the intensity of the bushfires meant that no level of preparation would have been sufficient. For others, they were seemingly unprepared for what confronted them.

The inquiry said governments have a critical role to play here, by providing information on disaster risks through community education and engagement programs.

The climate question

During last summer’s bushfire crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was reluctant to draw links to climate change. And before the inquiry commenced, there was much doubt over whether it would adequately probe how climate change is contributing to natural disasters.

Significantly, the commission’s final report explicitly recognises climate change increases the risk and impact of natural disasters. It says global warming beyond the next 20 to 30 years “is largely dependent on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions”, but stops far short of calling for federal government action on emissions reduction.

The report says extreme weather “has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable”. It goes on:

Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.

Among its recommendations, the report calls for improved national climate and weather intelligence to support governments to implement, assess and review their disaster management and climate adaptation strategies.

Now’s the time to act

The commission acknowledged most of its recommendations identify what needs to be done, rather than how it should be done.

The commission also says while governments and others have backed the notion of improving natural disaster resilience, “support is one thing – action is another”. And the time to act, the report says, is now.

This is a key point. As noted by the report, more than 240 inquiries about natural disasters have been held in Australia to date. Many would have been time-consuming and expensive. And while many recommendations have been implemented and have led to significant improvements, the report said, “others have not”.




Read more:
New polling shows 79% of Aussies care about climate change. So why doesn’t the government listen?


So will this royal commission lead to substantive change? The inquiry suggests this will require that governments “commit to action and cooperate and hold each other to account”. Further, progress towards implementing the recommendations should be publicly monitored.

Fundamentally, political appetite will determine whether the royal commission’s recommendations ever become reality. There is much work to be done by governments and others to iron out the legal, administrative, social and practical complexities of changing the status quo. And the Morrison government has given next to no indication it’s willing to seriously tackle the problem of climate change.

Ultimately, these findings are small steps towards achieving natural disaster reliance. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this report can be read not as the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning of the long road to climate change adaptation.The Conversation

David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

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

Australians recorded frog calls on their smartphones after the bushfires – and the results are remarkable



Jodi Rowley

Jodi Rowley, Australian Museum and Will Cornwell, UNSW

Frogs are one of the most threatened groups of animals on Earth. At least four of Australia’s 240 known frog species are extinct and 36 are nationally threatened. After last summer’s bushfires, we needed rapid information to determine which frogs required our help.

This was a challenging task. The fire zone ranged from southern Queensland through New South Wales and Victoria, to Kangaroo Island off South Australia. The area was too large for scientists alone to survey, especially with COVID-19 travel restrictions.

But all was not lost. Thousands of everyday citizens across the fire zone, armed with their mobile phones, began monitoring their local frogs through an app called FrogID.

In research published today, we reveal how 45 frog species, some rare and threatened, were recorded calling after the fires. This has allowed us to collate a snapshot of where frog species are surviving – at least for now.

A hand holds a mobile phone displaying the FrogID app.
The FrogID app means anyone can help monitor frog numbers.
Jodi Rowley

Good news for a change

In late 2019 and early 2020, more than 17 million hectares of forest burned in Australia. By size, it was the largest fire season in southeastern Australia since European occupation.

Scientists knew the damage to many plant and animal species was likely to be dramatic, particularly for species already in trouble. Many of Australia’s frog species are already vulnerable, due to pressures such as disease and habitat loss. There was a very real risk the fires had pushed many frog species closer to extinction. However, information on how frogs respond to fires has historically been limited.




Read more:
A few months ago, science gave this rare lizard a name – and it may already be headed for extinction


FrogID is a free app downloaded to smart phones. Led by the Australian Museum, the project allows anyone to record a frog call and upload it. The FrogID team then identifies the species by its call, to create a national frog database.

Since the app launched in November 2017, more than 13,000 citizen scientists have recorded the calls of about 220,000 frogs across Australia. Before last summer’s fires, app users had submitted 2,655 recordings of 66 frog species in what would later become fire zones. This gave us a remarkable understanding of the frogs present before the fires.

Burnt bushland
In some places, the fires burnt so intensely it was hard to imagine any wildlife survived.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Within four months of the fires, app users submitted 632 recordings. These confirmed the existence of 45 of the 66 frog species known to live in the fire zones. Hearteningly, all 33 summer-breeding frog species recorded before the fires were also detected afterwards. In other words, there were no obviously “missing” frog species.

The frog species recorded most frequently in burnt areas were common, broadly distributed species of low conservation concern. These include the common eastern froglet (Crinia signifera) and striped marsh frog (Limnodynastes peronii).

