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Towards an ecologically sustainable fire management strategy.


Ecological principles currently inform strategic fire management planning in Australian states and territories, although this inclusion has a relatively recent history. The change has been driven primarily by a greater call for accountability in land management, but also by a realisation of the important role that fire plays in our ecosystems. Here we present a short historical overview of some of the important developments in this rapidly evolving field, with a focus on Victoria.

Fire has considerable antiquity in Australia. An analysis of charcoal records over the past 70 000 years indicates fire as prominent in the landscape, with the amount of vegetation burnt largely a function of climatic variation over that time (Mooney et al. 2012). While there is considerable debate concerning indigenous use of fire (Pyne 1991; Gammage 2011; Williams et al. 2015), after European settlement there was a marked increase in biomass burning associated with land clearing and agricultural development (Fig. 1). Fire as a land management tool, however, often had unplanned consequences. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Victorian communities experienced a number of devastating bushfires: 'Black Thursday' 1851 (12 deaths); 'Red Tuesday' 1898 (12 deaths); 'Black Sunday' 1926 (60 deaths); 'Black Friday' 1939 (71 deaths). The findings of the Stretton Royal Commission held after the 1939 fires (Stretton 1939) were significant in raising fire awareness and prevention measures throughout Australia. A largely volunteer fire brigade movement was supplemented by more modern firefighting organisations and a shift from purely fire suppression to fire prevention began to gain momentum (Luke and McArthur 1978; Gill 1981).

Fire prevention meets biodiversity conservation

The 1940s and 1950s saw early policies of fire exclusion to protect timber resources replaced by programs of prescribed burning (nowadays referred to as planned burning), facilitated by the development of fuel behaviour guides, improved aerial ignition capacity and postwar technological advances (Luke and McArthur 1978). Gradually, from the mid-1950s onwards, broadscale planned burning programs were introduced into the Victorian landscape (Fig. 2). The 1960s and 1970s also saw the growth in numbers of conservation societies in Victoria and increasing concern about the impact of widespread planned burning on landscape values, particularly non-wood values (Gill 1981). Conflict developed between proponents of planned burning and environmentalists, particularly in areas set aside for conservation (e.g. national parks) (Moulds 1967).

Conscious of the debate concerning possible effects of this new fire prevention strategy on Australian temperate forests, research projects were established by forest management agencies in southern Queensland (Bauple State Forest long-term fire experiment; see Lewis and Debuse 2012) and NSW (e.g. the Bulls Ground Frequent Burning Study; see York 2000). These were later augmented by the Eden Burning Study Area in southern NSW (see Binns and Bridges 2003) and the Wombat Fire Effects Study in central Victoria (see Tolhurst and Flinn 1992). While initially focusing on the effects of planned burning on timber supplies, these projects all diversified to include a strong biodiversity component and became the basis for much of the later developments in fire ecology research and management policy.

A framework for fire ecology

With anecdote and opinion largely driving debate around fire and conservation issues in the 1960s and 1970s, scientists needed a structured framework with which to examine data and draw objective conclusions. Such a framework was provided by Malcolm Gill, whose 'Fire and the Australian flora: A review' (Gill 1975: 21) provided a 'basis for discussion of guiding principles in the use of fire regimes as management tools'. The fire regime concept provided the theoretical basis for subsequent research and continues to underpin fire science and management in Australia today. The concept of plant 'vital attributes', developed by Noble and Slatyer (1980), classified plants by their (i) method of arrival or persistence during and after disturbance (e.g. seeder, resprouter), (ii) ability to establish and grow to maturity, and (iii) the time taken to reach critical life stages (e.g. reproductive maturity). An understanding of how the fire regime influences vegetation communities through its interaction with species' vital attributes allows us to both understand observed responses of plants to fire (death/persistence), and then predict changes to populations and communities after subsequent fires (e.g. succession).

Development of ecologically-based fire regimes

This framework facilitated a dramatic increase in fire ecology research and knowledge, generating numerous scientific reports and papers subsequently summarised and integrated in a series of influential books (e.g. Gill et al. 1981; Whelan 1995; Bradstock et al. 2002, 2012). Equally important was the coordination of workshops and symposia that brought researchers and land managers together. The biennial Australian Bushfire Conference series (1987-2006, 2016)' and Nature Conservation Council of NSW 'Bushfire Management Conference' (1994 to present; see http://www. facilitated a regular exchange of ideas concerning ecologically appropriate fire management. In 1994, the Victorian National Parks Association and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources hosted 'Fire and Biodiversity. The Effects and Effectiveness of Fire Management' (Commonwealth of Australia 1996). This meeting built on earlier conferences to showcase applied fire ecology and engage in meaningful discussion with management agencies.

