Fire - threat for our projects

Fire is a highly emotional topic for all of us, but particularly for those in our area who lost their homes in the fires in Margaret River in November 2011 or Yarloop in January 2016 when human lives were also lost.
It was also not easy for rehabilitators to search for the charred remains of the ringtails they had in their care for many months and had released only a few months prior to the Margaret River fires. Taking animals with horrific burns into care is also challenging and emotionally draining. However, emotions will not solve the problem and nor does political opportunism.  Tragic events like those should not be used to win the next election with strong words capitalising on the understandable fear of people.

Money for conservation gets scarcer and scarcer while there are still millions of dollars used for controlled burning that should alleviate the danger – but obviously has not so far. Governments are defensive – particularly when a devastating fire was caused by them as a preventative measure.
In the throes of populisms it seems most important to be seen as doing something to protect people and their property, not to actually do something effectively.

However, if we want to be doing the best we can, only science can lead the way. There is merit in controlled burns, no question about that, but we need to do it where it really lowers the danger.
We need to spend the available money on examining the best approach, not on repeating what we always did even though there is no clear evidence that it reduced the threat– or in the worst case scenario it caused the problem we wanted to eliminate (e.g. Margaret River fires).

Ironically our main release project started with those animals rescued from the Margaret River fire, which only now are under threat from controlled burns in the adjacent national park. The long unburnt property shows some scorch marks – from a controlled burn that got slightly out of control and jumped the fence line. 

In spring 2017 the national park next to our most important release site was again on the list for a major burning program (400 hectares), however it has not happened yet and the rumour was that the also adjacent vineyards had threatened legal action if their harvest was damaged. Imagine wildlife rehabilitators would threaten to sue – would anyone even take that seriously?

I received a map with the supposed habitat areas for western ringtail possums and was assured that these areas would be treated with particular caution. Unfortunately a survey of the park found the most compelling evidence of ringtails – including breeding habitat – in areas outside of those marked patches.   

burned ringtailCurrent fire regimes have direct and indirect negative consequences for biodiversity but even most conservation reserves, at which biodiversity protection is a high priority, are not exempt from this regime. An area of Yalgorup National Park was for instance accidentally burned while ringtail translocation research was still under way.  A now critically endangered species lost their habitat to development, only to lose their lives after translocation due to human safety issues.

We do have some pieces of research and a review of fire management actions questioned whether our current practices appreciably reduce the threat to commercial assets. It did not question the negative impact on biodiversity protection zones at the interface between bush and housing. (Gill and Stephens, 2009)

Little emphasis is so far put on other strategies than burning (or their research/evaluation) and the level of complacency on climate change mitigation is frightening.

In addition to a target of prescribed burning by DFES/DBCA, local government agencies and private land owners also conduct prescribed burns and wildfires unfortunately happen. All those areas combined add up to a gigantic loss of biodiversity habitat. We should not forget that there is a significant overlap between what constitutes fuel load and what constitutes habitat.
In addition our forests protect ourselves from excessive heat.

The incidence of controlled burns turning into wildfires seems high but stays usually unknown to all those who are not directly affected. The push to meet the target might also lead to risky decisions to burn  in dangerous conditions – as happened in Margaret River and Nannup in 2011.

The hot fires in Northcliffe in early 2015 had devastating  impacts on wildlife and in particular quokkas but probably also on a likely fringe population of ringtail possums. This illustrates that forest areas need to be protected from wildfires while the equally devastating fires in Margaret River question the efficiency of ‘prescribed burns’. Parts of the burnt forest around Northcliffe also had been control-burned in the five years prior to the fire.

Back-burning  as a protective measure during wildfires in Scott National Park seriously threatened a population of honey possums - twice. A second fire following after 6 years almost obliterated the colony and regression analysis showed that a full recovery could take between 25 and 30 years. (Bradshaw and Bradshaw, 2017)

Money is too scarce to put our powerlines underground and in case of a fire, power is of course switched off - which led to the loss of life in Yarloop.
With the intended sale of Western Power the need to make a good profit would increase and the likelihood of expensive changes to our power supply would decrease accordingly.  

The recent fire in Augusta which presumably was caused by a camp fire, burnt through 150 hectares of bush, but also wide stretches of paddock. Some introduced pasture grasses are reported to make areas more fire prone and to speed up the spread of a fire over a larger area. Transforming bush into more paddocks for safety can obviously not be the solution. We also see major grass fires while the City of Busselton’s fire regulations demand that people keep vegetation down to no more than 10 cm in a ‘one rule fits all’ approach. Most people would conform instead of question the rule for urban areas and apply for a variation. 

Since European settlement, burning regimes have changed dramatically – away from many small to fewer but hotter fires. This has been implicated firstly in the degradation of habitat for arboreal mammals through the reduction of vegetation cover and the simplification of  the habitat structure and as a consequence the reduction of food and shelter and finally in the decline of species. (Jones et al, 1994a, Burbidge et al, 1988)

Fires in open inland forests where local extinctions of western ringtail possums have been most extensive in the last decade are more severe and frequent than in our coastal forests.

