Biodiversity Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Prepared by: Dr Jann Williams, RMIT University, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06749 3

Biodiversity Issues and Challenges (continued)

Disturbance Regimes and Biodiversity (continued)

Altered Fire Regimes

  • Fire regimes
  • Fire and humans
  • Current fire regimes
  • Monitoring fire patterns [BD Indicator 6]
  • Legislative, policy and management framework for fire management
  • Reducing the impact of altered fire regimes [BD Indicator 21]
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    Fire regimes

    Fire is as much a part of the natural environment of Australia as wind, sun and rain. As a natural element, it has not only helped shape the environment, it also has been among the driving forces in the evolution of native fauna and flora (Gill et al. 1981; Whelan 1995). This has contributed to adaptations such as resprouting of many species after fire, especially the dominant eucalypts. The seeds of other plant species, such as hakeas and banksias, are held in the canopy and released by the heat of a fire. Smoke is an important cue for the germination of hundreds of plant species, particularly in south-west Australia (Roche et al. 1997). Whereas one fire alone may determine the response of an organ or organism, consideration of the fire regime (i.e. type, frequency, season and intensity of a fire experienced at a specified location, Gill 1975) is necessary to better understand responses of species and assemblages of species. A combination of fire and other environmental factors, such as life-history stage, plant condition, fire edge to area ratio, and the post-fire environment, may interact to affect biological patterns. Interactions with grazing animals and weeds can also affect the response of native biota.

    Fires help create and modify the mosaic of landscape and biological patterns within their sphere of influence and may increase the susceptibility of some areas to erosion. The complexity of fires and the way they may change native ecosystems should not be underestimated; fire effects can still be detected 20 to 30 years after the event. Much is still to be learnt about the long-term effects of both single and repeated fires on natural ecosystems.

    Despite the intimate relationship between fire regimes and the biota of Australia, fire is perhaps one of the least understood of the 'natural elements'. The popular view is that it is an element of destruction. Images on television of raging bushfires both in Australia and other countries tend to reinforce that perception, particularly within the ever-increasing urban community. Such coverage portrays fires as individual events, whereas it is the conditions of the ecosystems and their characteristics, together with the history of fires and their properties that determines the effect of fires (Bradstock et al. 2001).

    Resprouting eucalypts after a wildfire on Black Mountain, ACT

    Resprouting eucalypts after a wildfire on Black Mountain, ACT.

    Source: JE Williams

    Fruits of the Desert Banksia (Banksia ornata) split open after fire to release their seeds, in Wyperfeld National Park, Victoria

    Fruits of the Desert Banksia (Banksia ornata) split open after fire to release their seeds, in Wyperfeld National Park, Vic.

    Source: TW Norton

    Fire and humans

    The use of fire by humans has made an indelible impact on many species, including humans. For millennia, Indigenous peoples have used fire for a range of purposes including warmth, hunting, communication, ceremonies and cooking (Bowman 1998). Prior to the European occupation of Australia, landscape burning was widely used by Indigenous peoples and their effect on the environment is considered one of the most complex and contentious issues in Australian ecology (Bowman 1998). Indigenous peoples' knowledge of landscapes and use of fire remains extraordinarily detailed, particularly in central and northern Australia. A recent study on fire patterns and their impacts across northern Australia illustrates the lessons that can be learnt from traditional burning (see Pre-contact Indigenous). It also emphasises the different fire regimes that can occur on different land tenures, making the description of fire patterns across the country even more complex.

    A unique study in the remote desert west of Lake Mackay (WA) (N. Burrows, unpublished data) provides quantitative evidence of traditional patterns of burning in arid Australia. Aerial photographs taken in the early 1950s, when Pintupi people still lived a traditional lifestyle, reveals a broad-scale pattern of numerous small patches, 75% of which were less than 32 ha, and occasional large fires up to 6000 ha. In contrast, images taken in 1988 reveal a very different pattern of burning. The main exodus of Pintupi people from the remote desert into European settlements occurred in the early 1960s (N. Burrows, pers. comm.) and the cessation of traditional burning in the region is considered to have led to the much larger fires. Information such as this can be used to support contemporary fire management, especially where the reintroduction of more traditional approaches is the goal.