In Victoria in 1998, those agencies responsible for park and forest management entered into a unique partnership designed to improve the understanding of the role of fire in the maintenance of biodiversity. The Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE (1)) and Parks Victoria initiated a Steering Committee, a Working Group and Regional Reference Groups, and held a series of workshops across Victoria (Friend et al. 1999). The Working Group subsequently produced a set of guidelines for ecological burning (Fire Ecology Working Group 2004) which set out the policy framework, key principles and procedural framework for ecological burning on public land. It drew heavily on the science that had developed around an understanding of fire regimes and plant vital attributes. Vital attributes could be used to define Key Fire Response Species (KFRS), species whose attributes indicate that they are vulnerable to either a regime of frequent fires or to long periods of fire exclusion. Tolerable Fire Intervals (TFIs) for a given community or vegetation type were then identified, where the shorter TFI is set by the species that takes the longest time to reach reproductive maturity and the longer TFI is set by the species with the shortest time to local extinction as a result of senescence. TFI forms the ongoing basis for monitoring landscape condition and reporting ecological impacts of fire management in Victoria, although it is currently being supplemented by additional metrics (see below in Recent developments). These Guidelines complemented a second substantive document (Tolhurst and Cheney 1999) which summarised the broad suite of scientific principles that underpinned the operational use of planned burning. To help implement ecological strategies across public land, nine Fire and Environment Planning Officers (FEPOs) were appointed within Parks Victoria in 2004, while in 2005 the Code of Practice for Fire Management on Public Land was revised to include these new fire ecology structures. Ongoing development of the Fire Ecology Program saw the release of a Strategic Directions document (DSE 2006) outlining a substantial investment in ecological research and monitoring programs.

Including fauna

While it was recognised that shelter, food and breeding requirements largely determine an animal species' response to fire and its post-fire successional patterns (Fire Ecology Working Group 2004), explicit fire management strategies for fauna were limited to those regarded as of particular conservation significance. As pointed out by Clarke (2008), ecological fire management is often built on the assumption that meeting the needs of plant species will automatically meet the needs of animals. Management frameworks provide little guidance regarding the characteristics of desirable 'mosaics' of fauna habitat (e.g. patch size, connectivity or composition of successional (time since fire) stages). To address this issue, and the knowledge gap concerning the fire response of most animals, the Arthur Rylah Institute developed an approach that used existing data and expert knowledge to estimate the response of particular animal groups to disturbance (MacHunter et al. 2009). They generated hypothetical response curves (Fig. 3) which could be used to estimate the change in population size of faunal species following disturbance such as fire. This information could be used in conjunction with post-fire vegetation responses (Cheal 2010) to link animal numbers to post-fire growth (seral) stages, going part-way to understanding how fire mosaics (patches of different age) might influence overall animal numbers and hence population viability.

Managing landscapes

Ecosystems are naturally heterogeneous, a function of topography, soils, climate and disturbance history. Disturbance regimes affect environmental heterogeneity by resetting successional processes, over time producing a 'shifting mosaic' or 'mosaic cycle', providing perpetual resource complexity at a range of spatial scales and facilitating species' coexistence (Di Stefano and York 2012). Environmental heterogeneity at a range of spatial scales is fundamental to the maintenance of biodiversity.

Following the large and significant 2003 and 2006-2007 bushfires, DSE became increasingly concerned that such extensive fires were reducing landscape heterogeneity. The DSE Fire Ecology Program instigated major reviews of fire and its relationship to ecosystem resilience, disturbance regimes and landscape heterogeneity (McCarthy 2012; DiStefano and York 2012), which provided the basis for future work and policy development on ecosystem resilience and fire management (see below in Recent developments). DSE also initiated a plan to increase the amount of planned fire in the landscape to break up large homogeneous areas while still providing the right mix of fire at appropriate frequencies, seasons, intensities and scales. It was anticipated that this 'mosaic burning' undertaken at a landscape scale would help reduce the size, severity and impact of large-scale fire events, and maintain healthy and resilient ecosystems (DSE 2009). The Landscape Mosaic Burning program was introduced in 2009 in an Adaptive Management context, accompanied by a substantial investment in research with partner institutions. Research projects investigated aspects of fire refuges in the Central Highlands (e.g. Robinson et al. 2013; Leonard et al. 2014), fire mosaics in East Gippsland (Muir et al. 2015) and the Otway Ranges (e.g. Sitters et al. 2014; Cohn et al. 2015). Outputs from this research have identified the strengths and weaknesses of using post-fire growth stages as surrogates for fauna habitat (e.g. Swan et al. 2015) and helped refine our understanding of how other aspects of the fire regime and landscape features influence animal populations (e.g. Chia et al 2015).

