Ideas for a brighter future for all

Why Australia must rethink burning forests to save them

The bushfires of the summer of 2019-2020 which covered more than 10 million hectares, were exacerbated by human intervention. In this climate emergency, business as usual is not an option, and hazard reduction burning and backburning must be re-evaluated.

Fire Danger Reading
Case study: The Kalang River headwaters

Once many of these fires got out of control, the agencies switched to ‘back’ burning ahead of the fire front, exacerbating the problem. This in turn emboldened local landowners to burn their properties (as was the case with the 30,000 hectares burnt at Ebor, NSW).

In NSW, since the fires, the Kalang River catchment in the shire of Bellingen has become one of the last strongholds for koala and other endangered ‘apex’ species (species which help maintain ecological integrity). There were plans to log the catchment, which were resisted by local residentsDespite this, there is always pressure to burn the catchment to protect the town.

But if we kill apex species, we convert ecosystems (not to mention undermine the quality of the municipal water supply). A good example is the destruction of bison in North America.

The tallgrass prairie, its primary habitatwhich once covered millions of acresis now reduced to a few fragmentsReturning the bison, it has been shown, significantly aids regeneration.

In the case of the Kalang, we need to protect these forests from fire, not burn them, and we should do that by: 

  • not back burning
  • allowing natural ecosystems to recover 
  • using water, not fire
  • employing targeted human intervention (manual, not mechanical, responses).
Bushfire Kangaroo
Learning to cope with changed conditions

Supporters of burning claim it’s better to stop a hot burning fire consuming everything in front of it, even if that means creating a narrow corridor of lowlevel burnt material, as this means the fire runs out of fuel.

We cannot stop these fires. They are a consequence of climate change. Therefore, the best response is to change our behaviour in the face of the inevitable, and not deny its reality.

We need to learn how to cope with changed conditions (in climate change policy, this is referred to as adaptation). We also need to give the planet a break from extractive and destructive human activities, particularly the combustion of fossil fuels and the degradation of the natural environment, and prevent further exacerbation of the problem (also known as mitigation). 

This is the context I believe this debate is missing. I admire and respect all our firefighters, and I hope they get the resources they need to extinguish the fires, not make more. Those of us living within semi-natural environments have to take responsibility for our own properties. Town residents need to have secure municipal perimetersand we all need to implement other measures, such as sprinkler systems. We can no longer afford to lay waste to everything around us in the vain hope things will get better. 


Dr Tim CadmanDr Timothy Cadman specialises in the governance of sustainable development, environmental politics and policy, climate change, natural resource management including forestry, responsible investment and institutional performance.

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