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



Feral horses are destroying what little threatened species habitat was spared from bushfire.
Invasive Species Council

Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

On Friday I flew in a helicopter over the fire-ravaged Kosciuszko National Park. I was devastated by what I saw. Cherished wildlife species are at grave risk of extinction: those populations the bushfires haven’t already wiped out are threatened by thousands of feral horses trampling the land.

The New South Wales park occupies the highest mountain range in Australia and is home to plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Many of these species are threatened, and their survival depends on protecting habitat as best we can.




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Double trouble as feral horse numbers gallop past 25,000 in the Australian Alps


Kosciuszko National Park provides habitat for two species of corroboree frog (critically endangered), the alpine she-oak skink (endangered), broad-toothed rat (vulnerable) and stocky galaxias (a critically endangered native fish), among other threatened species.

As the climate has warmed, the cool mountain habitat of these species is shrinking; bushfires have decimated a lot of what was left. Feral horses now threaten to destroy the remainder, and an urgent culling program is needed.

Devastation as far as the eye can see on the burnt western face of Kosciuszko National Park.
Jamie Pittock

Not a green leaf in sight

Australia’s plants and ecosystems did not evolve to withstand trampling by hard-hooved animals, or their intensive grazing. Unfortunately, the New South Wales government has allowed the population of feral horses in the park to grow exponentially in recent years to around 20,000.

I flew over the northern part of the park with members of the Invasive Species Council, who were conducting an urgent inspection of the damage. Thousands of hectares were completely incinerated by bushfires: not a green leaf was visible over vast areas. A cataclysm has befallen the western face of the mountains and tablelands around Kiandra and Mount Selwyn.




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Many of our plants and animals have adapted to fires, but now the fires are changing


Further north and east of Kiandra the fires were less intense and burnt patchily. On Nungar Plain the grassland and peat wetlands were only lightly burnt, and the first green shoots were already visible along the wetlands of the valley floor.

At first, I wondered if the fires may have spared two animals which live in tunnels in the vegetation on the sub-alpine high plains: the alpine she-oak skink and broad-toothed rat (which, despite the name is a cute, hamster-like creature).

The hamster-like broad toothed rat.
Flickr

But not only was their understory habitat burnt, a dozen feral horses were trampling the peat wetlands and eating the first regrowth.

On the unburnt or partially burnt plains a few ridges over, 100 or more horses were mowing down the surviving vegetation.

Precarious wildlife refuges

Next we flew over a small stream that holds the last remaining population of a native fish species, the stocky galaxias. A small waterfall is all that divides the species from the stream below, and the jaws of the exotic trout which live there.

The aftermath of the fires means the last refuge of the stocky galaxias is likely to become even more degraded.

Over the years, feral horses have carved terraces of trails into the land causing erosion and muddying the stream bank. As more horses congregate on unburnt patches of vegetation after the fires, more eroded sediment will settle on the stream bed and fill the spaces between rocks where the fish shelter. Ash runoff entering the stream may clog the gills of the fish, potentially suffocating them.

An Alpine she-oak skink.
Renee Hartley



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Many key wetland habitats of the southern and northern corroboree frogs have also been burnt. These striking yellow and black frogs nest in wetland vegetation.

A corroboree frog.
Flickr

We hovered over a key wetland for the northern corroboree frog that had not been burnt, deep in the alpine forest. A group of feral horses stood in it. They had created muddy wallows, trampled vegetation and worn tracks that will drain the wetland if their numbers are not immediately controlled.

Horses out of control

Five years ago a survey reported about 6,000 feral horses roaming in Kosciuszko National Park. By 2019, the numbers had jumped to at least 20,000.

We saw no dead horses from the air. Unlike our native wildlife, most appear to have escaped the fires.




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Flying down the upper Murrumbidgee River’s Long Plain, I saw large numbers of feral horses gathered in yet more wetlands. Displaced by the fires to the south and west, they were already trampling the mossy and heathy wetlands that store and filter water in the headwaters.

The Murrumbidgee River is a key water source for south-east Australia. The horses stir up sediment and defecate in the water. They create channels which drain and dry the wetlands, exposing them to fire.

One-third of Kosciuszko National Park has been burnt out and at the time of writing the fires remain active. Feral horses are badly compounding the damage.

