The collective anxiety that has been palpable over the past few months across the Bellingen Shire due to fire, appears to have abated somewhat since the much needed rain over Christmas. However, the fire season is still upon us and fires continue to burn in our region.
The catastrophic fire conditions that we have seen right across the country have fuelled debate about the underlying causes and the fire mitigation and management strategies that have been implemented. The National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS) have certainly felt the brunt of public opinion about how best to manage the situation given the unprecedented drought conditions.
Tony Prior has been working in fire management roles in the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) for 26 years, the past 9 as Team Leader Fire for the North Coast Branch of NPWS. Team Leader means that Tony is primarily responsible for providing leadership in fire management across the North Coast Branch, that runs from north of Taree to the Queensland Border. In other words, Tony knows fires.
The current fires have impacted Tony personally. Tony is passionate about the health of the national parks. For 13 of the 26 years he has worked for the NPWS, he managed several national parks and nature reserves around Dorrigo as a Ranger including his beloved Guy Fawkes River National and Mt Hyland Nature Reserve, both of which have had significant impact from the recent Bees Nest and Liberation Trail Fires.
We thought it was time for the facts about the current situation and the NPWS role in fire mitigation and management.
Tony how would you encapsulate your role as Team Leader Fire?
I provide leadership in fire management primarily through the implementation of the Enhanced Bushfire Management Program (EBMP). The NSW Government established this program in 2011 as an adaptive management response to help NSW better prepare for the predicted increase in the threat of bushfires due to climate change.
The program was in response to the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. $72.2 million dollars was allocated from the Climate Change Fund (CCF) over six years to manage the impact of bushfires. This is done through an enhanced and strategic hazard reduction program and the formation of additional rapid response fire-fighting teams, which I also manage as part of this role.
The program has been successful in meeting the key performance indicators set by the NSW Government. NPWS treat 135 000 ha of land annually by hazard reduction burning or mechanical treatment (e.g. slashing). This program was then extended at the end of 2017 and the current program goes through till 2022.
Based on your 26 years of experience, do you believe the current climatic conditions are exceptional?
The current climatic conditions are exceptional and have been building for several years now but escalating more recently due to the extreme drought conditions. For example, last year (2017-18) the North Coast Branch of NPWS had a wildfire occur in our reserves every month of the year, which required some fire-fighting containment actions. Previously, seasonal conditions and rainfall meant that wildfire activity would only normally occur for up to 6 months of the year and then only on dry years.
Traditionally rainforests don’t burn. Can you explain the science around our rainforests burning?
The risk of fire to rainforests has been building for several years due to the dry climatic conditions, resulting in deep soil dryness across much of the forested landscape. Fire science has good understanding that when you get deep soil dryness the forests above are totally available to burn in wildfire events. What this means is our moister forest types, that don’t normally burn but have the highest fuel loads, are available to burn.
The drought has also forced the forests to drop leaves to aid their survival and this fall is contributing to the exceptional dry layer on the forest floor. This allows wildfire to carry into rainforest. This same dryness is also allowing older dead trees, (both standing and on the ground), to burn. Normally they would retain some moisture, which prevents them burning entirely. These dead trees also provide significant habitat value for forest fauna and the current wildfire event will be having significant impacts due to the scale of forest burnt across the North Coast and NSW.
The moister forests and rainforest have been impacted by fire before. The problem now is that current higher intensity fires are becoming more frequent due to climate change and longer-term impacts on moist forest types will occur leading to a reduction in their biodiversity and their distribution.
NPWS have received some flack and blame for insufficient controlled fires during cooler months. How would you respond to this?
Since the Enhanced Bushfire Management Program (EBMP) started in 2011 the NPWS has carried out 1,200, 000 million hectares of hazard reduction across National Parks and Nature Reserves in NSW. It is demonstrated by the fact (taken from RFS Bushfire Risk Information System) the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service manages only 9% of the state but over the last 4 years has carried out 75% of all the hazard reduction. If you go back to the last 8 years this figure increases to about 80% of all the hazard reduction carried out in NSW. The issue of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and hazard reduction unfortunately gets caught up in the other issues. However, the facts speak for themselves.
