Fire ecology and recovery
For millennia, fire has been a natural feature of many Australian environments, and a major driver of vegetation change. Some vegetation communities are well adapted to, and benefit from, regular fire, while other vegetation communities exist only because they are rarely burnt.
Similarly, the effects of fire on fauna may be positive or negative, and direct or indirect, depending heavily on the scale and intensity of the burn. Fire also has the potential to cause changes in aquatic ecosystems, particularly when a large volume of post-fire sediment is washed into rivers and streams.
ARI conducts research into the responses of flora and fauna to fire, both planned and unplanned, and from a wide range of ecosystems, to increase our knowledge of the effects and role of fire management in those ecosystems. See the DEPI Fire ecology pages for more general information on fire ecology and other DEPI fire research.
Key projects (with details below)
- Alpine peatland assessment, rehabilitation and management
- How do fire regimes affect carbon levels and biodiversity in Victorian forests?
- Fire ecology retrospective study: looking back to learn for the future
- Natural Values Recovery Program following the 2009 bushfires
- New survey methods and fire effects on rare crayfish in Gippsland
- Assisting land managers in prioritising post-fire weed management
- Monitoring impacts of burning on endangered grassy ecosystems
- Macquarie Perch recovery in King Parrot Creek after the 2009 bushfires
- Towards a process for integrating the needs of fauna into fire planning
Key projects (in other themes)
- Salvage harvesting in burnt Alpine Ash: the effect on birds (Forest and Woodland Ecosystems)
- Planned burning and predation by the Red Fox (Invasive Species)
Alpine peatland assessment, rehabilitation and management
Alpine peatlands, also known as bogs, mires or mossbeds, are rare in Australia, being mostly restricted to the highlands in the south-east corner of the mainland, and in Tasmania. They occur in areas of impeded drainage with the water table constantly at, or near, the soil surface, where a thick mat of peat moss (Sphagnum) and other species leads to the slow accumulation of peat. Due to their high conservation value, alpine peatlands are listed under the Commonwealth's Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, as well as Victoria's Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988.
Peatlands are sensitive to fire and other disturbance, but most on the mainland have been burnt in the past decade, with particularly large areas burnt in 2003 and 2007, and those at Lake Mountain being burnt in 2009. The Baw Baw plateau now remains the only part of alpine Victoria that has not been burnt at least once since 2003. Peatlands recover from disturbance very slowly, and many that have been burnt, particularly those that have experienced multiple fires or a long history of grazing, require active management, without which they may not fully recover.
A collaboration with Parks Victoria and environmental consultants Ecology Australia has drawn on ARI's knowledge of peatland ecology and threats to develop an action plan for all Victorian alpine peatlands across all land tenures. This long-term plan will assist land managers to identify the threats and management actions required within their region and jurisdiction, thereby helping to preserve the extent and condition of this important vegetation type. These actions include post-fire rehabilitation (including revegetation, erosion control and blocking of drainage lines to help retain water), weed control and feral animal control. Weeds such as Grey Sallow willow (Salix cinerea) have the capacity to fundamentally change the structure and hydrological functions of peatlands, while trampling and pugging by deer, cattle and feral horses can lead to substantial areas of bare ground and mud. Management needs differ by region, but common threats to peatlands include climate change and increased rates of fire as a consequence of climate change.
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How do fire regimes affect carbon levels and biodiversity in Victorian forests?
Fire is a regular disturbance in the eucalypt forests of south-eastern Australia, both as planned burning and wildfire. Fires can have a major influence on plant and animal diversity, and on carbon levels in these forests. However, very little is known about the explicit effects of different fire severities and frequencies. The aim of the "Managing fire to protect biodiversity, carbon and build resilient landscapes" project is to examine effects of different fire regimes on the abundance and diversity of plants and animals, and on forest carbon. Increased knowledge about these effects will improve forest management, including protecting biodiversity and maximising carbon levels.
Typically, most forest carbon is stored in living trees and soil. When trees die, e.g. due to fire, they can no longer fix carbon, and lose the carbon they hold through decomposition. For large trees in particular, this represents a significant loss of forest carbon. Carbon in soil is mainly in the form of dead plants, and is reduced when this material burns during fires. Soil carbon can be further influenced by fire if subsequent erosion occurs. While the general principles of carbon inputs and losses are known, there is limited information on which to base estimates of carbon levels in a forest after fire. Similarly, little is known about how changes in carbon levels vary with changes in plant and animal diversity.