However, rare and threatened species were also recorded in fire-damaged areas. These included:

  • the vulnerable southern barred frog (Mixophyes balbus), which lives in patches of forest along the NSW east coast. The species was recorded ten times after the fires in northern NSW

  • the mountain frog (Philoria kundagungan), endangered in NSW and known only from the headwaters of streams in a few pockets of rainforest in far northern NSW and southern Queensland. It is rarely encountered but was recorded once after the fires

  • the endangered giant barred frog (Mixophyes iteratus), found in forest from southeast Queensland to central NSW. It was recorded twice after the fires.

There was no clear trend in the ecological group or lifestyle of species that were detected post-fire. Burrowing frogs, tree frogs and ground-dwelling frogs were all detected, as were stream, pond, and land-breeding species.

Frog hides in burnt leaf litter
In many places, frogs survived the inferno against the odds.
Jodi Rowley

A powerful tool

The FrogID records are good news. They show some species have survived in the short term, and male frogs are calling to attract female frogs to mate with.

But there is still much we don’t know about the fate of these frogs. For example, many frogs species in southeastern Australia don’t call in the cooler months, so we don’t yet have a clear picture of how these species have fared over winter.

The frogs’ longer-term prospects also remain uncertain. Fire damage varies dramatically from place to place, and the survival of a frog species in one burnt area does not guarantee its survival in another. We remain worried about species with small geographic ranges, especially rainforest species more sensitive to fire.




Read more:
A deadly fungus threatens to wipe out 100 frog species – here’s how it can be stopped


We urgently need more information on how last summer’s fires affected Australia’s frogs. This is particularly important given the more frequent and severe fires predicted under climate change, combined with all the other threats frogs face.

Traditional biodiversity surveys by professionals will be needed. This is especially true for frog species of high conservation concern at remote or inaccessible sites, for which the FrogID app has little or no data.

But continued data collection by citizen scientists, through projects such as FrogID, will remain powerful tools. They allow information to be gathered quickly and at scale. This raises the chances that species suffering most after a catastrophic event might get the help they need.The Conversation

Jodi Rowley, Curator, Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology, Australian Museum and Will Cornwell, Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolution, UNSW

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

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.




Read more:
Value beyond money: Australia’s special dependence on volunteer firefighters


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.




Read more:
As bushfires intensify, we need to acknowledge the strain on our volunteers


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.




Read more:
Summer bushfires: how are the plant and animal survivors 6 months on? We mapped their recovery


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.

Andrew Forrest’s high-tech plan to extinguish bushfires within an hour is as challenging as it sounds



Warren Frey/AAP

James Jin Kang, Edith Cowan University

The philanthropic foundation of mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has unveiled a plan to transform how Australia responds to bushfires.

The Fire Shield project aims to use emerging technologies to rapidly find and extinguish bushfires. The goal is to be able to put out any dangerous blaze within an hour by 2025.

Some of the proposed technology includes drones and aerial surveillance robots, autonomous fire-fighting vehicles and on-the-ground remote sensors. If successful, the plan could alleviate the devastating impact of bushfires Australians face each year.

But while bushfire behaviour is an extensively studied science, it’s not an exact one. Fires are subject to a wide range of variables including local weather conditions, atmospheric pressure and composition, and the geographical layout of an area.

There are also human factors, such as how quickly and effectively front-line workers can respond, as well as the issue of arson.




Read more:
Humans light 85% of bushfires, and we do virtually nothing to stop it


A plan for rapid bushfire detection

The appeal of the Fire Shield plan is in its proposal to use emerging fields of computer science to fight bushfires, especially AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) network.

While we don’t currently have details on how the Fire Shield plan will be carried out, the use of an IoT bushfire monitoring network seems like the most viable option.

The IoT network is made of many wireless connected devices. Deploying IoT devices with sensors in remote areas could allow the monitoring of changes in soil temperature, air temperature, weather conditions, moisture and humidity, wind speed, wind direction and forest density.

The sensors could also help pinpoint a fire’s location, predict where it will spread and also where it most likely started. This insight would greatly help with the early evacuation of vulnerable communities.

Data collected could be quickly processed and analysed using machine learning. This branch of AI provides intelligent analysis much quicker than traditional computing, or human reckoning.

Water bomber puts out a blaze from the sky.
Water bomber helicopters were used in NSW earlier this year as almost 150 bushfires burnt across the state at one point.
Bianca De Marchi/AAP

A more reliable network

A wireless low power wide area network (LPWAN) would be the best option for implementing the required infrastructure for the proposal. LPWAN uses sensor devices with batteries lasting up to 15 years.

