Australia Wrestles with Fire Control

Elizabeth M. Tasker
for National Geographic News
November 11, 2002

Australia's wildfire season has hit early this year, and fire experts are predicting it may be one of the worst on record. With the memory of severe wildfires last Christmas and in 1994 still fresh in peoples' minds, fire management has become a topic of national concern.

Much of the debate is centered on how to balance the need to protect human life and property while preserving biodiversity. The issue is especially pressing on the urban fringe.

Hazard-reduction burns are being carried out in forested areas to lessen the wildfire danger. These low-intensity fires are lit under safe weather conditions to decrease the amount of fuel—leaf litter, dead branches, and flammable understory plants—so that if a wildfire does occur, it burns with less intensity.

But scientists have discovered that burning forests too often poses a serious threat to biodiversity, and are contributing their ecological knowledge to improve fire management.

"We have to divide the landscape into areas where the primary objective is management of human life and property, and others where the primary objective is biodiversity conservation," said Rob Whelan, dean of science at the University of Wollongong. "There is a need to share the landscape."

Phoenix from the Ashes

Southeastern Australia is one of the most fire-prone regions in the world. Many of its native plants, such as eucalypts, are extremely flammable because they have high levels of volatile oils in the leaves, loose flaky bark, and lots of dry leaf litter.

Every big forest fire—or bushfire, as they are termed in Australia—is inevitably followed by a media frenzy.

Newspaper headlines screaming "Bush Destroyed by Flames," accompanied by dramatic pictures of blackened landscapes, have many Australians demanding to know why something wasn't done to prevent the devastation.

"It's a common perception that high-intensity wildfires must be bad for plants and animals because they are bad for people," said Whelan. "But while individual plants and animals certainly die, what we really need to be focusing on are the populations of these species."

Populations as a whole usually survive wildfires.

"Bushfires can be seen as providing a means of ecological renewal from time to time," said David Keith, principal research scientist at the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Continued on Next Page >>


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