    In temperate Australia, the ecological connectivity and functionality has been disrupted by broad-scale clearing and other major modifications, and traditional Indigenous land management has long been replaced by management for very different aims (e.g. Williams & Gill 1995). However, a range of other techniques can be used in southern Australia to gain some understanding of historic fire regimes and their effect on the biota. These include palaeoecology, dendrochronology, ethnography and an understanding of the life-history strategies of plants and animals (Williams & Gill 1995; Kohen 1996; Benson & Redpath 1997).

    Pre-contact Indigenous, and contemporary fire regimes of the savanna landscapes of northern Australia

    Ethnographic, historical and contemporary observations concerning traditional burning, while sparse and geographically biased towards coastal and subcoastal regions in northern Australia, consistently show that burning was undertaken throughout the dry season following landscape patterns of the curing of grassy fuels, but particularly in the early-season to mid-dry season under cooler, milder conditions for fire. Burning of clan estates was/is undertaken systematically and purposefully. Contemporary evidence (from coastal and subcoastal situations) indicates at least half of any clan estate might be burnt in any one season. It is evident that, in accord with regional human population densities, burning was undertaken more frequently in higher rainfall coastal and subcoastal regions.

    Based on regional mapping of fires from satellite imagery (mostly National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer, NOAA-AVHRR and LANDSAT) from the 1980s, two broad contemporary patterns have been identified concerning the application of fire in northern Australia. In north-west and northern Australia, and around the Gulf of Carpentaria, vast tracts are burnt annually, typically by intense wildfires late in the dry season. Conversely, elsewhere across northern Australia, but especially on more productive pastoral lands, landscape burning is infrequently applied.

    Major differences (and similarities) between traditional Indigenous peoples and contemporary fire regimes may be summarised as follows:

    • Whereas burning was undertaken across northern Australia under Indigenous custodianship, burning today is concentrated mainly in non-pastoral, relatively high rainfall regions, especially in the Kimberley, in the Top End, and around the Gulf of Carpentaria.
    • Whereas burning traditionally was concentrated in the early-to mid-dry season, today it generally occurs mostly in the late dry season. Generalisation of the contemporary situation, however, masks considerable early dry season burning in some limited locations (e.g. Darwin region, Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks).
    • Whereas it is evident that burning traditionally was/is undertaken systematically for a diverse range of purposes, today where burning occurs, it often emanates from uncontrolled wildfire.
    • Importantly for biodiversity conservation, whereas an essential feature of burning by Indigenous peoples was/is that it tended to be highly patchy and thus contributed to developing habitat heterogeneity, today northern Australian savanna landscapes are either burnt frequently by typically intense, extensive fires, or seldom burnt.

    Source: Russell-Smith (2000).

    Current fire regimes

    In southern Australia, one of the main objectives in the use of prescribed burning is to reduce the rates of spreads and intensities of 'wildfires'. Experience, rather than empirical data, seems to be a major factor in assessing the value of fuel-reduction burning as a management technique.

    Altered fire regimes have been implicated in local extinctions of several vascular plant species across Australia (Gill & Bradstock 1995; Keith 1996) and inappropriate fire regimes have been associated with 19 plant species threatened with extinction at the state or Commonwealth level (Leigh & Briggs 1992). Gill and Bradstock (1995) also list 19 examples of local plant extinctions that span a wide range of life histories, habitats and locations. The changes in habitat structure that come with the decline and elimination of woody plant species under frequent fire regimes have demonstrable implications for the persistence of other groups of biota (e.g. Catling 1991; York 1999).