And although a LPWAN only allows limited coverage (10-40km) in rural areas, a network with more coverage would need batteries that have to be replaced more often — making the entire system less reliable.

In the event of sensors being destroyed by fire, neighbouring sensors can send this information back to the server to build a sensor “availability and location map”. With this map, tracking destroyed sensors would also help track a bushfire’s movement.

Dealing with logistics

While it’s possible, the practicalities of deploying sensors for a remote bushfire monitoring network make the plan hugely challenging. The areas to cover would be vast, with varying terrain and environmental conditions.

Sensor devices could potentially be deployed by aircrafts across a region. On-ground distribution by people would be another option, but a more expensive one.

However, the latter option would have to be used to distribute larger gateway devices. These act as the bridge between the other sensors on ground and the server in the cloud hosting the data.

Gateway devices have more hardware and need to be set up by a person when first installed. They play a key role in LPWAN networks and must be placed carefully. After being placed, IoT devices require regular monitoring and calibration to ensure the information being relayed to the server is accurate.

Weather and environmental factors (such as storms or floods) have the potential to destroy the sensors. There’s also the risk of human interference, as well as legal considerations around deploying sensors on privately owned land.




Read more:
There’s only one way to make bushfires less powerful: take out the stuff that burns


Unpredictable interruptions

While statisticians can provide insight into the likelihood of a bushfire starting at a particular location, bushfires remain inherently hard to predict.

Any sensor network will be counter-acted by unpredictable environmental conditions and technological issues such as interrupted network signals. And such disruptions could lead to delays in important information reaching authorities.

Potential solutions for this include using satellite services in conjunction with an LPWAN network, or balloon networks (such as Google’s project Loon) which can provide better internet connectivity in remote areas.

But even once the sensors can be used to identify and track bushfires, putting a blaze out is another challenge entirely. The Fire Shield plan’s vision “to detect, monitor and extinguish dangerous blazes within an hour anywhere in Australia” will face challenges on several fronts.

It may be relatively simple to predict hurdles in getting the technology set up. But once a bushfire is detected, it’s less clear as to what course of action could possible extinguish it within the hour. In some very remote areas, aerial firefighting (such as with water bombers) may be the only option.

That begs the next question: how can we have enough aircrafts and controllers ready to be dispatched to a remote place at a moment’s notice? Considering the logistics, it won’t be easy.The Conversation

James Jin Kang, Lecturer, Computing and Security, Edith Cowan University

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

How bushfires and rain turned our waterways into ‘cake mix’, and what we can do about it



The Murray River at Gadds Reserve in north east Victoria after Black Summer bushfires.
Paul McInerney, Author provided

Paul McInerney, CSIRO; Anu Kumar, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, CSIRO; Klaus Joehnk, CSIRO, and Tapas Kumar Biswas, CSIRO

As the world watched the Black Summer bushfires in horror, we warned that when it did finally rain, our aquatic ecosystems would be devastated.

Following bushfires, rainfall can wash huge volumes of ash and debris from burnt vegetation and exposed soil into rivers. Fires can also lead to soil “hydrophobia”, where soil refuses to absorb water, which can generate more runoff at higher intensity. Ash and contaminants from the fire, including toxic metals, carbon and fire retardants, can also threaten biodiversity in streams.




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


As expected, when heavy rains eventually extinguished many fires, it turned high quality water in our rivers to sludge with the consistency of cake mix.

In the weeks following the first rains, we sampled from these rivers. This is what we saw.

Sampling the upper Murray River

Of particular concern was the upper Murray River on the border between Victoria and NSW, which is critical for water supply. There, the bushfires were particularly intense.

Sludge in Horse Creek near Jingellic following storm activity after the fire.
Paul McInerney/Author Provided

When long-awaited rain eventually came to the upper Murray River catchment, it was in the form of large localised storms. Tonnes of ash, sediment and debris were washed into creeks and the Murray River. Steep terrain within burnt regions of the upper Murray catchment generated a large volume of fast flowing runoff that carried with it sediment and pollutants.

We collected water samples in the upper Murray River in January and February 2020 to assess impacts to riverine plants and animals.

Our water samples were up to 30 times more turbid (cloudy) than normal, with total suspended solids as high as 765 milligrams per litre. Heavy metals such as zinc, arsenic, chromium, nickel, copper and lead were recorded in concentrations well above guideline values for healthy waterways.

Ash and sediment blanketing cobbles in the Murray River.
Paul McInerney/Author Provided

We took the water collected from the Murray River to the laboratory, where we conducted a number of toxicological experiments on duckweed (a floating water plant), water fleas (small aquatic invertebrates) and juvenile freshwater snails.