Those habitat areas that have retained their extensive ringtail populations since the 1960s all had relatively low fire impacts over several decades.
Mature peppermints in high numbers with larger root bases only survived in areas unburnt for up to 6 decades. These areas have the highest ringtail abundance. (Jones et al, 2007)
The Siesta-Kealy area might today have the largest remaining western ringtail possum population but even there ringtail numbers are low in the patches regrown after fire.  
Removal of understorey scrub alone is according to Barbara Jones (Jones et al, 2007) the equivalent to ringtail habitat destruction.

understoryA heavy fuel load per hectare does not necessarily mean high ignitability. The soil in the photo feels cool and moist only a few centimetres below the surface.

Crown fires are devastating but it is also important what happens on soil level. All soil components play a critical role in the function of the ecosystem. (York et al, 2012)

After an intense fire sufficient epicormics re-sprouting to provide a replacement food source can take up to 4 months and the full canopy replacement up to
3 years. 

Small regeneration burns could however protect habitat and regrowth after a mild fire often shows high levels of foliar nutrients. (Jones et al, 2004)

The application or exclusion of fire seems the single most significant environmental parameter for ringtail habitat quality. For this quality to be retained wildfires have to be avoided without repeated fuel-reduction burns. (Jones et al, 2007)

Our now critically endangered western ringtail possum only occurs in high numbers in the urban context – densities are low in all bush areas. Low densities are vulnerable to stochastic events such as drought and fire and an increase in predation particularly after fires – wild or controlled - could lead to local extinctions. (Clarke, 2011) We should not led this happen in areas where numbers had only recently increased due to intensive management. 

Life in a fire-prone ecosystem under climate change conditions will become increasingly risky. Fire frequency and severity  will have an impact on biodiversity – and we will hopefully re-evaluated and amend our fire practices not only according to our own needs but also according to wildlife protection objectives.

If controlled burning should be unavoidable because of close proximity to properties, localised, slow moving, low intensity cool mosaic burns that leave adequate refuges of unburnt vegetation are the only option. Unfortunately they are also the most labour-intensive and therefore expensive option. The window of opportunity is small in autumn but spring as the most productive period for our wildlife is not a good alternative. Studies in Western Australia also claim that spring burning may be more detrimental to the soil surface fauna than autumn burning. (York et al, 2012)
If we only burn where it is absolutely necessary, the time slot should however be sufficient.

Have we learned anything from the escaped burns in Margaret River?

The SW seemed in the grip of a burning frenzy this autumn.
The fear of fire reaches extreme levels which is not surprising the way our government fans this fear and threatens with fines for non-compliance with regulations. 
According to ABC news a high number of privately lit fires went out of control and the assistance of firefighters had to be sought so that there was hardly any firefighting staff left available. In the Margaret River area the ABC reported an average of 5 escaped burns per day for the fortnight prior to the dramatic change in weather. The situation around Albany was even worse.

Again according to ABC news the Bureau of Metrology had issued a severe weather warning and according to Albany residents they were  warned by the authorities not to light any further fires because of the approaching dangerous situation. Uncomprehendingly, the department still conducted prescribed burning in Stirling, Porongurup and Torndirrup National Parks – tourism drawcards and iconic destinations for locals.
A part of Bramley National Park in Margaret River has been subjected to a prescribed burn too at that time but we were lucky that this fire did not get out of control.

As much burning is done as possible to reach an arbitrary target and even fire fighters acknowledge in ABC reports that they are burning hectares instead of achieving good outcomes according to an area’s specific needs.
National parks are officially protected areas, however I wonder from what these parks are actually protected – not from human actions that devastate the amenity (tourist destination), the wildlife habitat it provides and the wildlife itself. National Park seem just a prime target to reach burn quotas quickly.

Burns seem to escape more and more often but when the department is the culprit the outcome is usually worse in the order of magnitude – more than 18,000 hectares were lost in the inferno in Stirling Ranges National Park. In Torndirrup National Park only 730 hectares were devastated but the park is fairly small and one of the world-renown prime tourist destinations in the SW. 
In case of a catastrophe human lives and property seem all that counts. Loss of livestock might be mentioned as an afterthought but wildlife, let alone their all-important and shrinking habitat, do not feature -  they are just collateral damage. Albany was no exception even though there are at least 2 critically endangered species – Gilberts Potoroo and the Western Ringtail Possum. My only available source of information is the wildlife care community according to whom 4 areas that had known ringtail populations were badly burnt.

Instead of accepting responsibility, the department even boast about having exceeded their burn target for 2 years in a row – the areas devastated by those escaped fires do not even count for the quota.
Another ‘full review’ has now been foreshadowed by premier Mark McGowan and his Minister Fran Logan will try to ensure it did not happen again. We heard the same after the Margaret River escaped burns and it now did happen again.
They even blamed climate change as the culprit and we can only wonder whether that means that the department in charge of our environment was unaware so far that our climate is changing.

The only conceded change in plans seems to be the extension of the restricted time for burns (permit required), however the department does not need a burning permit as far as I know. The implicit extreme danger for wildlife would be that more burns will be attempted in spring when productivity and vulnerability of offspring are at their highest level and the damage to wildlife would increase accordingly.

There is hardly any money available for conservation but obviously no shortage of money for destruction of biodiversity as the budget for prescribed burning has just been increased to 5.5 million.

competition with brushtail possums