Fire brings both growth and destruction to the Victorian environment. Many native plants need smoke or heat from fire to germinate, and fire helps produce nutrients that create fertile soil. Many of our native animals are adapted to fire. However, fire can also threaten endangered species and is a risk to people and property. With climate change likely to bring more intense, frequent fires, these risks will increase.

The science evidence that informed this assessment is available in this Fire chapter 

 

What the indicators tell us

There are only 4 indicators for fire. They look at the risks and impacts of bushfires and planned burns. 2 of these indicators are fair while the other 2 are poor. 3 of the 4 are showing a downward trend.

The Fire Indicator Report Card provides an assessment summary of all indicators in this chapter 

More detail

Background

Fire regimes play a vital, yet complex role in Victorian ecosystems, which provide habitat for a diverse range of fire-adapted native flora and fauna species, with some plant species only germinating after stimulation by heat or smoke. The beneficial effects of fire on ecosystem processes are well researched. Locally, fire catalyses plant nutrient cycles by decomposing organic materials into available nutrients that provide fertile soil conditions. At the landscape level, fire assists key processes such as tree decay, tree collapse and stand tree germination. However, unanticipated or inappropriate fire regimes will impact dangerously on the survival of threatened flora and fauna species. These ecological complexities highlight another important aspect of optimising fire management in Victoria.

Compounded by population growth and residential incursion into previously uninhabited forest areas, the risk of fire to people and property has increased. It is estimated that about $8.5 billion (or 1.15%) of Australia’s gross domestic product accounts for the total annual cost of fires in Australia. In Victoria, $4.4 billion was evaluated as the economic cost of the 2009 Black Saturday fires.

Fire managers and communities must plan for more frequent and extreme bushfire events. It is predicted that Victoria will encounter more dangerous conditions than other states. Climate change predictions show the likely impact on biodiversity, with some effects being noticed already – such as changes in plant growth rates, fuel loads and moisture content as a result of longer periods of weather associated with high fire risk. Although many native Australian flora and fauna species are tolerant of individual fires, an increase in fire intensity and frequency may impose a variety of negative impacts on biodiversity. Some habitats and species are more likely to be adversely influenced than others. In addition, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 listed inappropriate fire regimes and high-frequency fires as potentially threatening processes to the survival of flora and fauna in Victoria.

Smoke from fires (planned burns and bushfires) have health implications for surrounding communities. In some cases, the area of effect can expand to 50 km from the source of the fire. Particulate matter and noxious gases associated with smoke can reduce air quality in rural and urban areas and may affect people’s health. In addition, smoke can also have economic impacts – tainting grapes, for example, or forcing road closures that prevent or delay transportation of goods and services, and hinder emergency transport. The critical challenges facing Victoria’s bushfire management now and in the future include:

  • minimising the impact of major bushfires on human life, communities, essential and community infrastructure, industries, the economy and the environment

  • monitoring responses of biodiversity (flora and fauna) to both planned burns and bushfires on regional and state scales

  • maintaining or improving the resilience of natural ecosystems and their ability to deliver services such as biodiversity, water, carbon storage and forest products

  • maintaining the persistence of key fire-response species to increasing fire frequency and intensity

  • increasing community awareness and establishing effective emergency management systems, especially in peri-urban areas

  • developing a structured framework for analysing the impacts of bushfires on human life and property

  • protecting human health from more frequent smoke exposure.

Current Victorian Government Settings

The Victorian Government published Safer Together: A New Approach to Reducing the Risk of Bushfire in Victoria in 2015 based on recommendations from the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM). Safer Together adopts a risk reduction target, replacing the previous hectare target approach to bushfire fuel management on public land. This approach enables the government to act more strategically, by planning and implementing risk-reduction activities in areas that will derive the greatest benefit. The government has committed to maintaining residual bushfire risk at or below 70%. In addition, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), along with the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Forest Fire Victoria, now involves local communities in prioritising fuel management activities and identifying opportunities to reduce risk across all land tenures.

Since the new approach was initiated, IGEM has published two monitoring reports that review DELWP’s progress in response to the recommendations. These recommendations are to reform bushfire risk management since the 2015 review and investigation. All of four recommendations are being implemented as part of Safer Together. The recommendations will be continually monitored as part of ongoing assurance activities, including breaches of planned burn control lines.

Underpinning the government’s efforts to reduce risk of bushfires is the Code of Practice for Bushfire Management on Public Land. The code was adapted from its 2006 iteration, following the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Risk-based planning, where human life is afforded the highest priority, is a fundamental part of the code; however, it also recognises the impacts of fire on the natural environment and thereby considers risk to human life, infrastructure and ecological assets within its approach.