Study sites are being selected in central Victoria and will cover a range in fire severity and the number of previous fires. Sites will be surveyed for birds, fire-sensitive plants, and carbon levels in both live and dead trees, shrubs, woody debris, leaf litter and soil. We will then estimate how carbon is distributed within the forest, and how fires influence carbon levels and distribution. Understanding these relationships will help us to predict how the timing and frequency of planned burns can be manipulated to meet Victoria's fire management goals. ARI is conducting this project in partnership with Melbourne University's Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science, and is funded by the Commonwealth Government's Biodiversity Fund.
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Fire ecology retrospective study: looking back to learn for the future
The foothill forests of Victoria are the State's most extensive and are subject to great variation in fire regimes. The complex nature of the interactions between fire and biodiversity means that there is much to learn to continually improve fire management. The ARI fire ecology retrospective study aimed to assess how past fires have influenced the present occurrence and abundance of plants and animals in foothill forests of East Gippsland. This knowledge will contribute to the planning of prescribed burns, including appropriate fire intervals to maintain species populations.
Key fire variables that were investigated include:
- time since last fire
- number of fires recorded since 1970
Some initial results for plants in relation to the fire variables were:
- shrubs which are killed by fire and that produce seed quickly and have soil-stored seed (e.g. Acacias) were most common at recently burnt sites.
- rhizomatous plants which vigorously resprout after fire (e.g. Austral Bracken and Forest Wire-Grass) were more common at sites where there had been high fire frequency.
These results contribute to information about how changes in fire frequency may lead to changes in dominance of particular plant life forms.
The retrospective project is being conducted in partnership with the Hawkeye monitoring project and is funded by the DEPI Fire Division through its Landscape Fire and Environmental Monitoring Program.
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Natural Values Recovery Program following the 2009 bushfires
In February 2009 14 major bushfires burnt 430,000 hectares of public and private land, with areas north-east of Melbourne the most severely affected. Public land represented 69% of the area burnt, with a quarter of this consisting of conservation reserves. Twenty-seven National and 19 Victorian listed threatened flora and fauna are known to occur in these areas. Following the bushfires, the federal and Victorian governments introduced the 'Rebuilding Together – a Statewide Plan for Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery' for the recovery and rebuilding of fire affected communities. As part of this plan, the Natural Values Recovery Program funded 31 projects to assess the impact of the bushfires, aid in the protection and recovery of bushfire-affected ecosystems and native flora and fauna, and manage pest species.
ARI led 19 of the Natural Values Recovery Program projects. Many of these projects focussed on threatened species including crayfish, frogs, reptiles, fish and orchids. Dunnarts, microbats, deer, feral cats, weeds, fire-sensitive vegetation were also investigated. Engaging members of the community in bushfire recovery and research was the aim for some projects. Examples included: developing a new strategic approach to targeting predator control after bushfires, developing a triage tool to ensure best value for weed control, locating a key spawning site for Macquarie Perch in King Parrot Creek, locating a previously unknown population of Alpine Tree Frogs, and providing added security to one of our most endangered fish, the Barred Galaxias.
Each project produced a published report, with many also producing fact sheets and other material. ARI scientists collaborated with community members, Parks Victoria, Regional DEPI divisions, Catchment Management Authorities and other stakeholders to deliver these projects.
Publications prepared by ARI for the natural values recovery projects are available here
New survey methods and fire effects on rare crayfish in Gippsland
Burrowing crayfish are principally subterranean and spiny crayfish are cryptic and occupy complex in-stream habitat. Consequently, both are difficult to survey and information about their distribution at the local scale is uncertain. Accurate knowledge about species distributions underpins good management decisions.
