According to a report released by the United Nations Environment Program and environmental not-for-profit organisation GRID-Arendal, as climate change continues to destablise global weather patterns, we can expect up to 50% more wildfires by the turn of the century.

This will impact on us locally and the mountain forests we love.

One example of this is Alpine Ash forests, which have been heavily impacted by fire in recent decades. The same threats are starting to cause local collapse of Snow Gum woodlands.

Tom Fairman, Future Fire Risk analyst at the University of Melbourne, says:

Alpine Ash ‘have evolved to burn severely but at long intervals – say, 75 to 100 years. When they do eventually burn, they recover via intense seedling regeneration, but these seedlings have no capacity to regenerate for the first 20 years of their life.

“When fires start burning severely at short intervals, these forest types are lost from the landscape – and this has already happened a few times this century. If fire becomes more frequent in the future, we can expect that this type of ash forest will probably start to reduce in extent, unless we are proactive about recovering them and actively maintaining them in the landscape.”

Tom goes on to say:

“As fires become more severe and frequent, we are going to begin to see substantial changes in the composition of our landscapes.

“Do we have a policy position for those instances? Are we obliged to continue to intervene to restore those landscapes? What are we restoring it to – a state which is resilient to the challenges of future fire and climate change, or the past before anthropogenic climate change? These are questions that the sciences can’t answer alone, because they go to peoples’ values and how they view the world.”

A good news story – acting to stop the collapse of Alpine Ash

In Victoria, the state government has sought to intervene to restore Alpine Ash forests that are facing ecological collapse due to climate driven fire regimes. They have done this through establishing an aerial seeding program (further details here).

Craig Nitschke is an Associate Professor in Forest and Landscape Dynamics at Melbourne University. He says that the reseeding program is essential because of the cumulative impacts of fire on Alpine Ash communities. “Some areas have been burnt up to four times in a short period and the impacts in some areas are absolutely shocking. The Upper Ovens Valley and the Carey State Forest (just north of the Avon Wilderness) and surrounding Alpine National Park areas are priority areas for reseeding, as is almost anywhere along the spine of the Alps where the ash grow.”

Sadly the same thing is happening with Snow Gums

Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) are the classic alpine tree of the mainland, generally growing at heights between 1,300 and 1,800 metres asl. But wildfire has been devastating large swathes of snow gum habitat, with significant fires in the Victorian High Country in 1998, 2002/3, 2006/7, 2013 and 2019/20. Much of Kosciuszko National Park was burnt in 2003 and 2019/20. South Eastern Australia suffered from a drought that lasted more than a decade and this has increased the severity of the fires that have occurred since the turn of the 21st century. It is estimated that the 2019-2020 bushfires impacted 462 km2 (33%) of mapped Snow Gum forest that regularly has seasonal snowpack.

The species regenerates from seed, by epicormic shoots below the bark, and from lignotubers at the base of the tree. A lignotuber is a woody swelling of the root crown possessed by some plants as a protection against destruction of the plant stem, such as by fire.

After fire, the parent tree is often killed back to ground level, with subsequent re-shooting of leaves from epicormic shoots or lignotuber. In this way, individual trees can exist through various ‘lives’, often surviving multiple fires. However, more frequent fires is causing more death of trees and changes to forest structure. In some instances, localised collapse of Snow Gum woodlands is being observed.

Keeping fire out may be the solution in Snow Gum forests

One significant piece of research that should inform our understanding about fire on Snow Gum forests looked at the impacts of fires on Lake Mountain and the Buffalo Plateau. The report How snow gum forests and sub-alpine peatlands recover after fire was written by Fiona Coates, Philip Cullen, Heidi Zimmer, James Shannon. They used the long unburnt Baw Baw Plateau as an example of what these systems could be like in the absence of fire events.

They found that:

  • Even areas that have been subjected to hot and very destructive wildfire, such as on the Lake Mountain plateau during the 2009 Black Saturday fires, can be expected to recover – provided we can keep fires out of these systems. However, this will take time. For instance, they suggest it will take the forests at Lake Mountain at least 70 years to return to pre-fire structure. No specific management needs to be undertaken to aid this process beyond excluding fires
  • The researchers repeatedly note that there are serious doubts about the value of fuel reduction burning in these forests. They note that low intensity fires negatively impact on tree resprouting ability
  • Repeated fires change the character of Snow Gum forests, creating a multi stemmed forest of shorter trees. That is, forests get denser, with more of a ‘Mallee’ aspect to how the trees grow. They call this ‘potentially irreversible degradation of stand structure’, which has already happened to the extent that old growth Snow Gum forests are now rare. They note that the traditional open forest structure of snow gum forests will not be able to develop if there are repeated fires, as the result over time will be that forests will become dominated by lots of small stemmed trees rather than a ‘traditional’, open Snow Gum forest
  • Repeated fires can also inhibit the ability of trees to store carbon above the ground.
  • They say that ‘fire exclusion is imperative to preserve landscape quality and representation of long unburnt snow gums’

So, it would appear that we need to intervene to keep Snow Gum woodland communities viable, in the way we have with Alpine Ash. But instead of aerial seeding, it would appear that the best thing we can do is to keep fire out of these communities as they recover from fire. That will take planning, a commitment to actively prioritise these forests in high risk summers, and resourcing.

Here are some ideas.

A remote area volunteer firefighting team

This is a proposal to develop a new volunteer firefighting force specifically tasked with adding capacity to state government firefighting agencies when fires threaten national parks, wilderness and World Heritage Areas.

Further information here.

A national remote area fire fighting force

Firefighting 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 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.

National crews cannot be expected to know the terrain of the Victorian Alps in the way that local remote area teams will. But such a national team could provide welcome additional support to locals in extreme summers.

Additional air and first attack capacity

Aircraft and helicopters are essential components of modern firefighting. They are used to carry water and retardant to drop of fires, for intelligence gathering and air supervision, and moving firefighters and other staff.

Australia’s National Aerial Firefighting Centre contracts a fleet of 150 firefighting aircraft across all states and territories, which goes up to 500 when including “on call” vehicles. At the beginning of the 2019-20 season, five large air tankers and nine large helicopters were contracted from North America, but as fires worsened in November, two additional tankers were leased.

The dilemma is that as our fire seasons get longer (potentially going from September to late March), the same thing is happening elsewhere in the world.

There’s more competition for the tankers than ever before as climate change and land use patterns expose new areas to fire risk. During the 2020-21 fire season, a record number of 51 aircraft helped protect Victoria from fire. Most of these were leased.

A smart option is to purchase additional aircraft so we are not locked into a market where the price of contract rentals keeps escalating. This is the responsibility of the federal government.

For further information on the proposal for a publicly owned air fleet, please check here.

Please take action

A simple thing you can do is to sign this letter to the Victorian Environment Minister, urging her to act to protect Snow Gum communities.

The letter calls for:

  • A rapid ecological assessment of the threats posed by fire and dieback to Snow Gum communities.
  • Ongoing funding for Forest Fire Management Victoria, including additional funding for remote area firefighting teams.
  • Continued support for air capacity to fight fires, including establishing a publicly owned air fleet, as was recommended by the Bushfire Royal Commission. This is the responsibility of the federal government.
  • Creation of volunteer remote area firefighting teams, as NSW, the ACT and Tasmania have done.
  • A commitment to ensure we have sufficient fire fighting resources to protect fire sensitive communities like Alpine Ash, Snow Gums, Alpine Peatlands and Rainforest even during summers like 2019/20.

You can find out more about threats to the Victorian high country in this report.