International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Effects of large fires on biodiversity in south-eastern Australia: disaster or template for diversity?

Ross A. Bradstock
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong, Northfields Road, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia. Email: rossb@uow.edu.au

International Journal of Wildland Fire 17(6) 809-822 https://doi.org/10.1071/WF07153
Submitted: 24 October 2007  Accepted: 24 June 2008   Published: 12 December 2008

Abstract

Large fires coincident with drought occurred in south-eastern Australia during 2001–2007. Perceptions of large, intense fires as being ecologically ‘disastrous’ are common. These are summarised by four hypotheses characterising large fires as: (i) homogenous in extent and intensity; (ii) causing large-scale extinction due to perceived lack of survival and regeneration capacity among biota; (iii) degrading due to erosion and related edaphic effects; (iv) unnatural, as a consequence of contemporary land management. These hypotheses are examined using available evidence and shown to inadequately account for effects of large fires on biodiversity. Large fires do not burn homogeneously, though they may produce intensely burnt patches and areas. The bulk of biota are resilient through a variety of in situ persistence mechanisms that are reinforced by landscape factors. Severe erosive episodes following fire tend to be local and uncertain rather than global and inevitable. Redistribution of soil and nutrients may reinforce habitat variation in some cases. Signals of fire are highly variable over prehistoric and historic eras, and, in some cases, contemporary and pre-European signal levels are equivalent. The most important effects of large fires in these diverse ecological communities and landscapes stem from their recurrence rate. Adaptive management of fire regimes rather than fire events is required, based on an understanding of risks posed by particular regimes to biota.

Additional keywords: adaptive management, degradation, extinction, fire regimes, heterogeneity.


Acknowledgements

Liz Tasker, Malcolm Gill, Dave Davis, Dick Williams and two referees offered many useful comments on drafts. Permission to use fire severity data for the Brindabella area (Fig. 1b) was kindly provided by Ecowise Environmental. Carola Kuramotto and Kate Hammill provided assistance with figures.


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Appendix 1. List of links to submissions and reports of major bushfire inquiries in south-eastern Australia (2001–2007)

  1. Report on the Inquiry into the 2001/2002 Bushfires (2002), Joint Select Committee on Bushfires, Parliament New South Wales, Legislative Assembly, Sydney, NSW. http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/Committee.nsf/0/5CFBDCC517014A18CA256BAB0013CE56 (accessed November 2007).

  2. The Inquiry into the Operational Response to the January 2003 Bushfires. McLeod (2003). http://www.cmd.act.gov.au/mcleod_inquiry/index.htm (accessed November 2007).

  3. A Nation Charred: Report on the inquiry into bushfires. House of Representatives (2003), ‘A Nation Charred: Report on the Inquiry of House of Representative Select Committee into the Recent Australian Bushfires’ (Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra). See http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/bushfires/index.htm (accessed November 2007).

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  5. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management. Ellis S, Kanowski P and Whelan R, 2004, National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. http://coagbushfireenquiry.gov.au/findings.htm (accessed November 2007).

  6. Australian Capital Territory Coroner’s Bushfire Inquiry. The Canberra Firestorm. Inquests and Inquiry into Four Deaths and Four Fires between 8th and 18th January 2003. See http://www.courts.act.gov.au/BushfireInquiry/bushfireinquiry.htm (accessed November 2007).

  7. Parliament of Victoria, Legislative Council Environment and Natural Resources Committee Inquiry into the Impact of Public Land Management Practices on Bushfires in Victoria (2007, in progress). See http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/enrc/inquiries/bushfires/default.htm (accessed November 2007).



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