If we don’t immediately reduce feral horse numbers, the consequences for Kosciuszko National Park and its unique Australian flora and fauna will be horrendous.

Responsible managers limit the numbers of livestock on their lands and control feral animals. The NSW government must repeal its 2018 legislation protecting feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, and undertake a responsible control program similar to those of the Australian Capital Territory and Victorian governments.

Without an emergency cull of feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, burnt vegetation may not fully recover and threatened species will march further towards extinction.The Conversation

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

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

Australia’s bushfire smoke is lapping the globe, and the law is too lame to catch it



Smoke form Australia’s bushfires could be seen from space. But who should be held to account for the problem?
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Western Sydney University

Smoke from Australia’s bushfires has travelled far beyond its origins. It crossed New Zealand and South America, and within days had drifted halfway around the globe. NASA predicted the smoke would complete a full circuit and arrive back where it started.

As climate change takes hold and global temperatures rise, bushfires are set to increase in severity and frequency. The underlying cause of the fires and resulting smoke haze are often numerous – spanning both natural variability and climate change caused by individuals, governments and corporations.

Legal and policy frameworks – local, national and international – fail to capture these diffused responsibilities. Despite the proliferation of climate-related laws in recent decades, bushfire smoke still largely escapes regulation and containment. In this new era of monster fires, our laws need a major rethink.

Smoke haze blanketing Sydney late last year.
NEIL BENNETT/AAP

A short history of smoke

Smoke is obviously not a new phenomenon – it has polluted Earth’s air since the invention of fire.

In Egypt and Peru, evidence of ancient soot has been found in the lung tissue of mummies, thought to be the result of humans inhaling smoke particles from wood heaters and elsewhere.

The Romans referred to the gravioris caeli (“heavy heaven”) and infamis aer (“infamous air”). Ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote to a friend of his relief at escaping the polluted city:

No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city Rome and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated in their interiors whenever they’re started up, than I noticed the change in my condition.




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Smoke pollution grew worse during the Industrial Revolution, as coal-burning factories proliferated across Europe and the United States. In London, 12,000 people are believed to have died in the Great Smog of 1952.

In Australia too, air pollution, including from bushfire smoke, is not new. However laws to deal with it have traditionally targeted pollution from industry, transport, power generation, and vehicles. Until now, bushfire smoke has been seen as a natural phenomenon, outside human control.

Indonesian women wear protective masks as they perform a mass prayer for rain to combat the smoke haze and drought season in Indonesia.
AFRIANTO SILALAHI

Where to point the finger?

Australia’s fires are not the first to be felt far from their origin.

Slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia regularly spreads smoke across Southeast Asia. In September last year, winds reportedly carried the smoke north to Malaysia and Singapore, prompting schools to close and triggering a mass public health scare.

In 2018, smoke from wildfires on the west coast of the United States reportedly travelled to the east coast of the continent to states such as Missouri, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.




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As climate change worsens, and so too the frequency and extent of bushfires, it is critical that all efforts are made to prevent smoke from being emitted in the first place, and spreading around the world. However this requires identifying those responsible – a slippery concept when climate change is involved.

The Bureau of Meteorology recently confirmed what many strongly suspected: climate change contributed to Australia’s hottest, driest year on record on 2019, which led to the extreme bushfire season.

Following the latest bushfire outbreak, some declared Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government responsible for failing to take meaningful action on climate change.

Sharnie Moran and daughter Charlotte look on as thick smoke rises from a fire near Coffs Harbour, NSW.
Dan Peled/AAP

The federal and state governments and some quarters of the media in turn blamed others, such as arsonists and conservationists, for the fires – claims which were quickly discredited.

There is also a strong argument to hold corporations responsible for climate change – one analysis in 2017 found that just 100 companies were responsible for more than 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

But whether we blame a particular government or other human actors, the current suite of international laws are insufficient for holding them to account.

The law has failed

The number of global climate change laws has increased 20-fold between 1997 and 2017, from 60 to 1,260.

But despite this proliferation, the world is not on track to limiting planetary warming to less than 1.5℃ this century – a threshold beyond which the worst climate change impacts, including uncontrollable bushfires, will be felt.




