Fire research questions Royal Commission

Fire research questions Royal Commission

20 Dec 2010

Findings from a collaborative research project between La Trobe University and Deakin University suggest that a blanket application of annual prescribed burning targets recommended by the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission could threaten the long-term health of mallee ecosystems.

Fire in the MalleeThe results of the Mallee Fire & Biodiversity Project, jointly led by Associate Professor Mike Clarke from La Trobe University and Professor Andrew Bennett from Deakin University, call into question the Commission’s recommendation of an annual ‘prescribed burning’ target of five per cent of public land, as such an unprecedented level of burning could have dramatic consequences for native fauna in the Mallee region.

The Murray Mallee region encompasses an area three times the size of Belgium around the borders of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, and gets its name from the ‘mallee’ eucalypts that are characteristic of this region.

Over four years Professors Clarke and Bennett, seven PhD students and over a hundred volunteers investigated local flora and fauna at 840 sites in the region in order to assess the impact of fire on native ecosystems.

The project - the first and largest of its kind in Australia - found that many threatened species in the Mallee prefer habitats that have gone decades without fire. The Striated Grasswren is one such species, which requires large clumps of spinifex which are most suitable 25-40 years post-fire. Their research shows that tree hollows, needed by many kinds of animals for nesting or roosting, take at least 40 years to develop in mallee. According to Prof Clarke, burning 5% of the tree mallee area annually (almost four times the historic average) would be ‘unwise’ and would threaten the future prospects of species like the Striated Grasswren, the distinctive mound-nesting Malleefowl, and the globally endangered Mallee Emu-wren.

‘Of course there is a need for prescribed burning to protect life and property, and to reduce the risk of large bushfires, but a blanket application of the five per cent target proposed by the Royal Commission ignores ecological subtleties in areas like the Mallee’, he said. ‘The five per cent figure was based on “foothill forest” areas like the Dandenongs and Kinglake where people have settled, but it’s not ecologically sustainable in areas like the Mallee.’

In the four years since the study began, the collaborative research team has pioneered a technique that helps to determine the age of mallee vegetation and thereby assess its suitability as habitat. By assessing over 40,000 stems from mallee trees, the team developed an algorithm for ageing mallee that has subsequently been peer-reviewed and published in the Australian Journal of Botany. This method can help land managers to identify and map long-unburnt mallee vegetation when planning for fire management.

The Mallee Fire & Biodiversity Project was made possible by a series of grants and contributions from a number of organisations* from Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.

For more information about the Mallee Fire & Biodiversity Project’s findings, download the project results brochure from the La Trobe University Zoology website.

For media inquiries contact;

Mark Pearce
P: (03) 9479 5246

For more information about the Mallee Fire & Biodiversity Project contact;

Associate Professor Mike Clarke
Department of Zoology
La Trobe University
P:  (03) 9479 2244

Professor Andrew Bennett
School of Life and Environmental Sciences
Deakin University
P: (03) 9251 7609

*Parks Victoria, the Victorian Department of Sustainability & Environment, the Mallee Catchment Management Authority, New South Wales National Parks & Wildlife Service, the NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, the Lower Murray Darling Catchment Management Authority, the South Australian Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, Land & Water Australia, Natural Heritage Trust, Bird Australia (Gluepot Reserve), Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and the Murray Mallee Partnership




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