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Mountain Journal

Environment, news, culture from the Australian Alps

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fire

Progress on a fire management plan for the TAS World Heritage Area

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) is one of the largest conservation areas in Australia, covering 15,800 km², or almost 25% of lutruwita/ Tasmania. It contains huge areas of wild landscape.

Sadly, fire is a huge threat to many vegetation communities in the TWWHA which are fire sensitive, particularly in the context of a changing climate.

We know that climate change fueled fire regimes threaten the TWWHA. For instance, the amount of vegetation burnt by fires caused by lightning strikes in Tasmania’s world heritage area has increased dramatically this century, according to research led by the University of Tasmania.

Following public consultation in 2020, plans for managing fire in the TWWHA are being developed. The Tasmanian National Parks Association (TNPA) says ‘we are pleased to see belated progress towards the development of a Fire Management Plan for the TWWHA’.

Continue reading “Progress on a fire management plan for the TAS World Heritage Area”

Alpine Ash recovery program not yet ready for mega fires

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.

Continue reading “Alpine Ash recovery program not yet ready for mega fires”

Fire risk declines as forests get older

There is a long debate about whether logging tall wet Eucalypt forests increases or decreases the flammability of forests. On an intuitive level, it makes sense that allowing forests to become older will make them less flammable: over time the understorey thins out, the canopy closes in and creates a moister micro climate, and fire is less likely to climb up into the crown. In contrast, an area that has been logged will be filled with dense regrowth of highly flammable saplings and be exposed to the drying effect of sun and wind.

This is confirmed on a regular basis by research. New work considers the two common models which are used to describe how fire risk changes over time as the forest grows. The models are the ‘moisture model’, where fire risk initially increases, then decreases, as a stand develops after a fire, and the ‘Olson model’, where fire risk increases as a function of time since previous fire.

This new report – called Fire risk and severity decline with stand development in Tasmanian giant Eucalyptus forest – suggests that the ‘moisture model’ is correct in tall wet forests, and that over time fire risk is reduced.

Continue reading “Fire risk declines as forests get older”

Mt Pinnibar fires part of a bigger pattern

Mt Pinnibar (1,772 metres asl) is a lovely mountain in the far north east of Victoria, up above the Tom Groggin station in the Upper Murray Valley. On a clear day it has spectacular views of the Main Range of the Snowy Mountains.

Sadly it has also been devastated by bushfire. Most recently it was hit by fire during the horror summer of 2019/20.

The following images were taken in mid September 2021 by Trevor Staats and were originally published in the Australian Backcountry facebook group.

Continue reading “Mt Pinnibar fires part of a bigger pattern”

Future fire regimes threaten 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. Large fires occurred in 2002/03 in the north of the Alps, in 2006/2007 in the south. 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’. The problem is that Alpine Ash need around 20 years to reach reproductive maturity, so if fires happen more frequently than this, local extinction is possible because there is no seed stock to create a new forest.

New research shows us, yet again, that increased fire regimes threaten this vegetation community. Future fire regimes increase risks to obligate-seeder forests by Sarah C McColl-Gausden, Lauren T Bennett, Dan A Ababei, Hamish G Clarke, and Trent D Penman, and published on 23 September 2021 describes the impacts of fire on Alpine Ash.

Continue reading “Future fire regimes threaten Alpine Ash”

Ecological recovery in Namadgi National Park

In January and February 2020, the Orroral Valley Fire burnt more than 80% of Namadgi National Park in the ACT, leaving large areas blackened and apparently lifeless.

Monitoring the recovery of Namadgi National Park from the Orroral Valley fire has occurred since the fire. This is managed by the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate within the Department of Environment, Heritage and Water. They have just released a great visual report on the recovery of animals and vegetation communities in the park. It is mostly good news.

The report is available here.

Some highlights from the report:

Many Candle Bark forests and Snow Gums are recovering quite well.

The rate of recovery appears to be strongly affected by moisture availability.

Wetter sites, such as Snow Gum woodland near Mt Franklin Road, are recovering faster. Snow Gums on drier and rockier sites are demonstrating less recovery.

One exception to the general pattern of good recovery is Alpine Ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis), which is killed by intense fire and must regenerate from seed.

It is uncertain how well Alpine Ash will recover after two intense fires only 18 years apart; Conservation Research ecologists are currently assessing the degree of fire impact and the extent of recovery in Namadgi’s Alpine Ash forests.

Fortunately, some important stands of Alpine Ash were not affected by the Orroral Valley fire. A total of 2,415 ha, or 33% of the Alpine Ash forest in Namadgi, did not burn in 2020.

Some species can benefit from burning.

By killing shrubs, removing leaf litter and creating areas of bare ground, the fire resulted in ideal conditions for the germination of short-lived herbs and grasses.

Billy buttons (Craspedia sp.) covered the burnt slopes of Mt Gingera in November. Later they faded and set seed, to be replaced by other brightly-coloured species. By February, bluebells and paper daisies (Xerochrysum spp.) were the dominant flowers.

We may not see another flowering event like this for years or decades.

How are fauna populations recovering?

