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

Effects of fire on life, health, property, infrastructure and primary production

In addition to their impacts on the environment, fires have significant impacts on life, health, property, infrastructure and primary production systems. Over the past 40 years, fires have claimed more than 250 lives, making them the most hazardous form of natural event in Australia. Their financial cost, around $2.5 billion over the same period, represents about ten per cent of the costs of natural disasters in Australia (Ellis et al. 2004). Low-intensity cool-season fires and intense uncontrollable fires can affect human health through reducing air quality.

The majority of the impacts on life, property and infrastructure occur in southern Australia, where human settlement is greatest and where extreme fire weather conditions occur in most summers. Better community knowledge and understanding of how to prepare for and respond to fire, better planning of developments, and better building design and maintenance are all necessary complements to effective bushfire readiness and response in minimising the risks from bushfire to people, their health, property, infrastructure and production systems.

Fires may be used on grazing properties to remove low palatability material, kill woody plants and promote grass regeneration. The Tropical Savannas CRC has done extensive work on fires in pastoral lands.