The crayfish fauna in Gippsland is diverse including both freshwater spiny crayfish (genus: Euastacus) and burrowing crayfish (genus: Engaeus), of which ten species are listed as threatened. Five of these species occur within areas affected by the 2009 wildfires. This project, which is funded by the Victorian and Commonwealth governments 'Rebuilding Together – Statewide Bushfire Recovery plan', resulted in the development of more effective survey methods for these crayfish. Trials were conducted in burnt and unburnt regions to determine possible effects of fire on the crayfish. Burrowing crayfish trials involved the development of novel, non-destructive sampling techniques and spiny crayfish sampling trials used traps and multiple pass electrofishing. Burrowing crayfish trials of two trap designs, one a slight modification of previously developed design, revealed that the modified trap was more effective at capturing crayfish. Spiny crayfish sampling trials demonstrated that two electrofishing passes were required to maximise chances of detection in a short time frame. The new survey techniques will significantly improve the accuracy of assessments associated with future disturbances, minimise the need for destructive sampling and lead to more effective management of both genera in forested and urban landscapes.
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The following report and fact sheet are available:
Improving survey methods and understanding the effects of fire on burrowing and spiny crayfish in the Bunyip and south Gippsland catchments: Black Saturday Victoria 2009 - Natural values recovery program
Improving survey methods and understanding the effects of fire on burrowing and spiny crayfish in the Bunyip and south Gippsland catchments: Black Saturday Victoria 2009 - Natural values recovery program (accessible version)
Assisting land managers in prioritising post-fire weed management
The Biosecurity Strategy for Victoria – implementation plan 2010 to 2013 is the first stage of the transition to a new biosecurity system in Victoria. The plan outlines the Victorian Government's key current programs and flags its future directions in this critical area. In decreasing level of importance weed management is focussed on the following: (1) no new weeds, (2) elimination/eradication, (3) containment, (4) asset protection.
The Post-fire Weeds Triage project was funded by the Victorian and Commonwealth governments 'Rebuilding Together – Statewide Bushfire Recovery plan'. It resulted in the Post-fire Weeds Triage Manual which complements the state Government 2007 report Guidelines and Procedures for Managing Environmental Weeds on public land.
The Post-fire Weeds Triage Manual presents a decision key to prioritise post-fire weed management. The decision key incorporates considerations such as weed ecology and post-fire response, weed populations at local, regional and statewide-scales, and the likelihood of successful eradication or containment. A practical innovation was the grouping of the 1500+ weed species in Victoria into 19 broad weed groups such as brambles, succulents, thistles etc. The manual contains a very handy appendix with general information about post-fire weed management.
Many local experts from the Alexandra, Bairnsdale, Ballarat, Bendigo, Foster, Horsham, Ovens and Woori Yallock regions contributed their knowledge to this project and their help is gratefully acknowledged. The Post-fire Weeds Triage Manual will assist those managing the distribution of funding for post-fire weed-related projects. It will assist prioritisation of projects, including the acquisition of future resources, based on target weed species.
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The manual is now available:
Post-fire triage weeds manual: Black Saturday Victoria 2009 - Natural values fire recovery program
Post-fire triage weeds manual: Black Saturday Victoria 2009 - Natural values fire recovery program (accessible version)
Monitoring impacts of burning on endangered grassy ecosystems
Knowledge about the responses of biodiversity to fire is essential for good management of our natural assets. Fire is used as a management tool to reduce biomass and consequently fuel loads in those grasslands where grazing is prohibited. Regular reductions of biomass are known to increase the number, representation and types of plants in an area. The challenge is working out the intensity and frequency of burning that will result in positive outcomes for target plants or animals. For example we would want to increase native forbs (herbaceous wildflowers) but not introduced weedy species.
The Gippsland Plains Red Gum Grassy Woodland and Associated Native Grassland is a critically endangered ecological community and is listed under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. It currently occupies less than 5% of its pre-1750 distribution, on the Gippsland Plain in eastern Victoria. Remnants exist on private land, roadsides and in reserves. Some of the threats to this community are weed invasion and inappropriate fire, grazing and mowing regimes
Long-term monitoring of the impact of regular burning on grassland integrity is rare. In 2001, ten remnants of the critically endangered grassland and grassy woodland were chosen in east Gippsland rail reserves. Three 10 metre by 10 metre sampling areas (quadrats) were assessed in each remnant. Since 2001 two quadrats at each site have been burnt approximately every 3 years and one has remained unburnt as a control. In spring 2010, ARI scientists worked in partnership with regional DEPI staff to re-monitor these sites. Data were collected on vegetation attributes such as species abundance and representation, as well as structural dimensions. Comparison of the vegetation results from the burnt and unburnt quadrats will inform us about the impact of the planned management regime on the grasslands. A key question is 'Does burning every three years produce the desired results?' The data will inform us about whether or not we need to adjust the adaptive management plan for these critically endangered grasslands. Future monitoring is the next step.
