After the 2019–20 Victorian fire season, the Inspector-General for Emergency Management (IGEM) was charged with ‘investigating Victoria’s preparedness for the fire season, response to fires in large parts of Victoria’s North East, Gippsland, and Alpine regions, and will review relief and recovery efforts’. It has now released its second report, which looks at recovery efforts since the fires (available here).

It makes a series of observations and recommendations relating to the recovery of the environment after the fires. One is especially significant for the future of the Alpine Ash.

Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis) is the classic tree of the sub alpine forests and tends to be replaced by Snow Gum woodlands at higher elevations. In Victoria it is also known as Woolybutt. It only exists in south eastern Australia (there is also a sub species in Tasmania). In Victoria, it occurs at altitudes between 900 and 1,500 metres above sea level.

It has had 84% of it’s range in Victoria burnt since 2002. Of the Alpine bioregion’s 355,727 hectares of alpine ash forest, 65% burnt in 2002/03 in the north of the Alps, 30% burnt in 2006/2007 in the south, and a smaller area (2%) burnt in 2009. Four per cent of the forest area was burnt twice within five years. And during 2019/20, around 83,000 hectares of Ash forest was burnt, with 17,800 hectares of this being reproductively immature ash forest that burned at high severity.

We know that large old trees in ecosystems in Victoria which are dominated by Alpine Ash are in ‘rapid decline’ (source).

The Ash recovery program

After a series of fires in the early 21st century, the Victorian government had to intervene to ensure the survival of Alpine Ash communities through a ‘forest recovery program’. Since 2002, more than 85% of the Alps bioregion has been burnt by several very large fires. Alpine Ash require around 20 years between intense fires in order for regrowth to be able to produce seed (source), and more frequent blazes are threatening the viability of this vegetation community across the Alps.

This restoration initiative has been an effective program which sources seed and then aerial sows areas which have been devasted by wildfire.

The IGEM report

Alpine Ash in the Upper Ovens Valley

However, as was acknowledged in the recent IGEM second report into the 2019/20 fires:

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning was not prepared for re-seeding ash forests at the scale required despite it being a known gap in preparedness for post-fire forest restoration’.

The scale of threat to these Ash forests is hugely significant. More than 80,000 hectares of Ash (mostly Alpine Ash) was burnt over the 2019/20 season. Of these areas, about 25,000 hectares had been so impacted by fire that they were on the verge of ‘transition’ to non forest (dominated by wattles or grassland). Of that area, around 11,500 hectares have now been reseeded in the biggest operation of it’s kind in Victoria’s history. Research shows that around 90% of reseeded areas are recovering well nine months on after the fires. However, these efforts have largely exhausted the seed stock.

Clearly additional resources are required to allow this important program to be able to do its job at the scale which is required.

The detail of the IGEM report

The following text is taken from the report:

DELWP led a project to re-seed Victoria’s burnt ash forests and had prepared a Forest Restoration Project plan by March 2020. Initially DELWP received $3.33 million government funding for the project. In 2020 it received a further $7.7 million through a BRV funding bid to the government to further support this work.

Based on experiences in 2003, 2006–07 and 2009, DELWP produced a guideline document for forest recovery after the 2009 Victorian bushfires. The guidelines identified that DELWP needed to ensure it had sufficient quantity of seed in storage for future use. Victoria Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) reviews in 2013 and 2018, and a DELWP report in 2020 identified the need to store more seed for forest regeneration, and the department committed to jointly develop a strategic seed bank with VicForests.

In 2019 DELWP began to implement changes to its seed management governance and practices but a joint seed bank with VicForests had not been established by the start of the 2019–20 fire season.

After the 2019–20 fires, DELWP did not have enough stored seed to re-seed the total area of immature ash forest that was burnt. DELWP also did not have sufficient capability and capacity to implement a rapid seed collection and sowing program, so it contracted that work to VicForests. VicForests undertook this work but progress was partially slowed due to issues with authorisations for collecting seed on land managed by Parks Victoria

Despite the rapid arrangement to collect seed to boost stocks, there was still insufficient seed to sow the total area of immature ash forest that was burnt. DELWP was compelled to prioritise which areas to re-seed so it collaborated with university-based scientists who had expertise in the required modelling. This rapid collaboration was possible due to DELWP’s pre-existing relationships with scientists through a partnership with The University of Melbourne and goodwill on the part of the scientists.  

Re-seeding of the ash forests was successfully completed during autumn and winter 2020 and DELWP began monitoring seed germination in spring. By November 2020 administrative steps were underway to restock seed stores for the future, but additional seed collection had not yet commenced.

IGEM notes that following the 2019–20 fires DELWP intended to progress its work towards developing a joint strategic approach with VicForests for seed management and forest restoration programs. DELWP has also commissioned further research from university-based scientists that will help to optimise re-seeding of ash forests in the future.