    Single fire events, especially of high intensity, can eliminate species as recorded for alpine conifers in Tasmania (Kirkpatrick & Dickinson 1984). Other kinds of fire regimes have also been implicated in declines and extinctions of plants. For example, the decline of woody heathland understorey species under low frequency fires has been linked to competitive exclusion (Keith & Bradstock 1994) and the lack of fire in isolated remnants in the highly cleared landscapes of southern Australia (Lunt & Morgan 2001) is of concern.

    Many Australian birds have declined since European settlement. The involvement of altered fire patterns in this decline has long been recognised (Ashby 1924). The 2000 Action Plan for Australian Birds estimated that changes in fire management affects 43% of mainland bird species (Garnett & Crowley 2000). In many cases, birds that are threatened by altered fire regimes require long-unburnt vegetation and intervals between fire longer than those which have been imposed since European settlement (Woinarski 1999). This is especially so for birds of heathlands, mallee and coastal 'scrub', and birds reliant on hollows for nesting or roosting. A major change in fire regimes is not needed to trigger biodiversity loss: even minor changes in fire regimes may be critical for some bird species and can lead to almost imperceptibly gradual, but inexorable decline, especially where habitats have been extensively fragmented (Brooker & Brooker 1994).

    The study by N. Burrows et al. (unpublished data) in the Western Desert shows that since the 1950s fire patterns in the hummock grasslands of the Great Sandy Desert have changed from small interlocking burnt patches to a simpler mosaic consisting of large tracts of long unburnt or recently burnt vegetation. This pattern has been repeated across arid and semi-arid Australia (i.e. Griffin et al. 1983; Griffin & Friedel 1985) and such changes have been implicated in the decline of small mammals in these areas (Burbidge & McKenzie 1989). Other factors such as increased levels of predation, drought and competition for resources from exotic animals also appear to have been important in the demise of small mammals (Morton 1994).

    Monitoring fire patterns [BD Indicator 6]

    Remote sensing by satellites has opened the way for mapping and monitoring the areal extent of fire activity on a continental scale. The NOAA-AVHRR satellite sensor has already been used for several years for real-time fire monitoring by the WA Department of Land Administration to identify potentially damaging bushfires in northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory. This technique was also used for a pilot study to assess fire patterns across Australia between April 1998 and March 2000 (Craig et al. 2000).

    Data were collected on fire hotspots (FHS) and fire-affected areas (FAA) and have been analysed on a seasonal basis and by IBRA. Figures 28 and 29 demonstrate the patterns of FHS and FAA across the country between April 1998 and March 2000. During this two years, 13% (1 023 189 km2) of the Australian continent was burnt. Table 34 lists the area affected by fire between 1998 and 2000 for each Interim Biogeographical Regions of Australia (IBRA) (Figure 4). The large amount of fire activity in northern Australia is immediately apparent, with large fire 'scars' (greater than 4 km2) being mapped in autumn and winter. This occurred in both years of the study, emphasising the flammable nature of northern Australia. Significant levels of burning were also recorded in the wheat belt of Western Australia and inland Queensland, thought to be related to agricultural practices.

    Figure 28: Fire-affected areas recorded for Australia between April 1998 to March 2000 derived from NOAA satellite imagery.
    Daylight passes of this satellite pick up fire 'scars' greater than 4 km2and for the two years of the pilot study (1998-2000) showed large-scale burning occurring annually across northern Australia.

     Fire-affected areas recorded for Australia between April 1998 to March 2000 derived from NOAA satellite imagery

    Source: Craig et al. (2000)

    Figure 29: Fire hotspots recorded for Australia between April 1998 and March 2000 derived from NOAA satellite imagery.
    Evening passes of the satellite were used to pick up the heat signal from fires.

     Fire hotspots recorded for Australia between April 1998 and March 2000

    Source: Craig et al. (2000)

    NOAA satellite images detect FAAs greater than 4 by 4 km and FHSs at a scale of 1 by 1 km. The resolution of NOAA images is, therefore, too coarse to pick up the fine-scale management fires in conservation reserves, where Landsat images tend to be used (Allan & Southgate 2001). Because major fires in southern and central Australia can be decades apart in the one area, longer-term monitoring would be required to quantify the frequency and extent of fires at a national scale.

