Eureka! La Trobe solves burning question

Environmental scientists led by La Trobe University Professors Michael Clarke and Andrew Bennett are finalists for this year’s prestigious Australian Museum Eureka Prizes.

The La Trobe University Mallee Fire and Biodiversity Team ­– working with government agencies, private landowners and conservation organisations – has collected one of the world’s largest datasets on wildfires.

Their research has transformed our understanding of how fire affects biota, produced innovative new tools and significantly contributed to change in fire policy.

The team’s extensive studies into how to manage fire for biodiversity conservation in semi-arid ‘mallee’ landscapes has been shortlisted for the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.

The widely-promoted Eureka Prize annual showcase of the best of Australian science will be held at the Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday 31 August 2016.

Changes to prescribed burning

Professor Bennett said the team’s work has made a significant contribution to changing policy on prescribed burning in Victoria.

‘It showed that if the former policy of burning five per cent of public land annually had continued, there would be severely detrimental effects for threatened fauna – such as the Mallee Emu-wren and Black-eared Miner.

‘We proposed that the focus for managing fire at the landscape and regional scale should shift from that of simply creating a diversity of fire ages per se, to determining the “best mix” of age classes to conserve fire-sensitive species.’

Fire can affect vegetation for a century and more – and animals display distinct responses to fire that can last for a similar period.

Impact on animal habitat

‘We found that fire sets in train long-term changes in the structure of mallee vegetation which can influence the habitat of animal species for similar periods.’

The research has been a collaboration between scientists and students from La Trobe and Deakin Universities and the University of Melbourne, working with Parks Victoria, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and land management agencies in SA and NSW.

Other La Trobe researchers in the Mallee Fire and Biodiversity Project team include Dr Kate Callister, Ms Jemima Connell, Dr Angie Haslem, Dr Greg Holland, Dr Steve Leonard and Dr Simon Watson.

Next generation fire ecology

‘A major legacy of this project has been its contribution to the next generation of fire ecologists, through the successful training of seven PhD students and several research fellows,’ Professor Bennett concluded.

Media Contact: Ernest Raetz  0412 261 919

Read more about La Trobe Fire and Avian Ecology and Landscape Ecology

Image top of page: Professor Clarke, right, and Professor Bennett.