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




Amanda Davies, University of Western Australia

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

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

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

Volunteer saturation in rural Australia

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

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




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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.




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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.




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

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

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

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

Amanda Davies, Professor, University of Western Australia

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

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.




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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.




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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:
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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.




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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.




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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.




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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.




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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.




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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:
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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.




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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.

From Kangaroo Island to Mallacoota, citizen scientists proved vital to Australia’s bushfire recovery


Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist and Erin Roger, CSIRO

Following the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, many people throughout Australia, and across the world, wanted to know how they could help in response to the environmental disaster.

Hundreds contacted the Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA), Australia’s peak citizen science body, for guidance on how to participate in relevant scientific projects.

It was a golden opportunity to show that science can be, and is, done by all kinds of people – not just those working in labs with years of training and access to high-powered instruments. A scientist can be you, your children or your parents.

And this recognition led to the establishment of the Citizen Science Bushfire Project Finder, a key outcome from the bushfire science roundtable, which was convened in January by Federal Science Minister Karen Andrews.

To establish the project finder database, ACSA partnered with the CSIRO and the Atlas of Living Australia to assist the search for vetted projects that could contribute to our understanding of post-bushfire recovery.

Five months on, the value is evident.

Science as a way of thinking

In response to the bushfires, one citizen science project set up was the Kangaroo Island Dunnart Survey. A record number of citizen scientists answered the call to assist in recovery efforts for this small marsupial.

The Kangaroo Island dunnart was already listed as endangered before the fires, with population estimates between 300-500 individuals. And initial post-fire assessments indicated a significant further decline in its population, highlighting the importance of tracking the species’ recovery.

Meanwhile, nearly 1,500 kilometres away from Kangaroo Island, a local resident set up “Mallacoota After Fires” in the small community of Mallacoota, Victoria – a region hit hard by the bushfires.

This has enabled the community to record and validate (via an app and website) how the fires impacted the region’s plants and animals.

So far, the project has documented the existence of a range of flora and fauna, from common wombats to the vulnerable green and golden bell frog. It has also captured some amazing images of bush regeneration after fire.

Science does not just belong to professionals. As eminent US astronomer Carl Sagan noted, “science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”.

This suggests that, when properly enabled, anyone can actively participate. And the output goes beyond the rewards of personal involvement. It contributes to better science.




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The need for ongoing engagement

Citizen science is significantly contributing observations and expertise to bushfire research. Across southeast New South Wales and the ACT, several hundred citizen scientists have:

  • conducted targeted landscape-wide surveys of threatened species, or new weed or pest incursions
  • collected specified data from plot locations stratified against fire history
  • assessed whether wildlife actually use water and feed stations established by communities after a fire has been through. (Data suggests the use of the stations is limited).

And it’s not just in local communities. Platforms such as DigiVol have enabled citizen scientists from around the world to review thousands of camera trap images deployed post-fire to monitor species survival and recovery.

Still, there is much more to do. Australia is a vast continent and as we saw last summer, the fire footprint is immense.

But there is also a huge community out there that can help support the implementation of science and technology, as we adapt to our changing climate.

Reaching out at the right time

In January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked the CSIRO, supported by an expert advisory panel chaired by one of us (Alan Finkel), to develop recommendations for practical measures that would increase Australia’s disaster and climate resilience.

The report on Climate and Disaster Resilience gives due emphasis to the importance of citizen science in complementing traditional research-led monitoring campaigns and sharing locally specific advice. One component of the response also brought together national stakeholders, to develop a series of more detailed recommendations regarding the critical role of citizen science.

Citizen scientists can be involved in important data collection and knowledge building. They can collaborate with disaster response agencies and research agencies, to develop additional science-based community education and training programs.

Also, citizen science is a way to collect distributed data beyond the affordability and resources of conventional science.

With that in mind, the task now is to better marry the “professional” scientific effort with the citizen science effort, to truly harness the potential of citizen science. In doing so, we can ensure environmental and societal approaches to disaster recovery represent a diversity of voices.

The role of the community, particularly in developing resilience against environmental disaster, can be a most useful mechanism for empowering people who may otherwise feel at a loss from the impact of disaster. Furthermore, by working with communities directly affected by bushfires, we can help measure the extent of the impact.