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This is because most of the laws and policies consist of “declarations” and soft law – that which is not legally binding, and so is easily ignored. Few deal with issues of restorative justice – until now a criminal law concept which involves repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour.

Experts have argued that the idea could be applied to disasters, drawing all parties to come together to deal with its aftermath and implications for the future.

The United Nations, which last year released the first-ever assessment of global environmental rules, says weak enforcement was “a global trend that is exacerbating environmental threats” including climate change and pollution. It also pointed to the need to properly fund government agencies responsible for enforcing laws.

Beachgoers in Sydney amid smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales.
STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP

Looking ahead

Many climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, are almost invisible. But bushfire smoke rapidly engulfs a city skyline. It travels beyond national borders and is impossible to ignore.

As fire seasons worsen, political leaders will come under increasing pressure to stem the emission and spread of bushfire smoke. Key to this will be stronger climate change laws and enforcement, which recognise that a bushfire in one country can quickly become the world’s problem.The Conversation

Eric Kerr, Lecturer, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

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

Pulling out weeds is the best thing you can do to help nature recover from the fires



Australians are keen to help nature recover after a season of devastating bushfires.
Darren England/AAP

Don Driscoll, Deakin University

Many Australians feel compelled to help our damaged wildlife after this season’s terrible bushfires. Suggested actions have included donating money, leaving water out for thirsty animals, and learning how to help the injured. But there is an equally, if not more, important way to assist: weeding.

An army of volunteers is needed to help land owners with judicious weed removal. This will help burnt habitats recover more quickly, providing expanded, healthy habitat for native fauna.

Other emergency responses, such as culling feral animals and dropping emergency food from aeroplanes, are obviously jobs for specialists. But volunteer weeding does not require any prior expertise – just a willingness to get your hands dirty and take your lead from those in the know.

Volunteer weeding will help burnt habitats recover more quickly.
Silje Polland/Flickr

Why is weeding so critical?

The recent bushfires burned many areas in national parks and reserves which were infested with weeds. Some weeds are killed in a blaze, but fire also stimulates their seed banks to germinate.

Weed seedlings will spring up en masse and establish dense stands that out-compete native plants by blocking access to sunlight. Native seedlings will die without setting seed, wasting this chance for them to recover and to provide habitat for a diverse range of native species.




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This mass weed germination is also an opportunity to improve the outlook for biodiversity. With a coordinated volunteer effort, these weeds can be taken out before they seed – leaving only a residual seed bank with no adult weeds to create more seed and creating space for native plants to flourish.

With follow-up weeding, we can leave our national parks and reserves – and even bushland on farms – in a better state than they were before the fires.

Bush regeneration groups are well placed to restore forests after fire, but need volunteers.
Flickr

Weeding works

In January 1994, fire burned most of Lane Cove National Park in Sydney. Within a few months of the fire, volunteer bush regeneration groups were set up to help tackle regenerating weeds.

Their efforts eradicated weeds from areas where the problem previously seemed intractable and prevented further weed expansion. Key to success in this case was the provision of funding for coordination, an engaged community which produced passionate volunteers and enough resources to train them.




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Following recent fires in the Victorian high country, volunteers will be critical to controlling weeds, particularly broom (Scotch broom and related species), which occurs throughout fire-affected areas .

Fire typically kills these woody shrubs but also stimulates seed germination. Without intervention, broom will form dense stands which out-compete native plant species .

However, swift action now can prevent this. Mass germination reduces the broom’s seedbank to as low as 8% of pre-fire levels, and around half of the remaining seeds die each year. Further, broom usually takes three years to flower and replenish its seedbank. So with no new seeds being produced and the seedbank low and shrinking, this three-year window offers an important opportunity to restore previously infested areas.

Scotch broom, a native shrub of Western Europe, has infested vast swathes of Australia.
Gunter Maywald-CSIRO/Wikimedia

Parks Victoria took up this opportunity after the 2003 fires in the Alpine National Park. They rallied agencies, natural resource management groups and local landholders to sweep up broom . Herbicide trials at that time revealed that to get the best outcome for their money, it was critical to spray broom seedlings early, within the first year and a half.

Broom management also needs to use a range of approaches, including using volunteers to spread a biological control agent.