What we found

During a seven-day exposure to the bushfire affected river water, the growth rate of duckweed was reduced by 30-60%.

The water fleas ingested large amounts of suspended sediments when they were exposed to the affected water for 48 hours. Following the exposure, water flea reproduction was significantly impaired.

And freshwater snail egg sacs were smothered. The ash resulted in complete deaths of snail larvae after 14 days.




Read more:
Before and after: see how bushfire and rain turned the Macquarie perch’s home to sludge


These sad impacts to growth, reproduction and death rates were primarily a result of the combined effects of the ash and contaminants, according to our preliminary investigations.

But they can have longer-term knock-on effects to larger animals like birds and fish that rely on biota like snail eggs, water fleas and duckweed for food.

What happened to the fish?

Immediately following the first pulse of sediment, dead fish (mostly introduced European carp and native Murray Cod) were observed on the bank of River Murray at Burrowye Reserve, Victoria. But what, exactly, was their cause of death?

A dead Murray Cod found on the banks of the Murray River following storms after the bushfires.
Paul McInerney/Author Provided

Our first assumption was that they died from a lack of oxygen in the water. This is because ash and nutrients combined with high summer water temperatures can trigger increased activity of microbes, such as bacteria.

This, in turn can deplete the dissolved oxygen concentration in the water (also known as hypoxia) as the microbes consume oxygen. And wide-spread hypoxia can lead to large scale fish kills.




Read more:
Click through the tragic stories of 119 species still struggling after Black Summer in this interactive (and how to help)


But to our surprise, although dissolved oxygen in the Murray River was lower than usual, we did not record it at levels low enough for hypoxia. Instead, we saw the dead fish had large quantities of sediment trapped in their gills. The fish deaths were also quite localised.

In this case, we think fish death was simply caused by the extremely high sediment and ash load in the river that physically clogged their gills, not a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water.

These findings are not unusual, and following the 2003 bushfires in Victoria fish kills were attributed to a combination of low dissolved oxygen and high turbidity.

So how can we prepare for future bushfires?

Preventing sediment being washed into rivers following fires is difficult. Installing sediment barriers and other erosion control measures can protect specific areas. However, at the catchment scale, a more holistic approach is required.




Read more:
The NSW bushfire inquiry found property loss is ‘inevitable’. We must stop building homes in such fire-prone areas


One way is to increase efforts to re-vegetate stream banks (called riparian zones) to help buffer the runoff. A step further is to consider re-vegetating these zones with native plants that don’t burn easily, such as Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylin).

Streams known to host rare or endangered aquatic species should form the focus of any fire preparation activities. Some species exist only in highly localised areas, such as the endangered native barred galaxias (Galaxias fuscus) in central Victoria. This means an extreme fire event there can lead to the extinction of the whole species.

Ash and dead fish on the banks of the Murray River near Jingellic following Black Summer fires.
Paul McInerney/Author Provided

That’s why reintroducing endangered species to their former ranges in multiple catchments to broaden their distribution is important.

Increasing the connectivity within our streams would also allow animals like fish to evade poor water quality — dams and weirs can prevent this. The removal of such barriers, or installing “fish-ways” may be important to protecting fish populations from bushfire impacts.

However, dams can also be used to benefit animal and plant life (biota). When sediment is washed into large rivers, as we saw in the Murray River after the Black Summer fires, the release of good quality water from dams can be used to dilute poor quality water washed in from fire affected tributaries.




Read more:
California is on fire. From across the Pacific, Australians watch on and buckle up


Citizen scientists can help, too. It can be difficult for researchers to monitor aquatic ecosystems during and immediately following bushfires and unmanned monitoring stations are often damaged or destroyed.

CSIRO is working closely with state authorities and the public to improve citizen science apps such as EyeOnWater to collect water quality data. With more eyes in more areas, these data can improve our understanding of aquatic ecosystem responses to fire and to inform strategic planning for future fires.

These are some simple first steps that can be taken now.

Recent investment in bushfire research has largely centred on how the previous fires have influenced species’ distribution and health. But if we want to avoid wildlife catastrophes, we must also look forward to the mitigation of future bushfire impacts.The Conversation

Paul McInerney, Research scientist, CSIRO; Anu Kumar, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Gavin Rees, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Klaus Joehnk, Principal research scientist, CSIRO, and Tapas Kumar Biswas, Senior scientist, CSIRO

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

To reduce disasters, we must cut greenhouse emissions. So why isn’t the bushfire royal commission talking about this?



Shutterstock

Robert Glasser, Australian National University

With next fire season already underway,
the bushfire royal commission yesterday released an interim report.

