Fire a key tool in dealing with climate change

Fear of burning will lead to greater disasters says professor of fire ecology

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Dense stands of young trees show a landscape poorly managed for fire. This hot blaze near Tingha from last February has left little opportunity for biodiversity.

Dense stands of young trees show a landscape poorly managed for fire. This hot blaze near Tingha from last February has left little opportunity for biodiversity.

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Professor of fire ecology says we can learn much from traditional fire management and fossil records prove they were right.

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Fire management should return to the hands of local land holders who, by working with neighbours, can implement a whole of landscape approach, says a University of Queensland fire ecologist.

Dr Philip Stewart, originally from the western region of southern Africa, said more frequent, random and managed "mosaic" style burning had proven to reduce fuel loads while maintaining biodiversity.

Fossil records tell us so.

These same geological snapshots also paint a picture showing more fire during periods of warmer, drier climate.

"There is no argument that the climate is changing. There is no use pointing the finger at who did it. But the fact remains this is occurring and it exacerbates drought."

Dr Stewart points to the Bureau of Meteorology's recent State Of The Climate report which says: "There has been an associated increase in the length of the fire season. Climate change, including increasing temperatures, is contributing to these changes."

Dr Stewart said now was more important than ever to manage landscape to avoid high intensity or "catastrophic" wildfire.

"High intensity fires can be considered a form of mismanagement," he said

Fire ecologist Dr Philip Stewart is an advocate of burning as a tool for dealing with new climate realities.

Fire ecologist Dr Philip Stewart is an advocate of burning as a tool for dealing with new climate realities.

Dr Stewart has collected and analysed core samples from peat bogs on Fraser Island to discover how very different modern Australians treat fire.

Geological history tells us that there were more fires that burnt less intensely in times before Europeans arrived in Australia, he says.

However, new settlers have changed the landscape through fear of fire while inadvertently allowing the build up of fuel. Subsequent mega-fires leave tell-tale charcoal layers, understood by science.

California and Arizona have experienced similar disaster by altering the management of landscape through reduction of fire.

"The native way of burning there, like here, was to burn more frequently and less intensely," said Dr Stewart.

This Bureau of Meteorology graph leaves the viewer in no doubt about the trend towards hotter days.

This Bureau of Meteorology graph leaves the viewer in no doubt about the trend towards hotter days.

Random burning, varying the frequency and season of fires, is just as important, he says, if a man-made fire is to mimic natural cycles. He suggests perhaps, two annual burns in a row followed by a break of, say, five years then three years then six, helping palatable grasses that are slower to set seed the time to reproduce.

Too much fire too often will encourage more resilient species to out-compete, and usually these grasses are less beneficial to livestock.

By embracing a whole of landscape approach, fire will be allowed to burn some areas and not others, creating the much sought-after mosaic which helps maintain biodiversity.

To manage whole of landscape across multiple properties Dr Stewart endorses an approach similar to local landcare, where land holders work together to suppress fuel loads, while maintaining ecological biodiversity, in ways that suit their own micro-climate.

To look at how that might be done, Dr Stewart points to Western Australia and its Department of Environment and Conservation as a world leader.

"Western Australia is a hot spot for biodiversity and they are the best fire managers in the world."

Dr Stewart taking a peat core sample on Fraser Island to look for charcoal layers that might tell the story of paleo-fire.

Dr Stewart taking a peat core sample on Fraser Island to look for charcoal layers that might tell the story of paleo-fire.

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