Plenty of work to do

Parks Victoria continue to engage community groups in park management and will coordinate fire response actions when parks are safe to enter. Similar programs can be found in New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and the ACT.

A wide range of weeds expand after fire and warrant a rapid response. They include lantana, bitou bush, and
blackberry.




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Managing weeds after fire is currently a high priority at many sites. At the edges of the World Heritage Gondwana rainforests of southwest Queensland and northern and central NSW, there is a window to more effectively control lantana. In many forested areas in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, fire has created an opportunity to address important weed problems.

State government agencies have the mapping capacity to locate these places. Hopefully they can make these resources easy for the public to access soon, so community groups can self-organise and connect with park managers.

A koala badly injured during the Canberra bushfires before it was returned to the wild.
ALAN PORRIT/AAP

All this needs money

Emergency funding is now essential to enable community-based weed control programs at the scale needed to have a substantial impact. Specifically, funding is needed for group coordinators, trainers and equipment.

While emergency work is needed to control regenerating weeds in the next 6-18 months, ongoing work is needed after that to consolidate success and prevent reinfestations from the small, but still present, seed bank.

Ongoing government funding is needed to enable this work, and prepare for a similar response to the next mega-fires.

Want to act immediately?

You can volunteer to do your bit for fire recovery right now. In addition to state-agency volunteer websites, there are many existing park care, bush care and “friends of” groups coordinated by local governments. They’re waiting for you to join so they can start planning the restoration task in fire-affected areas.

Contact them directly or register your interest with the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators who can link you with the appropriate organisations.




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If we do nothing now, the quality of our national parks will decline as weeds take over and native species are lost. But if you channel your fire-response energy and commitment to help manage weeds, our national parks could come out in front from this climate-change induced calamity.

By all means, rescue an injured koala. But by pulling out weeds, you could also help rescue a whole ecosystem.


Dr Tein McDonald, president of the Australian Association of Bush Regenerators, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University

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

Scientists hate to say ‘I told you so’. But Australia, you were warned



Without a radical change of course on climate change, Australians will struggle to survive on this continent, let alone thrive.
AAP/Dave Hunt

Will Steffen, Australian National University

Those who say “I told you so” are rarely welcomed, yet I am going to say it here. Australian scientists warned the country could face a climate change-driven bushfire crisis by 2020. It arrived on schedule.

For several decades, the world’s scientific community has periodically assessed climate science, including the risks of a rapidly changing climate. Australian scientists have made, and continue to make, significant contributions to this global effort.

I am an Earth System scientist, and for 30 years have studied how humans are changing the way our planet functions.




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Scientists have, clearly and respectfully, warned about the risks to Australia of a rapidly heating climate – more extreme heat, changes to rainfall patterns, rising seas, increased coastal flooding and more dangerous bushfire conditions. We have also warned about the consequences of these changes for our health and well-being, our society and economy, our natural ecosystems and our unique wildlife.

Today, I will join Dr Tom Beer and Professor David Bowman to warn that Australia’s bushfire conditions will become more severe. We call on Australians,
particularly our leaders, to heed the science.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison comforting a man evacuated from his home during then recent bushfires.
Darren Pateman/AAP

The more we learn, the worse it gets

Many of our scientific warnings over the decades have, regrettably, become reality. About half of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef have been killed by underwater heatwaves. Townsville was last year decimated by massive floods. The southeast agricultural zone has been crippled by intense drought. The residents of western Sydney have sweltered through record-breaking heat. The list could go on.

All these impacts have occurred under a rise of about 1℃ in global average temperature. Yet the world is on a pathway towards 3℃ of heating, bringing a future that is almost unimaginable.

How serious might future risks actually be? Two critical developments are emerging from the most recent science.

First, we have previously underestimated the immediacy and seriousness of many risks. The most recent assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that as science progresses, more damaging impacts are projected to occur at lower increases in temperature. That is, the more we learn about climate change, the riskier it looks.




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For Australia, a 3℃ world would likely lead to much harsher fire weather than today, more severe droughts and more intense rainfall events, more prolonged and intense heatwaves, accelerating sea-level rise and coastal flooding, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and a large increase in species extinctions and ecosystem degradation. This would be a tough continent to survive on, let alone thrive on.

