Australian wildfires affects natural heritage

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Raging wildfires made international news earlier this year as flames engulfed parts of Australia. Some blamed the fires on climate change and drought, while the subject of firebreaks also came under the spotlight. Whatever the causes, perfect fire conditions led to disaster. While the loss of human life is a reality, Australia’s natural heritage might take some time to rise from the ashes.
As with many of the vegetation biomes in South Africa, most of Australia’s ecosystems require fire to regenerate and to survive. However, when fires burn too hot and too extensively, it becomes problematic. Some areas engulfed by the flames might never recover.

Professor Martine Maron of the University of Queensland’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science says, “The alpine areas of south-eastern Australia and the dry rainforests of Queensland both concern me.

“Fire can be a problem for these ecosystems – many dry rainforest plants are killed by fire, and the ecosystem is usually replaced by a quite different, eucalyptus-dominated system if badly burned.” Maron says dry rainforests are already Endangered, so the loss of more of this habitat is a problem. “It will take a long time for many of these areas to recover – in some cases, such as rainforests, centuries.”

Many protected areas burned entirely. In total, 104 parks managed by Parks Victoria were impacted by the fires. Of those, 34 were completely burned, 18 parks were 75-99% burned and nine of them have 50-74% of land in burnt areas, according to a draft report dealing with the bushfire emergencies in Victoria.

Chris Dickman, ecology professor at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Science, says East Gippsland in Victoria, the north and south coastal regions of New South Wales and the rainforests that occurred in these areas are the worst affected. “These regions contained the highest numbers of threatened species. In addition, the western half of Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, which was badly burned, provides habitat for the rare dunnart, a marsupial the size of a mouse, and the glossy black cockatoo (KI form).”

The negative effects extend much further than just on land species. “There are also dramatically negative effects on freshwater systems and nearshore marine systems due to the outwash of ash and other debris when it rains,” says Dickman. Species at risk include the platypus and many fish and aquatic invertebrates such as crayfish.

Entire plant communities might also change because of the fires, says Maron. “Because of the hotter and drier conditions we are experiencing, some of these landscapes may shift permanently to a different type of vegetation. That’s bad news for the species adapted to the cooler, wetter conditions in forests that need decades to regenerate post-fire.”

Fire in Australia. Photo: Matt Royds

Fire has always been part of the landscape in Australia. “Bushfires are normal in Australia, but bushfires like this are not,” says Maron. “The sheer area burned – well over 10 million hectares since the fire season started in September 2019 – means that habitats from the subtropical rainforests of southern Queensland to the heathlands of south-west Western Australia have all been affected.”

At the time of deadline, the real impact of the fire was yet to be determined. However, the Australian government has estimated that the geographical ranges of 331 already-threatened species have burned. Species restricted to small areas, or those not well adapted to fire, are at risk of extinction.

The Australian government has already invested AU$50 million to support immediate and longer-term work to protect wildlife and restore habitats.

The Threatened Species Scientific Committee is working with the Australian Government’s Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel, as well as others in the science community. Many species will have to be re-evaluated, to determine the effect of the fires.

Written by René de Klerk
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