We call on our professional scientist colleagues to actively collaborate with citizen science groups. In doing so, we can identify priority areas with critical data needs, while also informing, enriching and engaging with diverse communities in science.

Equally, we encourage citizen scientists to share and tell their stories across social and political settings to demonstrate the impact they continue to have.

The beneficiary will be science.




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The Conversation


Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist and Erin Roger, Citizen Science Program Lead, CSIRO

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

Under climate change, winter will be the best time for bush burn-offs – and that could be bad news for public health


Giovanni Di Virgilio, UNSW; Annette Hirsch, UNSW; Hamish Clarke, University of Wollongong; Jason Evans, UNSW; Jason Sharples, UNSW, and Melissa Hart, UNSW

At the height of last summer’s fires, some commentators claimed “greenies” were preventing hazard reduction burns – also known as prescribed burns – in cooler months. They argued that such burns would have reduced the bushfire intensity.

Fire experts repeatedly dismissed these claims. As then NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons noted in January this year, the number of available days to carry out prescribed burns had reduced because climate change was altering the weather and causing longer fire seasons.




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This public conversation led our research team to ask: if climate change continues at its current rate, how will this change the days suitable for prescribed burning?

Our results, published today, were unexpected. Climate change may actually increase the number of burn days in some places, but the windows of opportunity will shift towards winter months. The bad news is that burning during these months potentially increases the public health impacts of smoke.

A hot debate

Hazard reduction involves removing vegetation that could otherwise fuel a fire, including burning under controlled conditions. But its effectiveness to subdue or prevent fires is often debated in the scientific community.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons weighs in on a national debate about hazard-reduction burns.

Those with experience on fire grounds, including Fitzsimmons, say it’s an important factor in fire management, but “not a pancea”.

Despite the debate, it’s clear hazard reduction burning will continue to be an important part of bushfire risk management in coming decades.




Read more:
The burn legacy: why the science on hazard reduction is contested


Modelling future weather

Before conducting prescribed burns, firefighting agencies consider factors such as vegetation type, proximity to property, desired rate of spread and possible smoke dispersal over populated areas. But we wanted to distil our investigation down to daily weather factors.

We reduced those factors to five key components. These were maximum temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, fuel moisture and the McArthur forest fire danger index (the index used to forecast fire danger in southeast Australia).

We looked at these elements on prescribed burning days between 2004-2015. We then used climate models to simulate how the conditions would change with global warming over southeast Australia, relative to a baseline historical 20-year period for 1990-2009.

To make a valid 20-year comparison, we compared the historical period to a modelled period from 2060-2079, assuming emissions continue to rise at their current pace.

A controlled burn in bushland, with small flames and lots of smoke.
Under global warming, suitable conditions for prescribed burns will be shifted to late winter and early spring in many places.
Shutterstock

Surprisingly, we found, with one regional exception, the number of days suitable for prescribed burning did not change. And in many places, the number increased.

As the fire season lengthened under a warming climate, the number of days suitable for burning just shifted from autumn to winter.

Shifting seasons

Our research indicated that by 2060 there’ll be fewer prescribed burning days during March, April and May. These are the months when most burning happens now.

But there will be significantly more opportunities for burning days from June to October. This is because the conditions that make for a good day for prescribed burning – such as mild and still days – start to shift to winter. Today, weather in these months is unsuitable for conducting burns.

Interestingly, these results aren’t uniform across southeast Australia. For example, much of the Australian east coast and South Australia would see seasonal shifts in burning windows, with around 50% fewer burning days in March to May.

Much of Victoria and in particular the southern regions saw an increase in burning windows during April to May and, in some parts of the state, through September and October as well.

Only the east Queensland coast would see a total reduction in prescribed burn days from April to October.

The smoke trap

This may be good news for firefighters and those agencies who depend on prescribed burning as a key tool in bushfire prevention. But, as so often is the case with climate change, it’s not that simple.

A byproduct of prescribed burning is smoke, and it’s a very significant health issue.

Last year, research showed global warming will strengthen an atmospheric layer that traps pollution close to the land surface, known as the “inversion layer”. This will happen in the years 2060-79, relative to 1990-2009 – especially during winter.