The city I live in, Canberra, experienced an average seven days per year over 35℃ through the 1981-2010 period. Climate models projected that this extreme heat would more than double to 15 days per year by 2030. Yet in 2019 Canberra experienced 33 days of temperatures over 35℃.

Second, we are learning more about ‘tipping points’, features of the climate system that appear stable but could fundamentally change, often irreversibly, with just a little further human pressure. Think of a kayak: tip it a little bit and it is still stable and remains upright. But tip it just a little more, past a threshold, and you end up underwater.

Features of the climate system likely to have tipping points include Arctic sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet, coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest, Siberian permafrost and Atlantic Ocean circulation.

Dogs hauling a sled through meltwater on coastal sea ice during an expedition in northwest Greenland in June last year.
STEFFEN M. OLSEN/DANISH METEOROLOGICAL INSTITUTE

Heading towards ‘Hothouse Earth’?

These tipping points do not act independently of one another. Like a row of dominoes, tipping one could help trigger another, and so on to form a tipping cascade. The ultimate risk is that such a cascade could take the climate system out of human control. The system could move to a “Hothouse Earth” state, irrespective of human actions to stop it.

Hothouse Earth temperatures would be much higher than in the pre-industrial era – perhaps 5–6℃ higher. A Hothouse Earth climate is likely to be uncontrollable and very dangerous, posing severe risks to human health, economies and political stability, especially for the most vulnerable countries. Indeed, Hothouse Earth could threaten the habitability of much of the planet for humans.

Tipping cascades have happened in Earth’s history. And the risk that we could trigger a new cascade is increasing: a recent assessment showed many tipping elements, including the ones listed above, are now moving towards their thresholds.

Beachgoers swim as smoke haze from bushfires blanketed Sydney last month.
Steven Saphore/AAP

It’s time to listen

Now is the perfect time to reflect on what science-based risk assessments and warnings such as these really mean.

Two or three decades ago, the spectre of massive, violent bushfires burning uncontrollably along thousands of kilometres of eastern Australia seemed like the stuff of science fiction.




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Now we are faced with more than 10 million hectares of bush burnt (and still burning), 29 people killed, more than 2,000 properties and several villages destroyed, and more than one billion animals sent to a screaming, painful death.

Scientists are warning that the world could face far worse conditions in the coming decades and beyond, if greenhouse gas emissions don’t start a sharp downward trend now.

Perhaps, Australia, it’s time to listen.The Conversation

Will Steffen, Emeritus Professor, Australian National University

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

Conservation scientists are grieving after the bushfires — but we must not give up



Glossy black cockatoo populations on Kangaroo Island have been decimated. But a few precious survivors remain.
Flickr

Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University; Martine Maron, The University of Queensland, and Sarah Legge, Australian National University

That a billion animals may die as a result of this summer’s fires has horrified the world. For many conservation biologists and land managers, however, the unprecedented extent and ferocity of the fires has incinerated much more than koalas and their kin.

The scale of the destruction has challenged what is fundamentally an optimistic worldview held by conservationists: that with sufficient time and money, every species threatened by Australia’s 250 years of colonial transformation cannot just be saved from extinction, but can flourish once again.

The nation’s silent, apocalyptic firescapes have left many conservation biologists grieving – for the animals, the species, their optimism, and for some, lifetimes of diligent work.

So many of us are wondering: have lives spent furthering conservation been wasted? Should we give up on conservation work, when destruction can be wrought on the environment at such unprecedented scales?

The answer is, simply, no.

A brushtail possum with ears and legs burnt in a bushfire in January.
STEVEN SAPHORE

Acknowledge the grief

Federal government figures released on Monday showed more than half of the area occupied by about 115 threatened species has been affected by fire. Some of these species will now be at significantly greater threat of extinction. They include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black-cockatoo and the East Lynne midge orchid.

Some field ecologists lost study populations of species that had been researched and monitored for decades. Anecdotally, the fires have affected the best known population of the northern corroboree frog. Others lost substantial amounts of field equipment such as long-established automatic cameras needed to monitor wildlife responses to fire.




