There is a lot more to prescribed burning, also known as controlled burning, than just lighting the match as a changing climate and environment poses new challenges for fire authorities.
Deputy chief fire officer with Forest Fire Management (FFA) Victoria, Darrin McKenzie, said autumn burning this year was particularly challenging and the state only managed to achieve about 30 per cent of prescribed burning programs.
The bushfire season ran into early April and most of the 66,000 hectares of prescribed burning the state managed to achieve was condensed into a two-and-a-half week window.
“But we were quite strategic in what burning we were able to do. We’re always looking to maximise the risk reduction outcomes,” Mr McKenzie said.
Despite getting in a few burns in the last couple of days, he said the dry winter for parts of the state, particularly in East Gippsland and parts of the north of Victoria, could also limit the amount of prescribed burning in spring.
“We’re still looking for opportunities where we can safely do the burns, but just due to that underlying dryness in parts of Victoria we are probably going to see fairly limited opportunities through the spring,” he said.
Fires have already been active in Victoria this year and it is looking like an early start to the bushfire season.
Mr McKenzie said it looked like New South Wales and southern Queensland were in a similar position.
What is prescribed burning?
Prescribed burning is when fires are deliberately lit to manage the land.
With contemporary prescribed burning, the goal is usually to reduce the amount of vegetation available so summer bushfires are less dangerous.
Historically, in the south of Australia, contemporary prescribed burning was usually carried out in spring and autumn when it is hot and dry enough for fires to start and spread but not so bad that the fires whip up out of control.
Why is prescribed burning controversial?
Contemporary prescribed burning has been controversial going all the way back to the first foresters.
Today the main arguments against prescribed burning are that it does not help reduce the damaging impacts of bushfires, and/or that it causes problems for biodiversity.
Bushfire research scientist Neil Burrows, who has been working in the WA bushfire scene since the 1970s, disagrees with those arguments on a number of grounds.
“Bushfires get their severity, or their intensity, or their killing power from how much fuel they burn. Prescribed burning removes some of that [fuel],” Dr Burrows said.
“We’ve been prescribed burning for 60 years and on analysing the data we can see a very strong trend between how much prescribed burning we do and how much bushfire there is.
“The more prescribed burning we do, the less bushfires we have.”
Dr Burrows said in south-west WA they needed to burn around 8 per cent of the total forest region each year to have a mitigating effect on bushfires.
“If we burn less than that, we find the area burned by bushfire goes up,” he said.
When it comes to biodiversity, he argued that low intensity prescribed burns were less harmful to biodiversity than the intense bushfires they prevented.
Prescribed burning is not the only form of fuel reduction to take place on our great southern land.
Oral McGuire, a Noongar man from the south-west of Western Australia, said traditional burning practices were the very first form of prescribed burning.
“In Noongar we call it karl-ngara,” he said.
He said, like contemporary prescribed burning practices, traditional burning was carried out based upon parameters and perimeters.
But with traditional burning there was a different perspective and mindset around the way that it was practised and its purpose.
“Traditional burning was really about maintaining balance in country,” he said.
“The balance was about the biodiversity, the ecology, the environmental make up of the systems and ecosystems that existed on country.”
He said that initially, people used fire for hunting but eventually the process evolved into maintaining native grasslands.
“Aboriginal people created grasslands and pasture lands where, over time, they became known and secured hunting grounds for the kangaroo and wallaby and emu.”
Prescribed burning and climate change
The aptly-named Deb Sparkes is the coordinator for the Centre of Excellence for Prescribed Burning and said the amount of time available for burning is getting smaller.
“With climate change, what we’re seeing is that the summer season is getting longer so it’s staying too dry for too long for [prescribed burning authorities] to undertake their prescribed burns,” Ms Sparkes said.
“That little window between the bush fire season is shortening so we’re either going to lose the window altogether, especially if winters stay dry, or we’re going to have to shift our thinking to doing prescribed burning in winter.”
The researchers are not operating on a future set of scenarios.
Dr Burrows said he had already seen the impacts of climate change on fire seasons first hand and has been working to mitigate its effects.
“In the past 10 years or so we’ve actually had periods during a winter when we’ve been trying to do some burning,” he said.
Dr Burrows said he does not think winter burns would have a negative impact on the native flora and fauna.
“For any patch of bush, it’s unlikely to get a frequent winter burning,” Dr Burrows said.
Ms Sparkes said winter burning can present other issues.
“We have the shorter days in winter, so therefore they may not have that opportunity to burn as much land as they wanted during the daylight hours before the fire behaviour dies down,” she said.
“Also, having crews out mopping up in the dark is a safety risk to our crews.”
FFA Victoria’s Darrin McKenzie said that in his state the shortening burn window was limiting their ability to implement their burns, as well as their ability to manage the impacts on things like community events.
“Because we’re tending to concentrate our burning into a smaller window we tend to … put a lot more smoke to the atmosphere in a shorter period of time and people’s tolerance of that is certainly reducing, I think,” he said.
Traditional burning and climate change
Noongar man Oral McGuire said that because of their adaptive management mindset and the way that they adapt the practices of traditional burning and cultural knowledge, global warming is not an issue in traditional burning.
“Yes, we’ve got to shift and change and adapt to what we’re doing. But in many cases we are not burning a old growth forest, or traditional systems and ecosystems, or environments,” he said.
“We are actually dealing with really damaged environments that are not part of their natural state.
“So part of that process of healing country is … for us to practice our original practices, our traditional burning ways, to get country in those ecosystems and those environments back to some sort of a balance with what they used to be.
“They are way out of balance of all of that right at the minute.”
For the last ten years, Mr McGuire has been working to heal his property on the Ballardong country in the Wheatbelt region of south-west WA.
“I’m infusing it with a lot of ceremony, a lot of language, a lot of hands-on stuff from us as traditional owners and custodians, and obviously through re-vegetation, so the rehabilitation practices and re-vegetating the country with biodiversity that was there — what we believe was there — before it was cleared,” he said.
Mr McGuire thinks he is about half way through the process.
“God gave traditional owners and custodians of all of the regions the authority and the law and the right to manage on behalf of the great spirit,” he said.
“If it’s about country, there’s got to be aboriginal involvement.”
Is prescribed burning all it takes?
Dr Burrows said prescribed burning is a cornerstone, but in itself does not protect communities.
“What protects communities and what protects the values of firefighters? Community preparedness, people knowing what to do in the event of a bushfire — and even before the bushfire arrives, cleaning up flammable fuels around the houses — [all the things] emergency services advertise leading into the bush fire season,” he said.
Dr Burrows said prescribed burning greatly helps those factors, as well as greatly helping firefighters put the fire out.
“Bushfires in low fuel areas, where there’s been a prescribed burn, burn much slower,” he said.
“It gives people and communities time to respond and to react.”