Its observations in the wake of our Black Summer suggest the commission’s final report, due on October 28, may recommend a major shake-up of how disaster management is governed at the federal level. This includes setting up a national body focused on recovery from and resilience to future disasters.

Most initial observations are uncontroversial and sensible, but there is a glaring omission. It involves the most urgent measure to reduce the risk of future disasters: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In my former role as the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, I saw first-hand the impacts of natural disasters, and nations’ efforts to build their climate change resilience. The royal commission process is a unique opportunity to accelerate progress in these areas, which are so critical for Australia’s future.

What’s in the report?

In February, the royal commission was tasked with finding ways to improve disaster management in three main areas:

  1. how the federal government coordinates with other levels of government
  2. resilience to climate change and mitigating disaster risk
  3. the laws governing the federal government response to national emergencies.

The initial observations touch on each of these areas. This includes the need to collate, harmonise and share disaster data across jurisdictions; enhance research in climate and disaster resilience; reassess aerial firefighting capabilities; and plan more effectively around critical infrastructure.

It’s also worth noting the royal commission hasn’t yet formed a view on a key change Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested was necessary in the wake of the bushfires: establishing the legal authority for the federal government to declare a national state of emergency. Currently, only state and territory governments have this power.




Read more:
Explainer: what is a ‘state of disaster’ and what powers does it confer?


And controversially, the commission suggests the long-standing role of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) should be transferred to a federal government agency.

AFAC is a non-government organisation that facilitates the deployment of emergency personnel and equipment interstate and internationally. But the states and territories may not be willing to relinquish the engagement they have under the current arrangements.

A bushfire danger rating sign, pointing to 'extreme'
The royal commission also reported that many people said terms like ‘watch and act’ were confusing.
Shutterstock

Most importantly, the royal commission is considering consolidating disaster recovery and resilience functions in a new national body.

These functions reside in at least three agencies. They include Emergency Management Australia, the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, and the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency.

Consolidation makes good sense as the recovery phase from disasters can contribute to strengthening resilience.

It’s also sensible to separate the resilience function from the disaster response function, currently led by Emergency Management Australia. In my experience, resilience work rarely gets the whole-of-government attention it deserves when it’s embedded in agencies focused around responding to emergencies.

Three months of disasters

After the devastation Black Summer wrought, it’s clear resilience to future disasters must start with action on climate change. So it’s disappointing the royal commission has not yet commented on the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible.

Although COVID-19 has masked our awareness of the rapidly increasing climate threat, the evidence — even over just the past three months — is overwhelming.

In June, the record was set for the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic. The associated unprecedented heatwave in Siberia contributed to massive bushfires razing an astonishing 20 million hectares.

While Siberia burned, severe floods devastated South Asia, China and Japan. One-third of Bangladesh was underwater, affecting almost 15 million people.

Two boys use a rubber tube to float in a flooded street in Bangladesh
Catastrophic floods in Bangladesh were among many disasters that occurred in the last three months.
EPA/Monirul Alam

In China the figure was 63 million, with daily rainfall records set across the country. China’s Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam, the world’s biggest, received the largest inflow of water in its history, prompting fears last week the dam would be breached.




Read more:
Summer bushfires: how are the plant and animal survivors 6 months on? We mapped their recovery


In southern Japan, record-setting rains that dumped 1,000 millimetres of water in just three days forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Then, earlier this month, deadly fires erupted across California, exacerbated by persistent drought and record-setting temperatures. In just five days, the fires burned more land in the state than was destroyed in all of 2019.

We can’t ignore climate change

While it’s difficult to scientifically demonstrate that climate change “causes” any one disaster, the general direction is crystal clear. As the climate continues to warm, the frequency and severity of these events will increase.




Read more:
California is on fire. From across the Pacific, Australians watch on and buckle up


We’re already seeing worrying signs of this in Queensland, our most hazard-prone state. Over the past three years, 53 of Queensland’s 77 local government areas have endured three or more major disasters. And 71 out of 77 local government areas have experienced two or more such events.

These communities are increasingly in the unsustainable situation of chronically recovering from disasters.

The prime minister has argued “Australia, on its own, cannot control the world’s climate, as Australia accounts for just 1.3% of global emissions”.

But because we’re disproportionately vulnerable to the threats of climate change, it’s imperative we convince other nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Our international advocacy will only be credible if we strengthen our own ambition to mitigate climate change. And as the government prepares to submit its updated targets under the Paris Climate Agreement, a recommendation to reduce emissions from the royal commission would be appropriate and extremely useful.The Conversation

Robert Glasser, Visiting Fellow, Australian National University

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