    Legislative, policy and management framework for fire management

    Historically, much of the legislation concerning fire management in Australia has been about fire prevention and suppression, aimed at minimisation of loss to property and life. Legislators respond to deaths in bushfires by attempting to impose control on fire. In many cases, this legislation narrows the range of acceptable or achievable fire regimes, and in some cases outlaws regimes which are required for the conservation of some biota (Hughes 1995).

    At the state level, there are some strong legislative responsibilities related to fire planning and management for biodiversity conservation. For example, the fire management plan for Tarawi Nature Reserve in western New South Wales operates under the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) which defines the statutory obligations of the land manager and provides for establishment of District Bushfire Management Committees as a means of integrating fire management across landscapes that comprise multiple managers with varying goals. The plan also operates under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NSW), which defines the role of Nature Reserves and requires that fire management is not in conflict with the Plan of Management adopted for the reserve, and the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (NSW), which defines requirements for impact assessment, planning and implementation of recovery for listed species.

    Keith et al. (2001) proposed several principles and approaches for the use of fire as a management tool that recognises the importance of setting explicit goals, precautionary management practices, experimentation, risk assessment (see Risk assessment and management approaches to biodiversity) and the need to implement monitoring so that management practices can be evaluated and potentially modified. An important element of this approach is to try and include the unpredictable (especially unplanned fires) in management planning.

    Reducing the impact of altered fire regimes [BD Indicator 21]
  • New South Wales
  • Western Australia
  • Australian Capital Territory
  • South Australia
  • Northern Territory
  • Tasmania
  • Queensland
  • Victoria
  • Commonwealth
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    In recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis on the development of fire management plans that specifically incorporate biodiversity conservation. The current regimes for conservation reserves in each state are described as well as national parks that the Commonwealth government has responsibility for. It does not, however, address other land tenures such as State Forests and Indigenous peoples' lands (except for jointly managed conservation reserves) where fire is also important in the maintenance of biodiversity.

