Bushfires are increasing in size and frequency

  Last updated May 22, 2020 at 11:11 am


Major bushfires can no longer be looked at as infrequent events, and major changes are needed to protect lives and ecosystems, say researchers.

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Bushfires ravaged East Gippsland in January 2020. Credit: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Why This Matters: Bushfires have always happened, but not like this.

A new study by researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) has shown for the first time the full extent of the areas burned by Victorian bushfires over the past two decades.

Researcher Professor David Lindenmayer says the results indicate a major overhaul is needed when it comes to fire and land management.

The study maps where bushfires took place across Victoria between 1995, the start of the millennium drought, and 2020.

“This is the first time we’ve seen the full spatial extent of bushfires dating back 25 years,” Lindenmayer says.

“What we found is the state is burning more and more. Prior to 2000 we had one mega-fire in Victoria in 150 years of records. Since 2000 we’ve already had three.”

Also: The Australian bushfires were a fiery wake-up call

“We can also see the extensive and frequent re-burning of previously fire-damaged areas – sometimes with a gap as short as five or six years.”

“These results make a compelling case for a major policy shake-up, with the aim of reducing mega-fires, protecting unburnt areas and managing repeatedly damaged ecosystems.”

The research has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Repeated burning of the same areas

In the 2019-2020 season alone, bushfires burned approximately 1.5 million hectares in Victoria – roughly double the size of the entire Melbourne metropolitan area.

“This is the largest area impacted by bushfires in Victoria since 1939, when 3.4 million hectares burned,” Lindenmayer says.

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Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning crew get into their vehicle to respond to a call on January 04, 2020 in East Gippsland. Credit: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

“Of the 1.5 million hectares burned during the 2019-2020 fire season, more than 600,000 hectares have burned twice, and more than 112,000 hectares have burned three times over the past 25 years.”

Lindenmayer says if we don’t make changes to fire, resource and conservation policies, vital ecosystems and livelihoods will be at risk.

“We can no longer look at bushfires as unexpected out of the blue events. The data tells us they’re only becoming more frequent,” he says.

Also: Some say we’ve seen bushfires worse than this – but they’re ignoring a few key facts

“This impairs the ability of the ecosystem to recover. This includes areas that provide people with access to water, as well as vital habitats and protected areas like state forests.

“Our analysis shows bushfires have had a pronounced impact on particular ecosystem types, areas of high conservation value, and the use of resources for industry. These findings, in turn, underscore an urgent need for new policies and approaches to land management.

Unburnt areas are crucial for biodiversity

Major bushfire events like the most recent summer bushfires also have a huge impact on timber production, with extensive amounts of timber resources burned in areas like East Gippsland.

Two-thirds of the area that was planned for logging in East Gippsland in the next five years was burned – this is 30 per cent of everything targeted for logging in Victoria by 2025.

“Proposals to shift logging into unburnt areas are unacceptable – those unburnt areas are too important for conversing biodiversity,” Lindenmayer says.

“In highly fire-prone areas like Victoria’s native forests, there’s an urgent need to shift wood production into geographically dispersed tree plantations.

“The large amount of native forest in Victoria dedicated to logging that is now burned means that native forest-dependent logging industries will no longer economically and ecologically tenable.”

While the study focused on Victoria, the researchers say their findings could apply to other areas in Australia and overseas which are under threat from widespread, recurring bushfires.

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