Future Focus

Understanding fire impacts on the environment state-wide using a structured, integrated framework

Ecological values are not currently included in the DELWP residual risk prediction program (PHOENIX Rapidfire) used to inform the risk-based approach to forest fire management, ‘Safer Together’. To address this and assess the impact of current fire management strategies on Victoria’s native species and ecosystems, as recommended by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, DELWP in partnership with La Trobe University developed an ecosystem resilience monitoring program during 2017–18 to collect, analyse and interpret comprehensive data on how bushfire and fire management activities affect plants, animals and their habitats in the landscape.

This program is described in the Guidelines for ecosystem resilience monitoring, evaluation and reporting within the Victorian Bushfire Monitoring Program: scientifically-based monitoring project – final report. The ecosystem resilience monitoring program has been piloted and includes recommendations for future deployment. It is structured around a dual-scale approach to monitoring: regional and statewide. Regional monitoring activities focus on the immediate and short-term effects of fuel management actions (primarily planned burns) on species of local interest and/or significance (such as the impact of planned burns on the Greater Glider by causing the loss of hollow-bearing trees in Alpine-North East). The state-wide program would examine the effects at a broader scale and the long-term relationships between plants and animals, and fire across the landscape, at sites with a varied fire history.

The full implementation of this program would help establish a science-based, state-scale approach to the monitoring, evaluation and reporting (MER) framework for ecosystem resilience on public land in Victoria. An approach that includes both flora and fauna species at the state-scale has never previously been implemented.

Conserving flora and fauna species in fire-prone landscapes in Victoria requires an evidence-based approach to identify how fires affect ecosystems that can be modified by cumulative threats. There are two contemporary, fire management paradigms: fire mosaic paradigm and functional types paradigm. Current fire management has adopted the functional types paradigm that focuses on plant responses to recurrent fires. This paradigm is guided by life-history traits of plants such as the Tolerable Fire Interval (TFI) and aims for temporal variation within acceptable fire intervals. By contrast, the fire mosaic paradigm focuses on animal responses to fire events, aiming to create spatially diverse fire mosaics for promoting biodiversity and assisting the persistence of isolated, localised species.

Kelly et al. (2018) indicate that both paradigms need to be integrated in evidence-based monitoring for fire management for biodiversity conservation, as animals and plants are interdependent and influenced by the spatial and temporal dimensions of fire regimes. The new ecosystem resilience program will provide an opportunity to integrate these two paradigms to better evaluate and report on the effectiveness of bushfire for maintaining resilient and biodiverse ecosystems.

Recommendation: That the Victorian Government establish a structured framework based on the findings of the dual-scale ecosystem resilience monitoring program that was piloted by DELWP in 2017–18 and undertake a detailed analysis of the persistence of key fire-response species to increased fire frequency in Victoria, particularly in areas where below minimum Tolerable Fire Interval exists.

UN Environmental Economic Accounts

Forest and grass fires impact on both built and natural assets, affecting the production of goods and services, which benefits the economy and society.

The impact of fire on the economy is partly captured in the System of National Accounts (SNA) through changes to stock of built assets and the flow of goods and services. However, the SNA does not capture the impact of fire on the environment, and the ecosystem services that flow from the environment to the economy. The System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) provides a framework for measuring the impact of fire on the environment (ecosystem assets including wetlands, rivers and ecological vegetation) and the connection between this and the economy and society.

When fire burns an area of land, it can affect both the extent and condition of different types of vegetation (different ecosystem assets). Most Victorian plant communities are fire tolerant and exhibit some form of recovery after fire. However, under certain circumstances fire can change the mix of environmental assets in an area by killing one type of vegetation, which is then replaced by another. Depending on the ecological vegetation type and the severity and frequency of fire, fire can increase or reduce the extent and condition of ecosystem assets.

Fire can impact on the ecosystem services produced by ecosystem assets. For example, fire can increase the habitat services provided by ecosystems, as some flora species depend on fire or smoke for seed germination. However, fire can reduce the timber resources available from native or plantation forests, as well as reduce carbon storage, water filtration and soil stabilisation services. For example, when fire burns plants that stabilise soil, water runoff can carry increased amounts of soils and nutrients into rivers and water storages. This reduces the quality of water for human and animal consumption. The risk of landslides can increase, potentially impacting on other ecosystem assets or built assets such as roads or buildings. For example, in 2003, the Australian Capital Territory was significantly affected by fire. In the aftermath, storm events resulted in sediment entering Canberra’s water storages, and the closure of these storages for water supply. This illustrates the connection between fire and water supply and quality accounts (discussed further in the Water Resources, Water Quality, and Forests chapters).