    Table 34: Fire affected areas (FAA) for each IBRA region (version 4) for 1998 to 1999 and 1999 to 2000 
    See Figure 4 for locations of each IBRA region.
    IBRA region name IBRA area (km2) 1998 1999 FAA (km2) 1999 2000 FAA (km2)
    Australian Alps 11 577    
    Avon wheat belt 95 316 260 83
    Ben Lomond 8 670    
    Brigalow Belt North 112 493 919 3 614
    Brigalow Belt South 287 534 335 3 320
    Broken Hill Complex 56 975    
    Burt Plain 71 815 33 493
    Cape York Peninsula 117 318 16 354 37 527
    Carnarvon 90 755 849 1 899
    Central Arnhem 36 972 7 474 30 931
    Central Highlands 11 034    
    Central Kimberley 77 128 15 749 32 681
    Central Mackay Coast 14 622   339
    Central Ranges 97 741 38 9 696
    Channel Country 305 309 269 1 684
    Cobar Peneplain 73 664 216 37
    Coolgardie 127 076 305 11
    Daly Basin 21 030 13 413 14 724
    Dampierland 90 196 23 870 38 906
    Darling Riverine Plains 106 787 1 243 745
    Dentrecasteaux 4 318    
    Desert Uplands 68 666 1 935 1 333
    Einasleigh Uplands 129 326 8 177 13 297
    Esperance Plains 35 329 160 15
    Eyre and Yorke Blocks 61 447    
    Finke 55 820   13
    Flinders and Olary Ranges 77 381    
    Flinders Lofty Block 23 773    
    Freycinet 6 503    
    Furneaux 2 409    
    Gascoyne 181 185 449 3 663
    Gawler 64 439    
    Geraldton Sandplains 37 639 171 466
    Gibson Desert 145 389 367 18 595
    Great Sandy Desert 385 885 1 779 51 381
    Great Victoria Desert 421 637 710 5 889
    Gulf Coastal 28 054 7 719 13 660
    Gulf Fall and Uplands 119 810 30 490 61 122
    Gulf Plains 213 301 13 662 45 969
    Hampton 11 875    
    Jarrah Forest 46 385 529 166
    Little Sandy Desert 104 090 232 7 728
    MacDonnell Ranges 37 010   2
    Mallee 80 052 10 3
    Mitchell Grass Downs 318 113 3 366 2 610
    Mount Isa Inlier 67 362 4 506 4 347
    Mulga Lands 264 571 296 807
    Murchison 275 282 3 147 1 393
    Murray Darling Depression 201 234 1 816 11
    Nandewar 27 560   27
    Naracoorte Coastal Plain 28 397 13 17
    New England Tableland 29 386    
    Northern Kimberley 87 081 32 276 38 117
    NSW North Coast 61 050 8  
    NSW South Western Slopes 84 037 55  
    Nullarbor 196 418    
    Ord Victoria Plain 125 785 11 471 28 122
    Pilbara 178 712 1 576 19 564
    Pine Creek Arnhem 51 622 25 015 39 944
    Riverina 90 288 178 16
    Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields 274 902 281 613
    South East Coastal Plain 18 893   10
    South East Corner 27 073    
    South Eastern Highlands 80 836 166  
    South Eastern Queensland 68 774 31 285
    Stony Plains 181 431 11  
    Sturt Plateau 99 698 14 176 48 025
    Swan Coastal Plain 15 173    
    Sydney Basin 35 933 58  
    Tanami 320 207 8 004 56 308
    Tasmanian Midlands 7 719    
    Timor 0    
    Top End Coast 69 454 24 014 35 649
    Victoria Bonaparte 73 208 33 855 34 321
    Victorian Midlands 37 158    
    Victorian Volcanic Plain 21 980 13  
    Warren 10 472   48
    West and South West 18 498 30  
    Wet Tropics 18 257 48 621
    Woolnorth 9 731    
    Yalgoo 36 032 215  
    IBRA totals 7 668 062 312 342 710 847
    New South Wales

    The New South Wales NPWS has responsibility for 4.6 million hectares of national parks and reserves. The Service has a systematic program in place to develop fire management plans that specifically address biodiversity conservation for over 200 fire-prone reserves. The system uses a flexible, adaptive management approach based on fire regime thresholds defined for broad vegetation groupings. This enable managers to adjust fire management strategies on an ongoing basis to encompass changes in fire regimes that result form both planned and unplanned ignitions.

    Effective use of the system requires commitment to continual monitoring and mapping of fires and assessment of their additive effects (the fire regime). Strategies for the protection of life and property and the management of heritage sites are also addressed. The resolution of these objectives with biodiversity conservation is accomplished through a zoning system. The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is an integral element, and a range of other databases are being developed to support the planning process. More than 30 Reserve Fire Management plans have been finalised, and over 150 are in draft form or advanced preparation.

    At a broader scale, the first round of Bushfire Risk Management Plans have been completed for major bushfire districts in the state. This initiative of the Rural Fire Service is a broad-scale attempt to coordinate cross-tenure planning for protection of lives and property, while taking into account the requirements of specific land tenures (forests, farms, parks and private property). A major focus of the Plans has been to ensure that bushfire management is ecologically sustainable. A process for assessment of risk to humans along with the ecological requirements of threatened species and biological communities is a feature of the planning approach. The completion of Risk Management Plans has necessitated major inputs from state government agencies (e.g. State Forests, Land and Water Conservation, NPWS), local government and community groups.

    Risk assessment and management approaches to biodiversity

    An increasingly important issue is the applicability of risk management approaches to biodiversity (e.g. AS/NZS 4360, revised version, Standards Australia 1999) and the Standards Australia (2000) handbook. This Standard is based on subjective interpretation of the likelihoods and consequences of hazards, and is becoming the standard for the development of risk management systems in industry and institutional risk management in Australia.

