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Preliminary Report: Impact of the 2009 Victorian bushfires on nature and wildlife

Updated:

The terrible loss of life that occurred in the Black Saturday bushfires on 7 February and also Sunday 8 February has deeply affected all Australians. In less than 10 years, Victoria has experienced three devastating fire events in 2003, 2007 and now 2009, something that has never before occurred in living memory or recorded history.

The frequency and intensity of these fire events demonstrates that a fundamental rethink of fire management in Victoria is now required so that people, property, animals and plants do not face similar tragedies in the future.

Australia’s leading scientists have been warning authorities for many years that climate change will lead to more frequent and intense fires. Until this decade, a fire on a scale similar to each of Victoria’s three major fires since 2000 would have been anticipated once every generation. In addition to Victoria, in the past decade NSW and the ACT have also experienced fires on a scale rarely seen or expected.

Due to their increasing frequency, scale and ferocity, fire can now be considered one of the most serious threats to nature in southern Australia.

This severe increase in the frequency and intensity of fires threatens to cause a reduction in the resilience of ecological communities, pushing endangered wildlife towards extinction, place once abundance wildlife on the threatened lists for the first time, and put our precious and dwindling water storages at risk.

There is widespread agreement for the need for fire management to have an ongoing priority focus on protection of people and property. This is particularly important in the era we now face of climate change and prolonged drought.

As we all now move forward and determine how best to protect people and property, it is also vitally important that careful consideration of the impact of fire on animals and the natural environment areas they call home also occurs.

The full extent of the impacts of the Victorian bushfires may not be known for many years.

What is clear is that these large, intense fires have potentially devastated some of the Victoria’s most endangered animals and plants, raising major concerns for their survival in the future. For example, experts from Birds Australia estimate that up to two million birds have been affected.

Just as the Alfred Hospital’s burns unit reported an unexpectedly low number of people arriving for treatment due the ferocity of the Black Saturday fires, so to did wildlife carers and veterinarians report that few animals and birds made it out of the fires alive.

Many of Victoria’s unique forests and other natural areas have also been extensively burnt and will be unrecognisable for many years to come.

One significant example of this is the spectacular giant mountain ash stands in the Yarra Valley National Park, which supports a vast array of important communities of plants and animals.

Of major concern for future fire management is the impact of climate change, which experts predict will increase the risk of large, more intense firestorms. A joint CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology study in 2007 of the impact of climate change in bushfires found parts of Victoria faced up to 65 per cent more days of extreme fire risk by 2020, and 230 per cent more by mid-century. The implications of this increased risk to people, property, animals and their habitat is a major issue.

One thing is certain – the rules we all understood about fire management have now changed and a new approach is necessary. What we need nowis a response that takes into consideration both a local and landscape approach where science guides us to take precautionary measures to protect people, property and the environment.

The Wilderness Society’s preliminary report describes;

1. How and where the fires started and addresses the misconception that the fires started in ‘unmanaged’ public land, state forest and National Park. The Kinglake, Churchill and Murrindindi fires, which saw by far the most devastating impacts on human life and property, ignited on private land then burnt extensive areas of private, cleared and grassland, before burning extensively into public land including forested areas. In other words these fires started in private land before burning into public land. Over the following month until March 6 a greater percentage of public land was burnt, with greater impact for wildlife and their habitat.

2. Five species considered most at risk - the Leadbeater’s Possum, Sooty Owl, Barred Galaxias, Ground Parrot and the Spotted Tree Frog.

3. Six special places in nature impacted - Kinglake National Park, Cathedral Range, Yarra Ranges National Park, Lake Mountain Ski area, Keppel Falls and Lady Talbot Drive, Marysville and Wilsons Prom.

4. Other key conservation values at risk - the Koala, water catchments and rainforest areas.

5. The impact on wildlife caused by the loss of Hollow Bearing Trees - including bats, owls, possums and gliders which are entirely dependant on hollows only found in big old trees – which can take more than a century to form - for shelter, roosting and nesting.

Finally, looking forward the report -

1. Welcomes the announcement of a Royal Commission into the fires as an appropriate response to carefully investigate and review fire management for the protection of people, property and the environment at a local and a landscape level.

2. Urges the Victorian Government to publish within one year a comprehensive report on the impact and risks of these fires on natural values, water, carbon, wildlife and endangered plants and animals.

3. Encourages the Victorian Government establish long term monitoring of the effects of these fires on wildlife and threatened species.