The recent bushfires in Australia have captured worldwide attention, and further elevated the level of concerns and debate about impacts of climate change on our natural environment. These bushfires have extended across vast tracts of the eastern seaboard and into South Australia, including devastating impacts on Kangaroo Island (Australia’s third largest island).
Indufor has an office in Melbourne, Victoria, and is engaged in assessing the impacts of these fires on the forest sector. This article provides a brief overview of the impacts on forests, implications for future management and Indufor roles in addressing the challenges.
Record-breaking temperatures and months of drought conditions have fuelled a series of massive bushfires across Australia over the past three months. The total extent of these fires in Queensland, New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia was in the order of 7.5 million hectares (ha), by mid-January. Some of the bushfires remain uncontrolled and the area statistics are expected to increase further over the remainder of the fire season. A map of the current extent of the fires in Australia is shown below, alongside a comparison with the total land area of England (around 13 million ha); the recent bushfires in these four states of Australia would account for over 57% of England’s land mass.
The bushfires have had devastating impacts on life and property. Some 33 people have been killed – including seven firefighters – and thousands of homes and rural properties have been burnt and lost.
In NSW, the worst-hit state, the bushfires have affected more than five million ha, destroying more than 2 000 houses and forcing thousands of people to seek shelter elsewhere.
In relation to forests, the bushfires have also had a devastating impact on national parks and reserves across multiple states, most notably in NSW and in South Australia, where almost the entire area of Flinders Chase National Park (over 32 000 ha) on Kangaroo Island was burnt in December 2019.
In NSW, of the total land area of bushfire impacts, more than 2.7 million ha (over 50%) were conservation parks and reserves. The NSW Government has reported as at mid-January 2020:
- More than 35% of the national park estate has been impacted with more than 40% of key bioregions represented in these parks;
- More than 80% of the World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains Area;
- Over 50% of the NSW components of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage property have been affected by fire; and
- More than 60 threatened fauna species have been affected by the fires, including 32 species for which 30% or more of all recorded locations occur in the burn areas.
Indufor expects this range of bushfire impacts may result in a reassessment of the conservation reserve system across the fire-affected states, to ensure it continues to be aligned with nationally agreed criteria for the establishment of a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system for forests in Australia.
From a forest industry perspective, the impacts are also significant. In Victoria, the bushfires have burnt approximately 1.2 million ha of multiple use State forest (more than 5% of total area of the State). These State forests are managed for a broad range of values including native forest timber production as well as biodiversity conservation, water quality, carbon sequestration, Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural heritage, and recreation values. The bushfires will impact on all these forest values, including the capacity for timber and fibre production from mixed species eucalypt hardwoods in the east of the state.
In NSW, vast areas of State forest have also been burned, including extensive areas of softwood (pine) and hardwood (eucalypt) plantations. Preliminary estimates indicate more than 47 000 ha of State and privately-owned softwood plantations have been impacted to date. In addition, there has been fire damage to forest industry infrastructure including fibre export facilities at the Port of Eden. The scale of the affected area will clearly impact on future wood flows and industry supply chains in the short term, and possibly industry structures in the longer term.
Indufor has been engaged in the response to these bushfires in various ways. Firstly, by providing spatial analytics capacity to conduct rapid assessments of the bushfire impacts – recognising that some of the bushfires are still burning, and southeast Australia is only part way through its bushfire season.
Indufor is also working with State forest management agencies and other growers on addressing the impacts on fibre availability and fibre supply agreements with industry customers. This role has encompassed Indufor staff assisting clients with the planning and implementation of salvage harvesting operations, to utilise the wood resource before it is degraded; and in doing so, avoid wasting a valuable natural resource and placing more pressure on other unburnt forests designated for production. Salvaged wood can be processed directly or stored for an extended period, to enable best-value uses including sawn timber, fibre for pulp and paper products, and bioenergy. Use of salvaged wood before it deteriorates can also maintain sequestered carbon in wood products for a longer period; or displace fossil-fuel emissions through use of bioenergy products.
Implications for Future Forest and Fire Management
Beyond the immediate fire recovery work, Indufor envisages State forest management agencies in Australia will be working with the National Government, to consider attainment of biodiversity conservation, the appropriateness of the national reserve system and the alignment with forest zoning systems that are administered by each of the states. This assessment could include consideration of forest management systems and frameworks in the light of the extent and intensiveness of disturbance due to the bushfire events, and active forest restoration.
Indufor also expects there to be further consideration and collaborative development of a broad range of bushfire management programs, encompassing aspects including:
- Interstate collaboration on bushfire management encompassing prevention, suppression and recovery efforts;
- Further evaluation of the use of forest and fire management tools such as prescribed burning, and commercial or ecological thinning of regrowth forests, and the protocols for use of these tools across a range of landscape settings;
- Further evaluation of the benefits of active forest management to manage forest fuel loads, maintain forest and fire monitoring systems, and maintain forest fire-fighting equipment and infrastructure requirements that can be deployed across a range of land tenures;
- Further development of strategic seed banks and scalable systems for assisted natural regeneration and forest restoration following major bushfire events; and
- Further research on ecological adaptation and forest management requirements to address the challenges presented by climate change and other interacting factors, including forest type changes across landscapes and land tenures.
In respect to forest ownership and risk management, these series of fire events will likely cause a reassessment for the both capacity to service existing wood supply agreements and longer-term impacts on potential available wood supply. Furthermore, the assessment of fire risk on forest ownership returns and valuations will require review to ensure risk mitigation and recognition is being appropriately considered.
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