Recent developments

If we know the relationship between animal species distributions, their abundance and post-fire growth stages, then conceptually we can define a vegetation age class distribution that maximises biodiversity at a landscape scale. DiStefano et al (2013) investigated which vegetation age class distributions maximised a measure of diversity (the geometric mean of abundance [GMA]) for a range of taxa in the heathy stringybark woodlands of western Victoria. They found that the optimal solution differed between taxa (vascular plants, birds, small mammals and terrestrial invertebrates) and proposed that the departure from the optimal solution could be used to quantify the impact of alternative management strategies. This approach was subsequently tested in Mallee landscapes (Kelly et al. 2014) and explored in a theoretical context as it relates to extinction risk (McCarthy et al. 2014; Giljohann et al. 2015).

The revised Code of Practice for Bushfire Management on Public Land (DSE 2012) sets out two primary objectives for bushfire management. The second of these has a strong environmental/ecological focus: 'To maintain or improve the resilience of natural ecosystems and their ability to deliver services such as biodiversity, water, carbon storage and forest products' (DSE 2012: 1). DELWP has recently developed a policy position for defining, measuring and reporting ecosystem resilience in the context of bushfire management. This policy underpins the overarching Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting (MER) Framework for Bushfire Management on Public Land, a keystone document that DELWP has developed to track and report on the effectiveness of bushfire management on public land in Victoria (DELWP 2015; healthy-environment.

At the landscape level, DELWP will continue to use TFI as a metric, reporting the proportion of areas within and outside TFI thresholds and on the proportion of the landscape burnt by planned burns and bushfires while already below minimum TFI. The GMA (known as G, see Buckland et al. 2011), derived from species abundances (see above), is to be used as a supplementary measure of the resilience of plant and animal communities (see McCarthy 2012). Concurrently, DELWP will be monitoring vegetation growth stage structure (GSS) based on the premise that a particular mix of vegetation growth stages and habitat structures across a landscape can potentially optimise biodiversity, and hence ecosystem resilience. The proportional change in G between the ecological goal and the observed (current) GSS for Ecological Fire Groups (vegetation classes; see Cheal 2010) will provide a measure of ecosystem resilience. In a resilient and sustainable ecosystem the difference in G between the ecological goal and the observed GSS will be minimal. This information can then be used to select a preferred management strategy and report on its effectiveness.

Future directions

Recent advances in defining ecologically appropriate fire regimes have allowed managers to move away from a narrow focus on fire sensitive vascular plants (KFRS) to include vertebrate animals in the development of monitoring and assessment protocols. A major challenge for the future will be to routinely include megadiverse (but currently excluded) groups such as fungi and invertebrates (New et al. 2010; McMullan-Fisher et al. 2011); groups that play essential roles in nutrient cycling and other ecological processes (York et al. 2012).

Refinement of resilience metrics is ongoing in conjunction with DELWP's research partners. Aspects of the goal GSS are strongly influenced by the way data are collected (sampling design) and which species are included (sampling efficiency and species priority). Should we give stronger emphasis to threatened or locally significant species, or should all species be weighted equally? A current assumption of the growth stage optimisation is that vegetation is contiguous (connected) across the landscape; however, much of Victoria's public land is fragmented by agricultural and urban development. Should fire mosaics be created in every patch or is there some scale at which we can manage patches together as one unit? Can we include some measure of an animal's dispersal capability and specific habitat requirement at different stages of its life in the calculations? Adaptive Management requires continuous learning and improvement, so refinement of resilience metrics and their implementation will be ongoing.

We have come a long way in the 30 years since Malcolm Gill introduced the fire regime concept, and made significant progress in incorporating ecological principles and objectives in the management of our fire-prone environments. As our biodiversity faces increasing threats from changing climate, pests and weeds, and altered fire regimes, it is essential that we have management strategies underpinned by rigorous science. Victoria is a leader in this field and will continue to support research to provide evidence-based policy development and to develop and test new ecological management models through the principles of adaptive management, as provided in the MER Framework.

Received 21 April 2016; accepted 16 June 2016


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(1) There have been numerous changes in the agency name over time, including: DNRE; Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE); Department of Environment and Primary Industry (DEPI); Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).

Alan York [1] and Gordon Friend [2]

[1] School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, The University of Melbourne, 4 Water Street, Creswick, Victoria 3363. Email:

[2] Bushfire Risk Assessment Unit, Forest, Fire and Regions Group, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, 8 Nicholson Street, East Melbourne, Victoria 3002
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Title Annotation:Contributions
Author:York, Alan; Friend, Gordon
Publication:The Victorian Naturalist
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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