    Conservation biology embarked on a different path for risk assessment two decades before the Australian standards were developed. From its earliest inception, risk assessment for biodiversity has typically been informed by model-based (Shaffer 1981; Boyce 1992; Burgman et al. 1993; Possingham et al. 1993), or at least rule-based (IUCN 1994) risk analysis. These methods have continued to develop into a formidable array of analytic and decision-support tools. These risk assessment tools are valuable mainly because they set the decision-making process in a formal framework in which the costs and benefits of management alternatives can be explored and updated, they are relatively transparent and free of semantic ambiguity, and they provide some assurance of internal consistency. These benefits are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a subjective risk assessment framework.

    An example of the application of subjective risk assessment methods is provided by the protocols used by the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, and its Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee (GMAC). GMAC relies on subjective interpretation of available data to evaluate the risks and consequences of the various potential ecological, social and economic costs and benefits posed by GMOs. The lack of transparency and robust interpretation of data has lead the Commonwealth government to invest several million dollars in a CSIRO study aimed at developing formal, quantitative tools for assessing the ecological risks posed by genetically modified species.

    Western Australia

    Fire management on public land in Western Australia is primarily the responsibility of the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM). For each area managed by CALM, a Management Plan is prepared and approved. Each plan contains a section on fire management that explicitly deals with the need to manage for biodiversity through the application of appropriate fire regimes or fire exclusion. Plans are developed both at a regional level for groups of similar geographically related areas, as well as for single conservation parks and nature reserves.

    There are 39 approved Management Plans for terrestrial conservation reserves in Western Australia (includes National Parks, Conservation Parks and Nature Reserves) and 26 Management Plans in preparation, out of a total of 1283 conservation reserves. For many of the conservation areas that do not yet have a fully developed management plan, interim management guidelines (IMG) are prepared to enable managers to proceed with operations considered necessary for the conservation and protection of the biodiversity and ecological values of the reserve. Even though these IMG are primarily focused on fire protection strategies, they also include consideration of fire to enhance the ecological values of the area.

    Management plans for forested areas provide for a variety of fire regimes. One of the key management objectives for fire is to minimise the likelihood of entire reserves being burnt at the one time. Plans include burning for fuel reduction on varying cycles, vegetation management (with a medium-term to long-term rotation) and reference areas with no planned burning. Plans for fauna-rich areas have long-term fire regimes. Monitoring programs are also implemented in some areas to assess the effect of the prescribed burning regime on indicator flora and fauna (e.g. vulnerable species).

    In south-west Western Australia, CALM has undertaken many years of research into fire ecology and is using this information to apply varied fire regimes that will conserve natural systems as well as protect life and property. An interesting research tool has been the determination of the past fire history of jarrah forests from fire scars on the Grasstree (Xanthorrhoea spp.). Grasstrees, which live over 200 years, provide an insight into the fire frequency prior to European settlement (CALM 2000b). These data, combined with information from historical literature and consultation with the Nyungar Indigenous community from the south-west area, will better inform current fire management practices for the conservation of natural systems.

    Australian Capital Territory

    The Nature Conservation Strategy of the Australian Capital Territory (from the Nature Conservation Act) identifies fire as a key threatening process to biodiversity. This is recognised in the ACT Bushfire Fuel Management Plan 1998 (BFMP), which identified 'the maintenance of biodiversity and natural processes' as a management objective. The BFMP is a requirement of the Bushfire Act 1936 (ACT) and provides a framework for fire management on most government lands. The plan provided some coarse-scale recommendations for the conservation of biodiversity, based on general principles of fire ecology. Recommendations include indicative burning intervals for various forest and woodland communities. However, extensive research and monitoring is required to develop appropriate burning regimes for wildlife habitat management and for the conservation of biodiversity.

