Extreme fires of 2019-20 leave no room for ‘productive’ and replenishing fires


Fran Molloy

Native banksia plants only shed their seeds after bushfire to land in ash-covered weed-free soil.

Experts say the Blue Mountains are adapted to natural fires, but this season’s bushfires have been too extreme for the ecosystem to cope.

Following a devastating fire season in the Blue Mountains, guides from the area say that fires are a vital part of the longevity of the region… if burned the right way.

But this season’s extreme bushfires have left much of the landscape in a state that won’t bounce back so easily.

Debates around responses to recent bushfires have left some people confused because they haven’t realised there is a distinction between productive fire (which benefits the landscape), and the devastating recent bushfires which have caused permanent damage to large tracts of Australia’s East Coast wilderness.

Fire productive system

Australia’s ecology represents a fire productive system, said Tim Tranter, Tread Lightly Eco Tour Guide, regional firefighter, lecturer, and Blue Mountains local.

He explained that within one day of a fire, “eucalyptus trees start to reproduce leaves, within 25 days there are new leaves on trees, within 100 days we have balanced ecology, and within one year we have restoration of the canopy structure to the point that everything is normal.”

This, however, is only possible when fires are natural.

Natural fires on the decline

Natural fires are generally started by lightning, Tranter said.

His claim is backed up by plenty of others, including NSW Rural Fire Service Inspector Ben Shepherd when speaking with the ABC in January.

Preventative burning practices which encourage slow-burning cooler fires, such as those practiced by Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years, are also an essential part of fire management.

Without these, “dangerous conditions result from a build-up of fuel loads,” Victor Steffensen, Indigenous fire practitioner, told the ABC last November.

Following longer fire seasons and extreme weather, along with a lack of expertise in conducting prescribed burns, fire services have struggled to find suitable times when it is safe to do preventative burning.

With a loss of controlled burns, “fuel loading will increase and contribute to the acceleration of fire and exacerbation of fire. It has caused fires that normally burn over a four to five year period to burn within two months this past year,” said Tranter.

Climate change a key factor

The fires this season were also extremely hot, caused by high air temperatures, low humidity, and dry conditions due to a massive drought that has been present in NSW since 2017.

There is wide consensus that climate change contributed both to the drought, and to the hot and dry conditions that exacerbate Australia’s bushfires.

The changing climate creates an imbalance, introducing “more heat, more drought, and more evaporation which makes for drier, hotter, and more arid conditions that creates more fire problems,” said Tranter.

The rising levels of greenhouse gases are causing the Earth’s atmosphere to trap more heat from the sun, thus warming the planet.

Species don’t recover following extreme fires 

Tranter explains that the extremely hot and more frequent fires that have resulted from climate change devastate biodiversity.

Under natural fire conditions, many plant species thrive and reproduce.

But humans have affected the environment so that bushfires now burn hotter, and for longer periods, causing “more destruction” said Tranter.

Species that have adapted over thousands of years to the quick nature of natural fires, are unlikely to recover from the most recent fire event.