A recent report looked into the impacts of climate change and other human activity on protected areas. It was pretty much as you would expect – these areas, protected because of their special values, are now at risk. According to various media stories (for instance this one in The Guardian) ‘Forests in at least 10 Unesco world heritage sites have become net sources of carbon since the turn of the millennium due to wildfires, deforestation and global heating’.

While this report takes a global perspective, it does contain details on two Australian systems – the Greater Blue Mountains Area and Tasmanian World Heritage Area – there are also some details relevant more broadly to protected areas in mountain areas of south eastern Australia.

The report World Heritage forests, Carbon sinks under pressure (available here) notes:

Protected areas such as Yosemite national park in the US, the Greater Blue Mountains area in Australia and the tropical rainforests of Sumatra in Indonesia are among the sites that have emitted more carbon than they absorbed since 2001 as a result of human activities, according to research by the World Resources Institute, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Unesco. The analysis found more sites were expected to switch from sinks to sources of carbon in the coming decades.

The causes of this vary around the world, but here in Australia it is all about climate change making fire seasons more intense:

‘Despite fires being part of natural ecological processes in many dry temperate/tropical and boreal forests, and often induced by human activities, they are considered climate-related threats in this analysis because intense fires that have considerable impacts on emissions are usually associated with extreme temperatures and drought conditions that are driven by climate change’.

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The report notes:

‘Since the mid-2010s, intense wildfires associated with extreme temperatures and drought conditions have been a cause of high emissions at some sites. The most prominent examples are wildfires in the Russian Federation’s Lake Baikal in 2016, and in Australia’s Tasmanian Wilderness and Greater Blue Mountains Area in 2019 and 2020’.

This is evident in both mainland Australia, which has seen a rise in the number of ‘mega fires’ since about the year 2000, and in lutruwita, where researchers have noted:

‘From the year 2000, they found an increase in the number of lightning-caused fires and an increase in the average size of the fires, “resulting in a marked increase in the area burnt”.

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A number of the Unesco sites around the world have experienced the same thing: ‘such as the Greater Blue Mountains Area (Australia), Yosemite National Park (United States), and Waterton Glacier International Peace Park (Canada/United States) have experienced such intensification, frequency and elongation of fire seasons since 2000 that they have become net carbon sources’.

Forests and other natural environments that have been protected for their natural values but also provide a wonderful range of ‘services’, including opportunities for recreation, economic activity (for instance from nature based tourism), production of water, and storage of carbon. In face the Mountain Ash forests of the mainland mountains and lutruwita are among the most carbon dense forests on the planet. Yet, climate driven fires threaten these carbon stores, which means they start to contribute to further warming rather than offsetting it.

How to respond

On the global scale, the report identifies three ‘Pathways for action’ to protect World Heritage carbon sinks:

  • Rapid and effective responses can help prevent devastation from climate-related events
  • Support mechanisms that maximize intactness and connectivity of forests
  • Integrate World Heritage sites into climate, biodiversity, and sustainable development agendas

The first one is most relevant to Australia:

Rapid and effective responses can help prevent devastation from climate-related events

The report notes:

‘World Heritage sites are increasingly affected by climate-related events, such as wildfires and storms, which can have devastating consequences if they are not addressed rapidly and effectively.

‘Extinguishing fire sources before they develop into conflagrations can avoid producing extensive emissions in sites in which they have not historically occurred.

The key message of this report: get on top of fires before they get beyond our control (I will leave aside the issue of using fire in landscape for now and just focus on response to wild fire).

This resonates with a recent report from Friends of the Earth, An Icon at Risk (available here) which considers the threats to the Australian Alps. It identifies climate change driven fire regimes as a key threatening process for the mid and high elevation forests of these mountains (the Alpine Ash forests and Snow Gum woodlands). It makes a series of recommendations, which are largely relevant to both the Blue Mountains and Tasmanian World Heritage Area.

These are the responses most relevant to the Blue Mountains and lutruwita/ Tasmania:.

Build our fire fighting capacity

Remote area firefighting.

Protecting trees on containment lineWe must continue to invest in career remote area firefighting teams, who are responsible for tackling fires in our national parks and state forests, with the aim of stopping them while they are small. Victoria should also invest in creating a volunteer remote area force, as NSW, Tasmania and the ACT have done.

Background information is available here.

A national remote area fire fighting force?

20201130_125638Firefighting resources – crews and appliances and other forms of support – are shared around Australia according to need. Remote area firefighting – which is often arduous and dangerous, requires specific training and skills and hence regular volunteer brigade members cannot be deployed in these scenarios. One option that has been discussed for years is the proposal for the federal government to establish a national remote area firefighting force which can be deployed as needed across Tasmania and mainland states when World Heritage and National Parks are at risk.

This was recommended by a Senate inquiry after the devastating fires in Tasmania of 2016.

A national, publicly owned air fleet. One of the recommendations of the recent Bushfire Royal Commission report recommends the creation of a national publicly-owned aerial firefighting fleet, which can then be allocated to the states “according to greatest national need”. The federal government has refused to adopt this recommendation.

To add your voice to the call for a national air fleet, please check here.

For background information on fires and the need for a fleet, please check here.

Increase funding for national parks. National parks should be allocated a minimum of 1% of each state’s annual budget to allow park managers to adequately respond to threats from fire and invasive species.

As always, action is the antidote to despair.

But a year and a half on from the disastrous summer of 2019/20, it does feel like we have, as a nation, slipped back into a business as usual approach to fire. Let’s hope we take the required action before the next crazy fire season.

Additional resources on fire here.

Friends of the Earth resources.

Mountain Journal resources.

HEADER IMAGE: burnt forests in Tasmanian World Heritage Area, 2019

Firefighter image: Geoff Browne

Tables taken from the World Heritage Forests report.