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Unfortunately, the conditions that create inversion layers – including cool, still air – correspond with conditions suitable for prescribed burning.

For asthmatics and those sensitive to air pollution, smokier burn days could make winter months more difficult and add further stress to the health system.

It also creates an additional challenge for firefighting agencies, which must already consider whether smoke will linger close to the surface and potentially drift into populated regions during prescribed burns.

This is just one factor our firefighting agencies will need to face in the future as bushfire risk management becomes more complex and challenging under climate change.




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


The Conversation


Giovanni Di Virgilio, Research associate, UNSW; Annette Hirsch, Post Doctoral Research Fellow, UNSW; Hamish Clarke, Research Fellow, University of Wollongong; Jason Evans, Professor, UNSW; Jason Sharples, Professor of Bushfire Dynamics, School of Science, UNSW Canberra, UNSW, and Melissa Hart, Graduate Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, UNSW

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

Humans see just 4.7km into the distance. So how can we truly understand what the bushfires destroyed?



Jamie Pittock

Nanda Jarosz, University of Sydney

When the ashes from Australia’s last bushfire season cooled, we were left with a few mind-boggling numbers: 34 human lives lost, more than a billion animals dead, and 18.6 million hectares of land burned.

But those figures don’t necessarily help us understand what was lost. The human mind struggles to grasp very large scales. And in Australia, our colonial past skews the way we view landscapes today.

This disconnect is important. Many scientific concepts, including climate change, happen at scales outside human perception.

Understanding the scale of destruction wrought by bushfires is vital if governments and societies are to adapt in the future. So how can Australians truly come to terms with the damage wrought by last summer’s bushfires?

Dead koala in burnt forest
More than a billion animals died in last summer’s fires.
Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Beyond human perception

On average, humans can only see about 4.7 kilometres into the distance. So perceiving the true extent of the destruction bushfires requires using our imaginations.

This is not only true of bushfires. It also applies to human understanding of climate change, nanoseconds, the size of the Universe and the geological time scale (the millions of years over which continents, oceans and mountains formed).

But science has shown humans have trouble understanding, or imagining, large orders of magnitude. In one US study for example, university students struggled to understand the relative relationships between the age of the Earth, the time required for the origin of the first life forms, and the evolution of dinosaurs and humans.




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


Even university students studying STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have been shown to struggle with identifying and comparing magnitudes at large scales.

So what’s actually going on in our brains here? Research suggests humans use both numerical and “categorical” information – concepts drawn from their prior experience – to estimate the size of an object. For example, a person estimating the width of a truck might set it as a proportion of the presumed width of highway lanes.

The use of this prior experience can improve the accuracy of estimations. But it can also introduce bias and lead to inexact estimations.

Students in lab
Even university students studying STEM subjects struggled to comprehend large orders of magnitude.
Shutterstock

Understanding vast landscapes

During the fires, satellite images and interactive maps sought to help us understand the scale of the crisis. But they can’t give a full picture of the life destroyed. So how might we otherwise understand the richness lost in a burnt landscape?

Unfortunately, our colonial views of the land are not much help here. British colonisation of Australia, and subsequent land laws, were established on the basis of “terra nullius” – meaning the land belonged to no one. This denied Indigenous people’s prior occupation of the land in order to legitimise its “lawful” settlement by Europeans.

Settlers tended to describe the Australian landscape as empty and unpopulated when, in fact, it was biologically [abundant] and peopled by Indigenous Australians.




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These colonial views have had lasting effects. It took more than 200 years before the terra nullius myth was formally dispelled by the 1992 Mabo decision.

Seeking to understand Indigenous perspectives of Country might help non-Indigenous Australians to truly comprehend the loss brought by bushfires. As Indigenous academic Bhiamie Williamson wrote on The Conversation in January:

the experience of Aboriginal peoples in the fire crisis engulfing much of Australia is vastly different to non-Indigenous peoples. How do you support people forever attached to a landscape after an inferno tears through their homelands: decimating native food sources, burning through ancient scarred trees and destroying ancestral and totemic plants and animals?