    ACT Parks and Conservation is the agency with primary responsible for fire management in conservation reserves, and is required to develop fuel management plans for these areas. It is the role of the Bushfire Service to implement these plans, and they have the power to accept or reject them.

    South Australia

    There is no formal process for fire management in South Australia. In the Native Vegetation Management Act 1985, burning was considered as vegetation clearance and needs approval by the Native Vegetation Council. There are no explicit criteria for the approval of burning, and instead the Council assesses each application in terms of the NVM Act and also considers advice from scientific officers. Fire management in conservation reserves is considered mainly from the perspective of fire risk and prevention. Although work is in progress by National Parks and Wildlife to develop a decision support system for ecological burning, there are no policy or management plans explicitly directed at fire management for the enhancement and conservation of biodiversity.

    Northern Territory

    The Bushfires Council (BFC) of the Northern Territory is a statutory body set up to coordinate fire management within the Northern Territory and to provide an organisational framework. Established under the Bushfires Act, the BFC operates under policy guidelines designed to achieve fire management objectives. Although the primary objective of the BFC is to reduce the total area burnt by wildfire in the Northern Territory, the maintenance of native ecosystems, by the use of appropriate fire regimes, is a key purpose of the BFC fire management strategy. To enhance the coordination of fire management, the Northern Territory has been divided into nine fire control regions, based on characteristics such as land systems, vegetation type, climate, location and service centres. Although a fire management plan is written for each region, the focus is primarily on operations for prevention and mitigation of wildfires, rather than detailing appropriate fire regimes for the conservation of biodiversity.

    As an umbrella organisation, the BFC works closely with the PWC to manage fire within Conservation Parks and Reserves across the Territory. The PWC is responsible for about 90 parks and most of these have plans of management. Each plan has a lifetime of five to 10 years and many plans are now in their second version. The PWC recognises that fire plays an important role in reaching their objective of maintaining and encouraging optimum biodiversity. In this light, most park management plans identify fire as an issue for biodiversity. Several parks also have Fire Management Plans, but specific guidelines outlining appropriate fire regimes for the long-term conservation of biodiversity are generally not provided.

    Monitoring programs have been established in both Litchfield and Nitmiluk National Parks to increase understanding of the effects of fire on the vegetation communities, and to better inform fire management practices.


    In Tasmania, the Department of Primary Industries, Water and the Environment (DPIWE) is responsible for the development of fire management plans. Generally, management plans are prepared only for parks where fire protection is an issue. Prior to 1996, management plans were almost totally concerned with excluding fires from areas. Over the past four years, ecological burning has increased in importance in the plans, but most plans still focus on reducing fuel loads. Because of the wet and cool climate and associated vegetation types, fires are not considered an issue in many of Tasmania's parks. Consequently, management plans for fire are not developed for all areas.

    There are four implemented fire management plans for conservation parks and reserves in Tasmania that specifically consider the interactions between fire and biodiversity. There are a further ten plans for which fire-biodiversity interactions are considered, but are not a significant component. Four fire management plans do not consider biodiversity, but these are under revision and are not being implemented.

    The most extensive fire management plan considering biodiversity conservation in Tasmania is for the south-west Tasmanian lowland buttongrass moorlands, in the southern half of Tasmania's Wilderness World Heritage Area. This plan provides burning prescriptions, based on detailed modelling, to enhance the development of a high level of species richness and structural diversity. The plan is intended to be an interim one until a more comprehensive plan is produced during the next three years, and incorporates principles of adaptive management to ensure research is undertaken so that management prescriptions can be refined if necessary.


    The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) drafted a state-wide fire policy in mid 2000 specifying that fire management in the conservation estate will be for ecological purposes. Fire management plans are drawn up by QPWS for individual protected areas. Most fire management plans consider biodiversity; however, the detail to which they address biodiversity-related issues varies. A new template structure was adopted in Queensland in 2000, which will require that biodiversity aspects be detailed in all fire plans over the next two to three years. The protection of ecological systems and hence, biodiversity, is one of the two main purposes for these fire management plans, the other being the safeguarding of life and property.


