Living in a land of fire

Intergrative commentary
Professor Rob Whelan, University of Wollongong
Professor Peter Kanowski, Australian National University
Dr Malcolm Gill, Australian National University
Dr Alan Andersen, CSIRO Tropical Ecosystems Research Centre
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006

Living in a land of fire: achieving better outcomes for people and the environment

Fires have played an important role in shaping Australia’s environment, and particular fire regimes are necessary to maintain most Australian ecosystems and much of Australia’s biodiversity. It is also the case that fires threaten lives and health, property, infrastructure and primary production systems. An individual fire, and a particular fire regime, can have both favourable and adverse effects on different sorts of assets across the landscape. For these reasons, managing fire and fire-prone landscapes presents significant challenges to Australians. Developing knowledge and understanding in the Australian community, policies and institutional arrangements that foster both best practice and best use of resources, and the most appropriate and adaptive management practices, are key elements of meeting these challenges.

Responses to these challenges need to account for changing demographics, such as the increase in number of rural residential properties, and the migration of Australians to the coastal zone, and for climate change; under probable climate change scenarios, changes to vegetation growth will change fuel types and loads and, under the influence of changing ignition patterns, change fire regimes. For example, the report of the inquiry into the 2002–03 Victorian bushfires discussed ‘The changing Victorian environment’, which included:

  • changing population distributions (reducing in some fire risk areas, such as rural communities, and increasing in others, such as urban fringes)
  • changing distribution of land uses across the landscape (for example, the size of the Victorian national parks estate has increased from four to 15 per cent of the state since the early 1970s)
  • changing attitudes to the use of fire and technologies for fire suppression
  • changing climate, causing an increased bushfire risk.

There is increasing interest in improving the engagement of Indigenous people in contemporary fire management, especially in northern Australia where Indigenous people are major landowners and much traditional ecological knowledge persists (Horstman and Wightman 2001; Hill and Nowakowski 2003; Russell-Smith 2002. This issue remains contentious because of uncertainty over the ecological impacts of traditional fire management and its relevance to contemporary conservation values. The case seems compelling, given that fire is currently unmanaged throughout many remote regions, and local Indigenous communities wish to play a more active role in land management as part of a broader agenda of sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous people living in outback Australia. Moreover, although Indigenous people have fundamentally different value systems in terms of people’s place in nature and the value of biodiversity, there is a lot of common ground with mainstream Australians in wanting to ‘look after country’.