A human-centric view

Beyond the colonial influence, our generally human-centred view of the world also tends to render invisible the plants and wildlife within it. As Australian researcher Brendan Wintle and others noted in a recent paper, firefighting strategies routinely overlook the need to protect natural assets. They wrote:

It may be unrealistic to expect critical habitats of our most precarious species to compete for firefighting resources with houses and farms. We are far too self-interested. However, could we imagine the last remaining habitat for a brush-tailed rock-wallaby (Petrogale penicillata) might feature as an asset for protection in a fire that is burning through a wilderness area? Surely that needs doing.

In other words, gaining a better understanding the scale of a fire’s destruction means taking a more holistic view of what dwells in the landscape, and might need saving.

Brush-tailed rock wallaby and joey
Rock wallaby habitat should be protected from fire.
Taronga Zoo

Future fires

Under climate change, bushfires in Australia will become more severe and frequent. So bearing in mind our limited abilities to perceive the potential scale of loss next time, what can we do to prepare?

As Wintle argues, more work is needed to organise conservation efforts before, during, and immediately after a bushfire. That includes establishing “insurance populations” of species and keeping them out of harm’s way, and better monitoring and surveying before a fire, so we know which places need protecting.

Williamson wrote of how most Indigenous Australians “have been consigned to the margins in managing our homelands”, watching on as they were “mismanaged and neglected”, which increased the bushfire risk.




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The current bushfire royal commission has pledged to consider ways Indigenous land and fire management practices could improve our resilience to natural disasters. There is much room for ancient traditions to be incorporated into mainstream fire management.

It will take some time to grasp the repercussions of the last bushfire season. But it’s clear that we must transcend colonial, non-Indigenous, human-centred perceptions of the land if we’re to truly understand what was lost.

The Conversation

Nanda Jarosz, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney

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

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



Shutterstock

Anthea Batsakis, The Conversation and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.


Before the summer bushfires destroyed vast expanses of habitat, Australia was already in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. Now, some threatened species have been reduced to a handful of individuals – and extinctions are a real possibility.

The Kangaroo Island dunnart, a small marsupial, was listed as critically endangered before the bushfires. Then the inferno destroyed 95% of its habitat.

Prospects for the Banksia Montana mealybug are similarly grim. This flightless insect lives only on one species of critically endangered plant, at a high altitude national park in Western Australia. The fires destroyed 100% of the plant’s habitat.




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And fewer than 100 western ground parrots remained in the wild before last summer, on Western Australia’s south coast. Last summer’s fires destroyed 40% of its habitat.

Fish, crayfish and some frogs are also struggling. After the fires, heavy rain washed ash, fire retardants and dirt into waterways. This can clog and damage gills, and reduces the water’s oxygen levels. Some animals are thought to have suffocated.

Here, dozens of experts tell the stories of the 119 species most in need of help after our Black Summer.

How can I help?

Recovery from Australia’s bushfire catastrophe will be a long road. If you want to help, here are a few places to start.

Donate

Australian Wildlife Conservancy

Bush Heritage Australia

WWF

Birdlife Australia

Also see this list of registered bushfire charities

Volunteer

Parks Victoria

NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service

Conservation Volunteers Australia

Landcare

The Conversation

Anthea Batsakis, Deputy Editor: Environment + Energy, The Conversation and Wes Mountain, Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

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

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



AAP Image/Supplied by WWF-Australia

Rosemary Hohnen, Charles Darwin University and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

When I visited Kangaroo Island for the first time after the summer bushfires, I thought I knew what to expect. But what really hit me was the scale.

The wild western end of the island, once a vast mallee woodland peppered with wildflowers and mobs of roaming roos, had been completely erased. An immense dune field covered with sharp blackened sticks now stretched beyond the horizon, to the sea, hollow and quiet.

While fire is a fundamental process in many Australian ecosystems, the size and severity of this fire was extreme, and the impacts on the island’s wildlife has been immense.




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For the many threatened species on Kangaroo Island, such as the critically endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart, their fight for survival still isn’t over. High numbers of feral cats roaming the landscape now pose a huge threat to their persistence, with little vegetation left within the fire scar to provide cover for wildlife.

In fact, our recent research found there are, on average, almost double the number of cats per square kilometre on Kangaroo Island than on the mainland.