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Of course, action is an effective therapy for grief. There is plenty to do: assess the extent of damage, find and nurture the unburned fragments, feed the survivors, and limit further damage to burned but recovering areas of native vegetation.

The official recovery response has been swift. Victoria,
New South Wales and now the Commonwealth have all issued clear statements about what’s happened and how they’re responding. The determination and unity among government agencies, researchers and conservation groups has been remarkable.

A dead koala after the Kangaroo Island bushfires.
David Mariuz/AAP

However, busyness may just be postponing the grief. Many universities have rightly offered counselling to affected staff – as, presumably, have other institutions. Many researchers are bereft and questioning their chosen vocation.

But as we grieve, we must also remember that decades of conservation work has not been in vain. Some populations and species may indeed have been lost in the recent fires – we shall not know until long after the smoke clears. But the conservation efforts of the past mean fewer species have been lost than would have been the case otherwise.

Focus on survivors

Take the subspecies of glossy black cockatoos endemic to Kangaroo Island. Up to 80% of the area the cockatoos occupy has been burnt – but some survivors have been sighted.

Decades of work by researchers, conservation managers and the community had reportedly brought the cockatoos’ numbers from about 150 to 400. Without this extraordinary effort,
there would have been no cockatoos to worry about during these fires, no knowledge of how to help survivors and no community of cockatoo lovers to pick up the work again.

Or take the southern corroboree frog. At Melbourne Zoo, a giant black and yellow frog guards the entrance to a facility where the species is being bred for release. This success is the result of decades of research into this highly imperilled species.




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The captive colony was established exactly because a catastrophic event could overwhelm the species in the wild. This fire season is the latest in a sequence of existential threats.

This hard-won knowledge of threats is also improving the nature and speed of fire response. For example, there is now far greater awareness of the damage introduced predators can wreak, especially after severe fires when animals are exposed and vulnerable in a burnt landscape. Control of feral cats and foxes will be critical. Effective fox control immediately following fires in 2003 was likely to have been critical in the persistence and then recovery of the endangered Eastern Bristlebird.

Introduced herbivores such as deer and horses will remove food resources for native herbivores, damage fire-sensitive soils, and weeds will take advantage of the cleared ground. Managing these threats at large scale soon after fires have been extinguished will be needed.

A wildlife volunteer nurses a rescued flying fox earlier this month.
Stephen Saphore/AAP

Outside the fire zones

The conservation focus of late has, understandably, been on areas burnt. But it is also critical to continue conservation efforts away from the fire zones.

A recent analysis of the 20 species of mammals and birds most likely to become extinct in the next 20 years showed they are scattered across the
country
, mostly in places far from those recently burnt.

The bushfires require large-scale urgent action. But we must not withdraw attention and resources from species elsewhere that need saving. If anything, now we know the unprecedented scale of threats such as fire, more conservation funds are required across the board to prepare for similar events.

A rare pygmy possum found after bushfires swept through Kangaroo Island.
David Mariuz/AAP

We must not give up

Biodiversity loss is mounting across the world. If this generation is to pass on its biological inheritance to the next, more conservation science and management is urgently needed.

History does not have to repeat itself. Conservation programs have been severely set back, and people are right to mourn the severe impacts on biodiversity. But they should also take solace that their earlier efforts have not been wasted, and should recommit to the fight for recovery.




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In future fire seasons, the emergency response is likely to be better prepared to protect natural assets, as well as life and property. For example, the extraordinary emergency operation to protect the Wollemi pine in NSW could be carried out for multiple species.

Those involved in conservation should lose neither hope nor ambition. We should learn from these fires and ensure that losses are fewer next time.The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University; Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland, and Sarah Legge, Professor, Australian National University

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

Out of control, contained, safe? Here’s what each bushfire status actually means



We’re used to images of firefighters with hoses, but more of the firefighting effort goes to clearing vegetation than spraying with water.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Thomas Duff, University of Melbourne

In this record-breaking bushfire season, notifications from emergency managers have become a familiar feature of Australian life. Terms like “out of control” and “contained” are regularly heard as descriptions of the status of fires, but what do they actually mean?

These terms vary slightly between Australian states and territory, but as similar firefighting strategies are used Australia-wide, the meanings are comparable.