    Fire management on Victoria's public land is the responsibility of the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (DNRE). The DNRE has been moving gradually from a sole focus on fire protection to one of fire management that takes into account the ecological effects of fire. All public land within Victoria is covered by five regional fire protection plans that have been established under the Code of Practice for Fire Management on Public Land (DCNR 1995). Determined in consultation with relevant park and forest managers, these plans divide the State into five fuel management zones, of which two zones incorporate management for the protection of the flora and fauna values of the region. Victoria is also starting to accumulate fire management plans for specific parks and conservation reserves. Although management plans for national parks outline objectives and strategies for fire management within the park, specific guidelines for ecological burning are generally lacking.

    The paucity of ecological data relating to fire regimes has meant that consideration of biodiversity in fire management has been minimal. However, recent initiatives by DNRE and Parks Victoria have begun to address this issue. Workshops with managers of public land were held in Victoria during 1998 to discuss fire management for the conservation of biodiversity. A set of guidelines for ecological burning has been drafted, and pilot studies established to research and develop ecologically based fire regimes for a variety of vegetation types. The ultimate aim of fire management in Victoria will be to provide sufficient information on each Ecological Vegetation Class across the state, for informed decision making about fire frequency and requirements.


    The Commonwealth, through Environment Australia, manages parks and reserves established in those parts of Australia which come under its direct responsibility, such as the External Territories. The EPBC Act is the principal Commonwealth legislation for establishing and managing protected areas. The Director of National Parks is a statutory office established under the Act with responsibility to administer Commonwealth reserves. Six national parks and five national nature reserves are declared under the Act. The other nine reserves are either marine parks or botanic gardens and will not be considered further here.

    Three of the six Commonwealth national parks, namely Kakadu and Uluru-KataTjuta National Parks in the Northern Territory and, more recently, Booderee National Park in the Jervis Bay Territory are managed jointly by the Indigenous owners and Parks Australia. The other three national parks protect unique island ecosystems in the Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the Christmas Island Territory (in the Indian Ocean) and the Norfolk Island Territory (in the South Pacific). The management of exotic plant and animal species, rather than fire, is a key management issue on these islands.

    Kakadu National Park: The Kakadu National Park Plan of Management (Kakadu Board of Management and Parks Australia 1998) has four main aims in relation to fire management. These are to:

    • promote traditional Indigenous peoples' ways of burning within the park
    • protect life and property within and adjacent to the park
    • restrict fire from spreading so that it does not enter or leave the park
    • maintain biodiversity through effective fire management of species and habitats.

    Langton (2000) stated that the continuance of traditional Indigenous fire management in parallel with park management efforts in Kakadu is particularly noteworthy because of the high standard of research and documentation on these efforts and the ready acceptance of the importance of traditional knowledge of fire.

    Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park: The most recent Plan of Management for Uluru-KataTjuta National Park (Uluru-KataTjuta Board of Management and Parks Australia 2000) has the following aims for fire management:

    • maintain traditional Anangu burning practices and promote their integration into scientific knowledge, to protect and enhance the Park's biodiversity
    • protect life, property and culturally significant sites and mitigate the effects of wildfire
    • maintain community education and interpretation programs dealing with the role of fire in the Park
    • maintain a research and monitoring program and operate within a regional context, and to help neighbours suppress wildfires when resources are available.

    Tjukurpa ('the Law' governing that Indigenous community's actions and culture) is a guiding principal for fire management in the Park. A patch burning strategy is used, based on traditional patterns of burning. Anangu (the traditional owners) and Parks Australia work together to determine which areas should be burnt each year. This combines traditional ecological knowledge with the use of GIS (Allan 1997) and the results of ecological studies by western scientists. Saxon (1984) has also been used to guide fire management in the Park but it is acknowledged that this requires updating. Comprehensive, long-term monitoring is required to determine the effects of the current approach to fire management on biodiversity in the Park.