The scale of the fires

Kangaroo Island is uniquely positioned, home to wildlife native to both eastern and western Australia. It protects nationally threatened species, such as the glossy black-cockatoo, the pygmy copperhead, Rosenberg’s goanna and the Kangaroo Island dunnart.

The recent bushfires on Kangaroo Island were the largest ever recorded there, destroying swathes of habitat. Over a period of 49 days the fire burnt 211,255 hectares, impacting almost half of the island, particularly the western and central regions.

For the critically endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart, the fires burnt approximately 95% of the species’ known habitat and left them on the brink of extinction.

Dunnarts face extinction

The Kangaroo Island dunnart is a small carnivorous marsupial weighing about 20 grams, with soft sooty fur and dark eyes. The species eats mainly insects, and shelters in hollow logs and in the skirts of grass trees.

Even prior to the fire the species was considered likely to become extinct in the next 20 years. Despite extensive survey efforts, the dunnart had only been seen at 19 sites on Kangaroo Island between 1990 and 2019.

Our own survey work between 2017 and 2018 confirmed the persistence of the dunnart at just six sites in the national park, with Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife detecting several additional records on private land. All sites were in the western half of the island where the recent fires burned.

Many dunnarts are likely to have died in the fire itself, but individuals that survived are left extremely vulnerable to starvation and feral cat predation.

Cats roaming the island in big numbers

Between two and six million feral cats are estimated to live in Australia, and collectively kill more than three billion animals per year.




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The problem is so large, a parliamentary inquiry is, for the first time in 30 years, investigating the impact of feral and domestic cats to native wildlife.

What’s more, in some areas on Kangaroo Island where the availability of animal carcasses is high, the density of feral cats is more than ten times as high as mainland estimates.

There are twice as many cats per square kilometre on Kangaroo Island than on mainland Australia.
Shutterstock

A high cat density poses a formidable threat to wildlife survival during the post-fire period, because cats will sometimes travel large distances to hunt within recent fire scars. Research is underway on the island to examine exactly how the fires have changed cat densities and hunting behaviour in and around burnt areas.

How to control feral cats

Controlling feral cats is one of the biggest challenges in Australian conservation. Cats are cryptic and cautious, hard to find, see, trap and remove.

Despite the challenge, a large-scale feral cat eradication is underway on Kangaroo Island. This is the largest island on which cat eradication has ever been attempted, and the project will take years.




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In the meantime, feral cats are being controlled around the last refuges for Kangaroo Island dunnarts. There are multiple methods for this including shooting and cage trapping, but in remote areas that are hard to access, poison-baiting is likely to be an effective, long-term strategy.

Most feral cat baits are meat-based, but our research shows possums and bush rats are still likely to consume them.

Therefore, researchers have worked for many years on strategies to minimise the potential impacts of feral cat baits on native wildlife. For example, the poison can be delivered within a hard plastic pellet, inside the meat bait.

Field trials have indicated that while cats swallow portions of this bait whole, ingesting the pellet, most native wildlife will chew around and discard the pellet.

Hope emerges after huge survey effort

Despite the gravity of the risk to Kangaroo Island wildlife, there is hope. A huge, dedicated and effective survey effort by both government and non-government organisations has resulted in the detection of Kangaroo Island dunnarts at more than 22 sites.

Kangaroo Island dunnarts have been spotted in devastated parts of the landscape.
Jody Gates, Author provided

These small populations have been found mostly within patches of unburnt vegetation, but also – almost unbelievably – in areas that have been completely burnt.




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Many of these populations appear to be very small and isolated. And now, more than ever, they’re extremely vulnerable. Targeted cat control and/or protection of vulnerable populations with exclusion fencing may be the only way to prevent their extinction.

By controlling cats, we can help native species like the Kangaroo Island dunnart get through this difficult time, and continue to fulfil their place in that wild landscape for years to come.


The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Paul Jennings, Pat Hodgens, Heidi Groffen, James Smith and Trish Mooney, for their generous contributions to this article.The Conversation

Rosemary Hohnen, Adjunct associate, Charles Darwin University and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

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

Our helicopter rescue may seem a lot of effort for a plain little bird, but it was worth it



John Harrison/WIkimedia

Rohan Clarke, Monash University; Katherine Selwood, University of Melbourne, and Rowan Mott, Monash University

This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.