The status of a fire is a description of the stage of the firefighting effort, not the nature of the fire or its likelihood of being a threat. This means that to understand what actions to take when an active fire is nearby, it’s important to follow the advice of your local fire and emergency information sources.




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‘Going’ or ‘out of control’

A fire described as “going” or “out of control” is one where parts of its perimeter are burning and have the potential to spread into unburnt areas.

The perimeter is the focus as it is where unburnt fine fuels (consisting of the litter on the forest floor, shrubs and bark) are being ignited and burning rapidly. The flames of these subside quickly, so the majority of a fire’s interior consists of blackened area where only heavy fuels such as logs and branches continue to burn.

A fire will be given the status “going” when it is first detected or reported to emergency authorities. The status may also be used for fires that were controlled and subsequently breakaway (escape control).

“Going” fires will typically be the subject of concentrated firefighting effort to prevent growth and minimise the impacts to things of value (i.e. lives, property, infrastructure and ecosystem services). However the term is inclusive of all fires that are able to spread, so encompasses everything from shrubs burning under a tree hit by lighting to intense firestorms.

Contained or “being controlled’

A “contained” fire is one with a complete containment line around its perimeter. “Being controlled” will have a complete or near-complete containment line. Containment lines (also called control lines or firelines) are the main way to stop bushfires spreading.

While our images of firefighters involve hoses spraying water against the flames, water is, in fact, inefficient because of the vast amounts needed to douse the large amounts of burning vegetation and the difficulty of maintaining supply in rugged terrain.

Instead, to stop fires spreading, firefighters create containment lines where all fuels are removed in bands adjacent to the fire’s perimeter. This prevents the fire reaching unburnt vegetation, starving the flames of new material to burn.

So how are containment lines created? Typically, with heavy machinery (often bulldozers), which scrape away all burnable material around the edge of the fire so nothing but mineral soil remains. In rugged terrain, this may be done by hand, by specialist crews using tools such as rakehoes and chainsaws.

Where there are existing areas of low fuel in the landscape, such as roads, bodies of water or previously burnt areas, firefighters may also include these as part of their containment strategy.

The containment line is built next to the burning fire edge, so the more intense or erratic a fire is, the more difficult and dangerous it is for crews to work.




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It’s not safe to construct a line where fires are spreading rapidly, producing many embers, behaving erratically, have deep flames or are exhibiting firestorm-type behaviours (where the fire is so intense it can generate extreme winds and even lightning).

At such times firefighters will either move to parts of the fire where behaviour is less intense (typically where the wind is pushing the flames away from unburnt fuel), apply indirect firefighting methods such as backburning (burning areas in front of the advancing fire) or retreat and focus on protecting life and property.

The exceptionally hot, dry and windy conditions of the 2019/20 fire season have resulted in many rapidly expanding bushfires that have overwhelmed the capacity of firefighters to build containment lines.

As a fire is being contained, crews will be assigned to patrol the already constructed parts of the line to prevent escapes. The burning-out of unburnt fuels within the containment lines may be done to reduce the chance this ignites and causes issues at a future date.

Under control, or ‘patrol’

A fire that’s “under control” has a full containment line around it, and there has been a degree of consolidation so fire escaping outside the lines is unlikely.

This consolidation is called “mopping up” or “blacking out”, and consists of crews working along the edge of the fire to extinguish or stabilise any burning material in the fire area within a set distance of the line.

Fire elevates the risk of trees falling, so at this stage there may also be work to identify and treat dangerous trees.

After line consolidation is complete, routine patrols to prevent escapes will continue for days to weeks until the fire is deemed safe.




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Safe

The final status applied to bushfires is “safe”. This is where deemed that no sources of ignition within containment lines have the potential to cause escapes.

Once a fire is declared safe, it’s assumed no longer necessary to maintain patrols and the fire can be left alone.

After the fire season it’s common for management agencies to rehabilitate the containment lines, to restore the site to its prior condition to protect biodiversity values and water quality.

The status of a fire can change – even fires thought to be safe occasionally break away when hot and windy weather returns. Regardless of whether there are known fires in your area, it is important to have a bushfire survival plan and to pay attention to the advice of your local fire and emergency information sourcesThe Conversation

Thomas Duff, Postdoctoral Fellow, Forest and Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne

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