Even with the recent very dry year across the state the NSW NPWS still met and exceeded its annual 135, 000 ha hazard reduction target set by the government by delivering 137 000 ha in the 2018-19 season.
EBMP has also allowed the NSW NPWS to enhance our wildfire detection and response. This means getting onto new fires quickly and extinguishing them quickly. This can be demonstrated by the figure of 88% of all wildfires, which started on National Park since 2011, being contained on National Park. And prior to the current wildfire season, typically less than 5% of all the states wildfires burn on National Park. Most bushfires are off park and move onto National Park. Lightning and arson are the primary cause of fire with National Parks.
NSW NPWS and the Forestry Corporation are both fire agencies under the Rural Fires Act in NSW. NPWS has over 1200 trained fire fighters, 350 fire fighting vehicles, 180 pieces of plant and machinery and 6 aircraft all used to prevent and fight fires in NSW. The recent ongoing fire season has seen to date over 26, 000 NPWS staff days contributed to the wildfire suppression operations. NPWS has a close working relationship with both the Rural Fire Service and Forestry Corporation and is fully committed to this cooperative approach to fire management in NSW.
Do you see our national parks regenerating after this fire season?
It is important to remember that all the forest does not burn at the same intensity. Areas, which did not burn as hot, will provide habitat for our fauna and allow flora to regenerate, giving areas burnt at a higher intensity a chance to recover.
We are still currently engaged in fire fighting but as soon as the conditions allow in the new year, we will be undertaking rapid assessments of the areas burnt to get a much clearer understanding of impacts to the environment and to plan their recovery. The forests will need time to allow recovery. Prevention of further fires in many areas will be important in the shorter term.
If these climatic conditions continue, will NPWS management strategies for our forests need to be revised?
In the case of moister forests, hazard reduction burns are difficult. These forests are generally too wet to burn to achieve a ‘fuel management objective’ in the cooler months. Generally, our planned hazard reduction burns target the dry ridges and the fire can go out in the moister drainage lines and this assists the containment. However, under current conditions, all these forest types and entire forest strata are available to burn in wildfires events, which is rare on the North Coast.
The climate is changing. All land managers will need to continue to ensure forests and other natural fire prone landscapes are managed to protect life and property. This is done through the current cooperative arrangements with other fire agencies and land managers through Bush Fire Management Committees. The risk for each local government area is continually assessed and risk plans with actions implemented. NSW National Parks has fire management strategies for all reserves. These strategies cover risk mitigation and fire suppression and are the basis for hazard reduction burn planning, fire management objectives and asset protection for each of the reserves. They are endorsed by these committees and put out for public comment.
In my opinion we need to take a nil tenure approach across the landscape when planning bushfire protection. Wildfires burn across all land tenure types (private, Forestry, National Park and Crown land) with tenure boundaries making little difference. To best protect communities, we first need to assess where the risk is. Once we know the risk areas we can plan and deliver the hazard reduction treatment across the area not the tenure. This can be done through the construction and maintenance of Asset Protection Zones, hazard reduction burning or mechanical clearing.
The endless catch cry of “burn more hectares” is not the solution. The catch-cry should be “burn where the risk is.” Hazard reduction for all land managers is very expensive and by doing this we ensure funding goes to areas at most risk.
Do you have any advice for the community going forward?
This fire season the people of the Bellingen Shire and the North Coast have seen first hand the effects of the extreme drought and a changing climate, resulting in a threat of wildfires to their homes, families and lifestyle.
What people need to do is assess their homes and properties and plan for the event of wildfire. Get a Bushfire Plan and most importantly implement it and make sure it is reviewed every year. This will ensure their safety and give the fire authorities the best chance to protect your property should fire threatened.
People in other areas that are surrounded by dry forests types are much more use to preparing and dealing with wildfire. Climate change means the North Coast residents need to be much better prepared to deal with wildfire events.
Fire has always been a part of the Australian landscape. The traditional owners have lived within and managed this landscape for thousands of years to ensure their survival. Their cultural burning and cool burns will almost certainly play an important role in fire management in the future. The challenge is how we deliver this at the landscape level.