Case studies

The best way to burn

A program that monitors the resilience of animals and plants to bushfire is helping shape Victoria’s approach to bushfire management.

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/36760290@N08/

The impact of bushfire

Victoria’s forests are some of the most fire-prone areas in the world, and as bushfires across the state in recent years have shown, the impact of fire on biodiversity can be devastating.

As part of its overall Victorian Bushfire Monitoring Program, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) is running an ecosystem resilience monitoring program. They’re measuring the effect of fire on biodiversity by collecting, analysing and interpreting data on how bushfires and fire management affect plants animals and habitat.

Developed in partnership with La Trobe University, the program includes regional monitoring focusing on the immediate and short-term effects of fuel management (mostly planned burning) on important local species. It also examines the effects of bushfire throughout the state and the long-term relationship between plants, animals and fire in general and at specific sites with a varied fire history – from the recently burnt to sites that haven’t been burnt for many years.

Smoky Mouse in the spotlight

Targeted, regional pilot projects were rolled out as part of the program, including one in the Port Phillip region to monitor the endangered Smoky Mouse (Pseudomys fumeus) and its habitat before and after planned burning. Camera traps were baited with a mixture of rolled oats, golden syrup, peanut butter and vanilla essence to attract the mouse and other small mammals. Researchers assessed the surrounding habitat before and after the burn. The results of these assessments are being used to help DELWP understand how its bushfire management affects important species and habitats across the state, and to help determine the best way to carry out planned burning in important sites.

Data collection leads to detection

The ecosystem resilience monitoring program has detected more than 200 plant species and more than 100 bird, mammal and reptile species in the areas monitored. This included the first sighting since 2015 of a tiny carnivorous native mammal – the Brush-tailed Phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa). Over the long term, DELWP will collect data at more than 2000 sites across Victoria to improve its fire management for Victorian communities and wildlife.

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Supporting Traditional Owners to reintroduce cultural burning

While bushfires threaten life and property, experience suggests cultural burning can benefit land, animals and communities.

By Simone Blair, Senior Project Officer, DELWP

A long tradition of burning for good

For hundreds of generations, Aboriginal peoples across Australia are believed to have used fire as a tool to manage landscapes, maintain the health of the land and achieve a balanced ecological environment.

Recent research, both international and local, suggests that the end of cultural burning after European colonisation has resulted in significant and negative changes to biodiversity, and increased risk to life and property from bushfire.

Fire restrictions and reduced access to land have also severely limited the rights and obligations of Traditional Owners to care for Country and pass on traditional fire knowledge to the next generation.

Bringing back an old practice

Victorian Traditional Owners want the cultural use of fire to be reintroduced, adapted and applied in Victoria to allow for healing and caring for Country. They also believe that traditional burning on Country will bring social, spiritual and community benefits.

Traditional burning doesn’t use lighters or accelerants. To start the burning, bowls containing flames are carried into the bush and the fire is transferred to the forest floor with a firestick. This makes for a cooler, slower fire that burns a pathway through the bush, and then connects with other fires.

Working in partnership

The last five years have seen many local partnerships between Traditional Owners such as the Dja Dja Wurrung and Barapa Barapa, and land management authorities including Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic), Country Fire Authority, Parks Victoria and catchment management authorities as well as local government authorities. Through these partnerships, more and more is being learned about cultural burning in Victoria.

In the Gippsland region, the FFMVic works in partnership with Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Corporation, providing opportunities for employment including:

  • planned burning delivery

  • firefighting services

  • monitoring traditional burning impacts

  • cultural heritage management services.

The first cultural burn was operated in August 2017 by the FFMVic in partnership with the Dja Dja Warrung people. FFMVic and Barapa Barapa firefighters have also worked together, with the first two-hectare burn in the Gunbower State Forest

The Victorian Government is supporting the reintroduction of cultural burning practice and has committed to developing the Victoria Cultural Burning Strategy, and the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations will work in partnership with Traditional Owners and FFMVic and CFA to co-design the strategy[1]. A series of on-Country events with Traditional Owners will enable information sharing and peer-to-peer learning about the application of cultural burning practices.  

[1] We also specifically acknowledge that as with any State facilitated process that notes the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations as a partner, that the Dja Dja Wurrung and the Gunai Kurnai are also a partner with the State through their respective Recognition and Settlement Agreements, which provide for additional specific obligations related to engagement with the State.

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