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Macquarie Perch recovery in King Parrot Creek after the 2009 bushfires
The Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica) is a native freshwater fish which is listed as Threatened in Victoria and Endangered at the national level. In Victoria, only a small number of fragmented populations now exist, mainly in cool, rocky, fast flowing streams within relatively undisturbed upland catchments. One such population exists at King Parrot Creek, in the Goulburn Broken Catchment in northern Victoria, which has been regularly monitored by ARI for several years. During extensive bushfires in early 2009, several sections of the creek were burnt to the water's edge resulting in a significant loss of riparian vegetation.
After fires, ash and soil can wash into creeks and rivers during heavy rain, especially where the adjacent riparian vegetation is no longer present to form a barrier. As a result, there may be a decline in water quality due to decreased dissolved oxygen, altered pH, increased water turbidity and increased nutrient loads such as nitrogen and phosphorus. This can cause the death of individual fish and, if severe enough, may lead to the elimination of entire populations. To protect the Macquarie Perch from heavy sediment loads entering King Parrot Creek, a portion of the population from near Flowerdale were temporarily moved to the Department of Primary Industries Snobs Creek Fish Hatchery near Lake Eildon.
The fish were returned to King Parrot Creek in December 2009 after water quality had sufficiently improved. Surveys in autumn 2010 found that the population remains quite healthy despite water turbidity being slightly higher than pre-fire conditions. An encouraging discovery was the presence of juvenile fish, which indicates that successful breeding has occurred over the past year. The Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority, local community members and the Upper Goulburn Landcare Network have been proactive in contributing to rehabilitation of the creek and raising community awareness, which is a key to the conservation of Macquarie Perch in King Parrot Creek. Further work on this population will be carried out, including finding spawning sites, as part of a group of fire recovery projects running under the 'Rebuilding Together' Statewide Recovery Plan that was initiated after these fires.
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The following report and fact sheet are available:
Identification and protection of key spawning habitats for Macquarie Perch in King Parrot Creek: Black Saturday Victoria 2009 - Natural values recovery program
Identification and protection of key spawning habitats for Macquarie Perch in King Parrot Creek: Black Saturday Victoria 2009 - Natural values recovery program (accessible version)
Macquarie Perch - Fire recovery actions
Macquarie Perch - Fire recovery actions (accessible version)
Towards a process for integrating the needs of fauna into fire planning
How faunal species persist in a landscape following fire is largely unknown but it is possible to infer species' responses based on their life history traits, the biological legacies following fire and the development of vegetation over time. ARI has completed a project to provide information that can be used in planning burns on public land throughout Victoria, and to monitor the impacts of those fires on fauna and its habitat.
Previous research in combination with expert knowledge was used to identify key attributes of the vegetation that are important for vertebrate fauna, providing food, shelter and breeding sites. An estimate was made of how these attributes, such as cover of shrubs and number of logs, change in the various vegetation growth stages following fire. These changes to habitat parameters were then used to help model the changes in fauna populations following fire. This research predicts that some species such as Agile Antechinus are likely to recover quickly in the early years following fire in herb-rich forest whereas others such as Rose Robin located in taller, moist forest may take longer to recover.
The intended breadth of application of the models presented two main challenges in its development. Firstly, the diversity of ecosystems and associated fauna made it difficult to design a process that is equally applicable across different parts of the state that may be underpinned by unique biophysical characteristics. Secondly, the complexity of interactions between fauna and fire regimes, and the lack of related studies, means that there is limited evidence to help predict how fauna is likely to respond to various fire regimes. These factors have resulted in high levels of uncertainty in the proposed models. Hence there is a need to test the models, and the usefulness of selected fauna as surrogates for other fauna species and their needs. Several new research projects are being developed to further our knowledge of faunal responses to fire. ARI is undertaking a study of fauna abundance in forests with varying fire histories in collaboration with other research institutions, including La Trobe, Deakin and Melbourne Universities.
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The following report is available:
ARI Technical Report 192 -Towards a process for integrating vertebrate fauna into fire management planning
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