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

Large fires in Australian alpine landscapes: their part in the historical fire regime and their impacts on alpine biodiversity

Richard J. Williams A H , Carl-Henrik Wahren B , Arn D. Tolsma C , Glenn M. Sanecki D I , Warwick A. Papst B , Bronwyn A. Myers E , Keith L. McDougall F , Dean A. Heinze G and Ken Green D
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, PMB 44, Winnellie, NT 0822, Australia.

B Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology, Department of Agricultural Sciences, La Trobe University, Bundoora, VIC 3083, Australia.

C Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Department of Sustainability and Environment, PO Box 137, Heidelberg, VIC 3084, Australia.

D Snowy Mountains Region, National Parks and Wildlife Service, PO Box 2228, Jindabyne, NSW 2627, Australia.

E School of Science and Primary Industry, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, NT 0909, Australia.

F Department of Environment and Climate Change, PO Box 2115, Queanbeyan, NSW 2620, Australia.

G Department of Environmental Management and Ecology, La Trobe University, Wodonga, VIC 3689, Australia.

H Corresponding author. Email:

I Deceased July 2007

International Journal of Wildland Fire 17(6) 793-808
Submitted: 29 October 2007  Accepted: 13 June 2008   Published: 12 December 2008


The fires of summer 2003 in south-eastern Australia burnt tens of thousands of hectares of treeless alpine landscape. Here, we examine the environmental impact of these fires, using data from the Bogong High Plains area of Victoria, and the Snowy Mountains region of New South Wales. Historical and biophysical evidence suggests that in Australian alpine environments, extensive fires occur only in periods of extended regional drought, and when severe local fire weather coincides with multiple ignitions in the surrounding montane forests. Dendrochronological evidence indicates that large fires have occurred approximately every 50–100 years over the past 400 years. Post-fire monitoring of vegetation in grasslands and heathlands indicates that most alpine species regenerate rapidly after fire, with >90% of species present 1 year after fire. Some keystone species in some plant communities, however, had not regenerated after 3 years. The responses of alpine fauna to the 2003 fires were variable. The core habitat (closed heathland) of several vulnerable small mammals was extensively burnt. Some mammals experienced substantial falls in populations, others experienced substantial increases. Unburnt patches of vegetation are critical to faunal recovery from fire. There was, however, no evidence of local extinction. We conclude that infrequent extensive fires are a feature of alpine Australia. For both the flora and fauna, there is no quantitative evidence that the 2003 fires were an ecological disaster, and we conclude that the flora and fauna of alpine Australia are highly resilient to infrequent, large, intense fires.

1 We restrict our detailed examination to the mainland, primarily because (1) only mainland alpine landscapes were burnt by the 2003 fires; (2) we have relatively mature fire histories for the mainland; and (3) we have long-term pre-fire and post-fire data on plants and animals from a number of sites burnt in 2003. For a treatment of fire in Tasmanian alpine landscapes, see Kirkpatrick and Dickinson (1984).


The present paper is dedicated to the memory of Dr Glenn A. Sanecki, who passed away suddenly during the course of writing this paper. Glenn was an outstanding and enthusiastic young alpine ecologist, a Member of the Australian Institute of Alpine Studies, and a bloke who just loved the mountains. He will live long in our memory. To the many people who helped with the collection of the long-term datasets that have made the current paper possible, we say a heartfelt thanks. Research support was provided by the Australian Alps Liaison Committee; the Australian Research Council (Project LP0348897); CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems (Project CDK 101); the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment; Parks Victoria; the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and ESLink Services Pty Ltd. The manuscript benefited from the critical comments of Alan Andersen, Ross Bradstock, Terry Hill and John Morgan.


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