Prescribed burning strategy does not protect lives and homes

Feb 24, 2014 by Michelle Wheeler
Dr Fontaine says there is strong evidence prescribed burning has reduced the extent of fire in the southern part of the State near Walpole and Manjimup but that does not hold true closer to Perth. Credit: Pennsylvania National Guard

Prescribed burning in forests away from inhabited areas has little benefit for bushfire control and does not protect lives and homes, according to a Murdoch University study.

With Australia in the midst of another devastating fire season, the research argues that bushfires are set to rise in WA and current fuel reduction burning regimes incentivise in bushland away from high-risk urban areas.

The study points to a "sudden spate" of recent wildfires in WA such as the Toodyay fires in 2009, the Kelmscott-Roleystone blaze of 2011 and the Margaret River fires later that year.

It argues that bushfires will become more common due to a rise in human-caused ignitions as the population grows and increased fire danger weather because of a warming climate.

Murdoch University ecologist and co-author Joe Fontaine says the South West is predicted to see a 20 to 30 per cent drop in rainfall by 2100, along with a four to six degree increase in temperatures.

He says WA is "absolutely going to have more fires".

"We're going to get more hot days, a longer summer season and less rainfall, meaning that the fires can occur earlier in the spring or later in autumn," he says.

Dr Fontaine says if the goal is to reduce the risk of home loss then burning out in the forest away from where people live makes little difference.

"Over 2000 homes were burnt down on Black Saturday…and the only thing that made a difference with respect to home loss or not was vegetation management within 40 or 50m of the home," he says.

While Dr Fontaine stresses that fire managers are doing a good job, he says it is far easier for them to burn away from where people live to reach their targets.

"The areas around homes are really a pain in the butt to treat but that's where the danger is the worst," he says.

"We're making the point that if an agency is given a target of burning 150,000 hectares a year or something, really that incentivises them to do the easy ones."

He also believes more responsibility should be placed on home owners to clear vegetation around their property.

Dr Fontaine says there is strong evidence prescribed burning has reduced the extent of fire in the southern part of the State near Walpole and Manjimup but that does not hold true closer to Perth.

He says prescribed burning can be damaging to biodiversity with plants in many areas already struggling to survive with less rainfall.

Explore further: Modeling storm surge to better protect Texas

More information: Enright, N. J. and Fontaine, J. B. (2014), "Climate Change and the Management of Fire-Prone Vegetation in Southwest and Southeast Australia." Geographical Research, 52: 34–44. DOI: 10.1111/1745-5871.12026

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