Although the fire took a heavy toll on animals, many survived, either in unburnt or lightly-burnt patches or by taking shelter beneath the ground.

The first teams onto the fire ground found a surprising number of birds (click unmute background audio to listen), mammals, invertebrates, frogs and reptiles,

Preliminary results are encouraging. The burnt areas of Namadgi still ring with an impressive array of singing birds.

Bushfire review is a chance to protect Alpine Ash forests

In March 2020, just a few months after the devastating 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires, state and federal governments rolled over the controversial Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) which give logging an exemption from federal environment laws.

A new clause has been introduced where a significant event (like the 2019/2020 bushfires) can trigger a Major Event Review (MER).

The review was announced last year, but since then logging in critical habitat for threatened species has continued, and there have been no changes to logging schedules. The review is now open to public consultation and submissions will be accepted until 31 August 2021.

You can find out more about this review here.

Continue reading “Bushfire review is a chance to protect Alpine Ash forests”

Citizen science project: tracking loss of Snow Gums

As we know, Snow Gums face a massive threat from the spread of dieback which is caused by a native beetle, but which is now being super charged by climate change.

There is another emerging issue: localised collapse of snow gum woodlands due to more frequent fires.

Friends of the Earth recently released a report called An Icon at Risk: current and emerging threats to the Victorian Alps (available here), which points out that climate driven fires are starting to lead to localised collapse of Snow Gum woodlands where regular fires have caused death of parent trees and seedlings.

These forests are fire adapted and can recover from fire. But the dilemma we face is that , since the turn of the 21st century, fires are becoming more frequent and pushing this vegetation community towards ecological collapse.

No one knows the scale of this problem.

That’s where you come in.

Continue reading “Citizen science project: tracking loss of Snow Gums”

‘High-risk bushfire days set to soar this century’

There is no doubt that climate change is driving more intense fire seasons. The world has warmed as a result of human activity and now all fire events occur in a warmer environment. We have known this for years. Back in 2008 the Garnaut Climate Change Review’s final report, said that predictions “suggest that fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense” and that “this effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020.”

New research by the CFA and Bureau of Meteorology underscores this fact yet again.

Continue reading “‘High-risk bushfire days set to soar this century’”

An Icon at Risk: current and emerging threats to the Victorian Alps

Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) are the classic alpine tree of the High Country, generally growing at heights between 1,300 and 1,800 metres asl. Anyone who has visited the Australian High Country will know – and probably love – these trees.

In recent decades, wildfire has been devastating huge areas of the Snow Gum forests, with significant fires in the Victorian High Country in 1998, 2002/3, 2006/7, 2013 and 2019/20. More than 90% of Snow Gum habitat has been burnt at least once in the last 20 years.

The species can survive fire. However, climate change driven fire seasons are leading to more frequent fire, which is causing more death of trees and changes to forest structure. In some instances, localised collapse of Snow Gum woodlands is now being observed. As climate scientist Michael Mann describes it, we are now seeing climate change play out in real time.

We must ask whether we are now seeing the start of the collapse of Snow Gum woodlands, one of Victoria’s iconic vegetation communities.

Continue reading “An Icon at Risk: current and emerging threats to the Victorian Alps”
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Getting ready for the next Big One

As Victoria shivers through a good, old fashioned winter, it might be a strange time to be thinking about fire. But next fire season will be with us soon enough, and there are some lessons for us from the horror summer currently being experienced in the northern hemisphere.

A 1.5 million hectare bushfire is raging in Siberia, and Alaska is burning. So are large parts of Turkey. The ‘heat dome’ that brought record breaking temperatures to the Pacific North West of North America has been followed by a fire season comparable with what we experienced over the terrible summer of 2019/20. California is experiencing a fire season that started in their winter. In January, Issac Sanchez, of Cal Fire Sacramento said “we’re not seeing ‘fire season’ any more. It’s just one big fire year, where we can be prepared for and expect a large destructive fire at any point.”

Continue reading “Getting ready for the next Big One”

Lessons from the Tasmanian fires of 2018/19: state has entered a ‘new era of bushfire risk’

Over the summer of 2018/19 huge fires burnt across Tasmania. An independent review of Tasmania’s management of the summer bushfires was released in August 2019. It found inadequacies in the response to the fire burning near Geeveston, and revealed that crews withdrew from the Gell River fire in Tasmania’s southwest in the mistaken belief it was out. The fire then expanded again and became out of control.

The report made a series of recommendations

Now, a comprehensive study examining the 2018/19 and the experience of authorities and affected groups by Insurance Group Zurich has found that the state has entered a ‘new era of bushfire risk’.

“Since the turn of the millennium, climate change and land use change have converged to bring about a new fire regime in Tasmania,” Zurich’s first Australian Post-Event Review Capability (PERC) report said.

More than two thousand dry lightning strikes hit the state during that summer, igniting 70 fires that formed into four massive fire complexes. Over 95,000 hectares of protected land was burnt.

Continue reading “Lessons from the Tasmanian fires of 2018/19: state has entered a ‘new era of bushfire risk’”

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