As we stepped out of a military helicopter on Victoria’s east coast in February, smoke towered into the sky. We’d just flown over a blackened landscape extending as far as the eye could see. Now we were standing in an active fireground, and the stakes were high.

Emergency helicopter rescues aren’t usually part of a day’s work for conservation scientists. But for eastern bristlebirds, a potential disaster loomed.

Our mission was to catch 15-20 bristlebirds and evacuate them to Melbourne Zoo. This would provide an insurance population of this globally endangered species if their habitat was razed by the approaching fire.

As climate change grows ever worse, such rescues will be more common. Ours showed how it can be done.

A Chinook helicopter, with the bristlebird field team on board, lands in far eastern Victoria.
Tony Mitchell

The plight of the eastern bristlebird

Such a rescue may seem like a lot of effort for a small, plain brown bird. But eastern bristlebirds are important to Australia’s biodiversity.

They continue an ancient lineage of songbirds that dates back to the Gondwanan supercontinent millions of years ago. They’re reminders of wild places that used to exist, unchanged by humans.




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These days, coastal development has shrunk the eastern bristlebird’s habitat. The birds are feeble flyers, and so populations die out when their habitat patches become too small.

Fewer than 2,500 individuals remain, spread across three locations on Australia’s east coast including a 400-strong population that straddles the Victoria-New South Wales border at Cape Howe. Losing them would be a huge blow to the species’ long term prospects.

One of 15 eastern bristlebirds caught and evacuated from Cape Howe.
Author provided

A rollercoaster ride

On the day of our rescue, bushfires had been raging on Australia’s east coast for several months. The so-called Snowy complex fire that started in late December had razed parts of Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve then burnt into NSW. Now, more than a month later, that same fire had crossed back over the state border and was burning into Cape Howe.

Our 11-person field team had two chances over consecutive mornings. Using special nets, we caught nine eastern bristlebirds on one morning, and six the next. As we worked, burnt leaves caught in our nets – a tangible reminder of how close the fire was.

The captured birds were health-checked then whisked – first by 4WD, then boat and car – to a waiting flight to Melbourne. From there they were driven to special enclosures at Melbourne Zoo.

On the second day a wind change intensified the bushfire and cut short our time. As we evacuated under a darkening sky, it seemed unlikely Cape Howe would escape the flames.

A box containing eastern bristlebirds about to be loaded onto a boat.

In the ensuing days, the fire moved agonisingly close to the site until a favourable wind change spared it.

But tragedy struck days later when fire tore through eastern bristlebird habitat on the NSW side of Cape Howe. Many of the 250 individuals that lived there are presumed dead.

And despite the best efforts of vets and expert keepers at Melbourne Zoo, six of our captive birds succumbed to a fungal respiratory infection in the weeks after their arrival, which they were all likely carrying when captured.

Return to Cape Howe

Against the odds, bristlebird habitat on the Victorian side of Cape Howe remained unburnt. So in early April, we released a little flock of seven back into the wild.

We’d initially planned to attach tiny transmitters to some released bristlebirds to monitor how they settled back into their home. But COVID-19 restrictions forced us to cancel this intensive fieldwork.

Instead, each bristlebird was fitted with a uniquely coloured leg band. As restrictions ease, our team will return to Cape Howe to see how the colour-banded birds have fared.

Eastern bristlebirds released back into the wild at Howe Flat.
Darryl Whitaker/DELWP

A model for the future

The evacuation involved collaboration between government agencies and non-government organisations, with especially important coordination and oversight by Zoos Victoria, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and Parks Victoria.

This team moved mountains of logistical hurdles. A rescue mission that would ordinarily take more than a year to plan was completed in weeks.




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So was it all worth it? We strongly believe the answer is yes. The team did what was needed for the worst-case scenario; ultimately that scenario was avoided by a mere whisker.

But climate change is heightening fire danger and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. Soberingly, further emergency wildlife evacuations will probably be needed to prevent extinctions in future. Our mission will serve as a model for these interventions.

The Conversation

Rohan Clarke, Director, Monash Drone Discovery Platform, and Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Monash University; Katherine Selwood, Threatened Species Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria and Honorary Research Fellow, Biosciences, University of Melbourne, and Rowan Mott, Biologist, Monash University

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