Some 10 months ago, Australia was reeling from a devastating series of bushfires along the eastern seaboard and parts of Tasmania and South Australia. Recovery of these forests and many towns and communities has been hampered by a range of factors, not least of which has been the COVID-19 global pandemic, which has restricted movement and land management activities the world over.
At the height of the bushfires, Indufor assessed the impacts on forests and the implications for future management in Australia. Now, as Australia heads back into a new fire season, we reflect on key developments since and the current situation.
Following Indufor’s article in late January, the bushfires continued through February and the season extended until March. Reports to the national government on 28 February 2020 stated that over 17 million hectares (ha) had been burned across New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, Queensland, Australian Capital Territory (ACT), Western Australia and South Australia. That area is larger than the total land area of England and Wales combined. Subsequent reports have increased the total area burnt to over 30 million hectares.
Many Australians were impacted, directly or indirectly, by the fires. Tragically, 33 people died and extensive smoke coverage across much of eastern Australia may have caused many more deaths.
Given the scale of the fires, the Australian Government set up the National Bushfire Recovery Agency (NBRA), to firstly assess the impact and then oversee potential support for recovery. Among the key findings, the NBRA observed that six of Australia’s 19 World Heritage sites had been impacted, including 82% of the Greater Blue Mountains Area; approximately 750 animal species require urgent attention; 9 800 bee hives were destroyed; and 129 000 ha of plantations were impacted by the fires.
The NBRA has overseen a wide ranging program of support including mental health support to affected communities; emergency wildlife and habitat recovery; infrastructure reinstatement; economic support to affected regional businesses including primary producers, small business and the forest industries; making almost 300 000 payments to individuals and 26 000 direct financial support payments to businesses, with total allocations in excess of AUD1.8 billion to date. Specific assistance to the forest industries includes transportation of salvaged burnt logs to out of range processing facilities, and support for jobs in impacted communities through grants that support innovative processors navigate through future wood supply shortages. Meanwhile the Australian Government is investing $200 million to support recovery of native wildlife and habitats, including species such as koalas, the Northern Corroboree Frog and the Kangaroo Island Dunnart.
In the aftermath of the fires, a Royal Commission was established in late February 2020 to inquire into national natural disaster arrangements. The Commissioners presented their final report in late October, observing that:
“Australia-wide, there was significant community loss, devastation of wildlife and adverse health impacts. These losses were exacerbated by severe hailstorms, and floods in some areas that were just starting to recover from the fires. Then COVID-19 hit … Recovery will take years.”
The Royal Commission made 80 recommendations, principally relating to national arrangements and responsibilities in relation to all phases of natural disasters – before, during and after. There were some recommendations relating specifically to forests and land management, including:
- Public land managers should clearly convey and make available to the public their fuel load management strategies, and report annually on their implementation and outcomes; and
- State, territory and local governments should engage further with Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land and fire management and natural disaster resilience.
In parallel with this Commission, State governments conducted their own inquiries focussing on jurisdiction-specific issues and the actions of state and territory agencies and organisations during the 2019-2020 summer. Recommendations from these and other reviews are already being implemented. Like the Royal Commission, these reviews have led to many recommendations, encompassing a broad range of themes such as improved hazard reduction (including prescribed burning), fire fighting enhancements, and, as an example from the NSW inquiry, “strengthening cross-agency accountability and governance; training; being more strategic in our land use planning to account for bush fire; and better managing critical infrastructure including fire trails and roads to minimise property and asset damage.”
With the recent release of these recommendations, Australia is now heading into the 2020/21 bushfire season, which will be driven by vastly different climate drivers than the previous two fire seasons. The national science agency CSIRO has reported that with a La Niña climate pattern now active, large areas of eastern and northern Australia are expecting wetter than average conditions through spring. These wetter conditions in eastern Australia should reduce the fire risk in the short-term; however, they may lead to an increase in the risk of fast running fires in grasslands and cropping areas over summer. In contrast to the wetter conditions for the east, dry conditions are expected to persist in Western Australia, with above-normal fire potential continuing to be expected in parts of the north.
Therefore, while the climate pattern for this year’s fire season looks more favourable, the bushfire risks remain, for forest lands, forest managers and communities still recovering from the impacts last year.
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