FAQs about Prescribed Burning

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FAQ 1: Does prescribed or planned burning cause an overall increase in Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) amplifying “Global Warming”?

FAQ 2: What are the future risks associated with climate change and prescribed burning?

FAQ 3: Is it true that with burning you are just opening up the country for opportunistic weed species to take over?

FAQ 4: Wildfires are a natural event and cause enough damage. Doesn’t prescribed burning on areas already burnt by wildfire cause additional and unnecessary damage?

FAQ 5: Doesn’t fire reduce vegetation and therefore impact the amount and types of animals found after fire has occurred?

FAQ 6: What are land managers trying to achieve by implementing past fire regimes?

 

FAQ 1: Does prescribed or planned burning cause an overall increase in Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) amplifying “Global Warming”?

While burning of Australian landscapes is widely recognised as being a contributor to GHG, in areas that are appropriately managed with prescribed burning not only is the process carbon-neutral over time, but prescribed burning under the right conditions can sequester carbon. Gases released during burning include Carbon Dioxide CO?, Methane CH? and Nitrous Oxide N?O.

The rate and quantity of GHG emissions varies greatly with variances in fire frequency; fire severity; vegetation type; and climatic conditions having influence on fuel load, soil moisture and humidity. Wildfires caused by lightening or anthropogenic ignitions in areas that have remained unburnt for greater periods of time and planned burns conducted too late in the season will ensure greater fuel loads are consumed. The more intense the fire and greater the volume of fuel consumed the greater volume of GHG will be produced. Many organisations and property owners enjoy the direct benefits of implementing prescribed burning to achieve GHG abatement and climate change mitigation goals by conducting cool lower-intensity burns.

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FAQ 2: What are the future risks associated with climate change and prescribed burning?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections based on various scenarios include continual anthropogenic GHG emissions that imply increased temperature, extreme weather events such as cyclones and rainfall for Northern Australia, and higher incidence of drought and decreased soil moisture in other areas. Interactions such as increased fuel loads due to increased rainfall and increases in suspended fuel such as leaf litter due to cyclone activity having impact on fire intensity and fire behaviour are uncertain and risks will vary greatly between landscapes.

In these scenarios increasing the use of prescribed burning will help manage augmented growth in fuel loads including invasive exotic weeds thus preventing intense and severe wildfires later in the season. Implemented early in the season, planned fires will reduce inherent risk associated with climate change and impacts on property, life and fire sensitive ecosystems.

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FAQ 3: Is it true that with burning you are just opening up the country for opportunistic weed species to take over?

All implementation of fire has an ecological dimension. Thus the objectives of implementing fire management programs whether for property protection or weed control should be integrated holistically with other ecological objectives. Establishment of holistic burn management programs that incorporate flexibility in frequencies, timing and intensities and are effectively implemented at various scales do not require potentially destructive activities such as vast vegetation removal at a single point in time which may promote the invasion of pest species. The application of fire can in fact  eliminate the need for chemical application in some instances.

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FAQ 4: Wildfires are a natural event and cause enough damage. Doesn’t prescribed burning on areas already burnt by wildfire cause additional and unnecessary damage?

Wildfire is a natural phenomenon and disturbance caused may be advantageous to whole areas or some species or completely destructive to an entire catchment area including property and lives. Fire-prone areas that have been unmanaged with fire and have unnatural fuel build up and are targeted by arsonists or ignited by other anthropogenic or natural means are usually significantly impacted by wildfire. In cases where wildfire has been conducive to significant reduction in habitat values, a common reaction is to avoid implementing prescribed burning on these areas.

However this only perpetuates the cycle of wildfire which will continue over time and can profoundly change the structure of some habitats or destroy them completely. While wildfire is a natural phenomenon and plays an important role in Australian landscapes the aim is to reduce the intensity and spread of wildfire and this may include continuing to implement timely, small, cool fires on selected areas recently burnt by wildfire. This breaks up the homogeneity of the landscape caused by wildfire and re-establishes a fire regime that supports a diversity in refugia and resources for flora and fauna.

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FAQ 5: Doesn’t fire reduce vegetation and therefore impact the amount and types of animals found after fire has occurred?

When prescribed burns are implemented under preferable conditions and timed appropriately throughout the fire season, fire sensitive communities and species can be avoided, protection of cool, moist areas such as gullies is achieved and vegetation corridors to adjacent unburnt areas are left intact. This provides adequate shelter, food and breeding requirements for fauna and improvements such as nutrient replenishment in soils of burnt areas.

Fire regimes need to support both ‘Key Fire Response Species’ (KFRS) that are not only impacted by too frequent fires but also those KFRS threatened by extended periods of fire exclusion. Some of our biota that depends on frequent “friendly fire” is:

  • Golden-shouldered parrot
    Psephotus chrysopterygius
  • Northern Bettong
    Bettongia Tropica
  • Star Finch
    Neochmia ruficauda
  • Mulga
    Acacia aneura
  • Desert Banksia
    Banksia ornata
  • The Grass tree
    Xanthorrhoea australis

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FAQ 6: What are land managers trying to achieve by implementing past fire regimes?

While there is lack of consensus and difficulty in determining exactly what condition or ecological state the Australian landscape was in pre-European settlement, what we do know is that rapid changes have occurred since this time. The reintroduction of fire as a management tool is to try to stabilise habitats against such change by emulating fire management processes as much as possible that occurred for thousands of years before recent times. By transitioning from a wildfire regime to a fire management regime, the aim is to: prevent further decline in affected species, preserve diversity of habitats, prevent further loss of life and property, and provide stability in a changing climate.

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FFEC gives recognition to the following resources used to compile the information on this page. All resource links were current at the time of writing (March 2012).

References

Crowley, G., 2001, Savanna Burning—Understanding and Using Fire in Northern Australia, Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service, Tropical Savannas CRC, Darwin.

Department of Environment and Resource Management, 2012, Fire Management, http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/parks_and_forests/managing_parks_and_forests/fire_management.html.

Department of Sustainability and Environment, 2012, Managing the land with fire,
http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/_data/assets/pdf_file/0016/1007711LWF_strategy-Part_2.pdf.

Garnett, S.T. and Crowley G.M., 1995, Ecology and Conservation of the Golden-shouldered Parrot, Cape York Land Use Strategy, Office of the coordinator General of Queensland, Brisbane, Department of Environment, Sport & Territories, Canberra, and Department of Environment & Heritage, Brisbane.

Low, T., 2011, Climate change and Queensland biodiversity, http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/wildlife-ecosystems/biodiversity/pdf/tim-low-report.pdf.

Russel-Smith, J., B.P.Murphy, C.P. Meyer, G.D. Cook, S. Maier, A.C. Edwards, J Schatz and P. Brocklehurst, 2009, “Improving estimates of savanna burning emissions for greenhouse accounting in northern Australia: Limitations, challenges, applications”, International Journal of Wildland fire, 18, 1-18.

Stanton, P., 1995, A Tropical Queensland Perspective, Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage, Canberra.

Underwood, R., D. Packham and P. Cheney, 2008, Bushfire Front Inc. Occasional Paper No1 –Bushfires, Prescribed Burning and Global Warming, The Bushfire Front, Western Australia.

Department of Sustainability and Environment, 2004, Guidelines and Procedures for Burning on Ecological Land in Victoria, http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/100617/Guidelines_for_Ecological_Burning_2004.pdf

William, R.J., et.al., 2009, Interactions between climate change, fire regimes and biodiversity in Australia – A Preliminary Assessment, Report by a CSIRO consortium Australian Government – Department of Climate Change and Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra.