Bushfires and wildfires

Australia has a long history of bushfire. Before people learned to make fire, lightning and volcanic activity triggered fires in the landscape. These naturally occurring fires had both positive and negative effects on different species and ecosystems, and many native species and ecosystems have evolved with, and adapted to, fire in these landscapes. However, many others remain sensitive or vulnerable to the negative effects of fire events and fire regimes. An additional key health issue that has emerged after recent fires has been the effect of bushfire smoke on human populations and the environment (see the Air Quality chapter). Particulate matter from bushfire smoke has even been linked to phytoplankton blooms in the Southern Ocean (Tang et al. 2021).

As a result of a long history of natural and Indigenous fire across Australia, the relationships that species and ecosystems have with fire are often complex and interrelated. For example, many ecosystems have a mix of species that have different responses to fire – some requiring fire for seed dispersal, others living short lives in the briefly nutrient-enriched ash beds, and yet others that are intolerant of fire and are only able to recruit into long-unburnt habitat. Altered fire regimes can therefore lead to significant ecosystem changes in the balance of species diversity and abundance, which in turn can influence the production of potential fuel and habitat flammability.

Global carbon emissions are driving climate change, which is influencing the potential for fire in the landscape (Dowdy 2018, Harris & Lucas 2019). Changes in climate and weather mean that seasonal fire periods are becoming longer; in New South Wales, for example, the bushfire season now extends to almost 8 months, not including hazard reduction burning (OEM 2018). This is resulting in a greater frequency, severity and overall unpredictability of bushfires (see case study: Currowan fire, New South Wales).

Indigenous Australians have used fire as a tool to manage and clean Country for millennia (see Indigenous fire management). In contrast, European-inspired settlement patterns, agriculture and land management approaches are more challenged by fire. A limited understanding of the role of traditional fire has resulted in mismanagement of some natural systems to the detriment of natural processes, as well as a fear of fire and its impacts.

Increasing fire risk

Bushfire risk in Australia is determined by the presence of appropriate fuel, in terms of its mass, presentation and condition; an ignition source, such as lightning or arson; and conducive weather for a fire to develop (Sullivan 2020). The frequency of significant fire weather is a major element in determining bushfire risk. Multiple factors contribute to fire weather: a lack of rainfall in the lead-up period, low humidity, strong winds and high temperatures. All these contribute to fire risk on the day but can also increase moisture stress on vegetation in the lead-up period.

In Australia, the most commonly used measures to assess fire weather are the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) and the associated Grassland Fire Danger Index (Sullivan 2020). The FFDI combines temperature, wind speed, humidity and an index of fuel dryness, based on rainfall in the preceding period. The FFDI aggregated over the fire season shows a significant increasing trend since the 1950s over most of Australia. In general, this increase comes from a lengthening of the fire season rather than from an intensification of the peak of the season (Sullivan 2020), although there is also a discernible increase in extreme and catastrophic fire days (Figure 9).

The number of days with a fire danger of very high or above has also generally increased (CSIRO & BOM 2020, Dowdy 2020). The exceptional 2019−20 fire season in temperate Australia occurred in a period when numerous indicators of fire weather aggregated over the season were at record highs (see Summer bushfires in 2019–20).

Future projections of bushfire risk factors show a clear trend towards more dangerous fire weather conditions (Dowdy et al. 2019b), and long-term increases in dry lightning events are also expected for south-eastern Australia (Dowdy 2020). Parts of northern and central Australia are likely to experience decreases in dry lightning events, particularly in warmer seasons, although bushfire initiation typically occurs during cooler seasons in northern and central regions.

Thunderstorms that are initiated by bushfire smoke plumes have also been observed more frequently in recent years. The thunderstorm clouds formed by the heat and particulate matter associated with bushfire smoke plumes are known as pyrocumulus or pyrocumulonimbus clouds. They can generate dangerous and unpredictable fire behaviour, including wind direction changes, cloudbursts and lightning, and the carriage of burning firebrands many kilometres ahead of the fire front (Dowdy et al. 2019b). Modelling suggests an increase in pyrocumulonimbus conditions in south-eastern Australia in the spring (Di Virgilio et al. 2019); research is currently aimed at improving prediction of dangerous pyrocumulonimbus conditions (e.g. Tory & Kepert 2021).

In some cases, the consequences of an event are shaped by the preceding conditions – for example, the 2019–20 bushfires were to some extent a consequence of a long preceding dry spell. Of note in the past 5 years have been incidents of fallen timber resulting from tropical cyclones in and adjacent to rainforests drying and providing a fuel source that has enabled later bushfires to penetrate rainforests. Changes in cyclone intensity and frequency, as well as in the incidence and severity of drought periods, may thus also influence future bushfire risk.

Figure 9 Change in number of dangerous fire weather days from 1950–85 to 1985–2020

In addition to climatic influences, fire risk is also increasing in some areas because invasive plant species, particularly grasses, can carry more intense fires than native species (see the Land chapter). For example, the Northern Territory has reported an increase in the cost of fighting bushfires fuelled by gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus). In areas where the grass is dense, including around Batchelor and Darwin, fire managers have had to adapt and introduce new and expensive fire management measures, which are more typical of temperate forest fire management. These measures include assigning more staff, upgrading firefighting vehicles to provide more protection from fire and using water-bombing aircraft. This contrasts with the resources that were on standby in the area in 2007, when 2 staff members and a 4-wheel drive vehicle fitted with firefighting equipment were adequate for rapid response to bushfires fuelled by native grasses with less biomass. The cost per day to be on standby to fight the gamba grass–fuelled bushfires during periods of severe weather warning has increased by up to 9 times in the Batchelor region (Beaumont et al. 2018).

Summer bushfires in 2019–20

The summer of 2019–20 – ‘Black Summer’ – will be long remembered as exceptional for the scale, severity and synchrony of fires across southern and eastern Australia. Fires burned simultaneously across multiple Australian states and territories, burning an unprecedented proportion of many continental forest biomes−for example, 21% of the New South Wales and Victorian temperate broadleaf and mixed forests (Boer et al. 2020). Vast swathes of land were impacted, with more than 10.3 million hectares of native bushland being burned (ABARES 2021), as well as grasslands, agricultural lands, commercial forest plantations and peri-urban areas (Davey & Sarre 2020; Table 1). Much of the native bushland burned was in conservation reserves and public forests; 18 Key Biodiversity Areas had 15% or more of their habitat burned (Todd & Maurer 2020).

Table 1 Impacts of the 2019–20 fires, as of March 2020



Homes lost

Total native forest area burned (ha, thousand)

Total commercial plantation area burned (ha, thousand)

Total other forest area burned (ha, thousand)

Total forest area burned (ha, thousand)a

Total area burned (ha, thousand)

Proportion of burnt area that was native forest (%)

Proportion of burnt area that was forest (%)

















































































ACT = Australian Capital Territory; ha = hectare; NSW = New South Wales; Qld = Queensland; SA = South Australia; Tas = Tasmania; Vic = Victoria; WA = Western Australia

  1. Includes native forest, commercial plantations and other forest.
  2. Includes 5 dwellings regarded as residences.

Source: Davey & Sarre (2020)

The proximity of fire to many significant settlements, towns and cities reminded many city-dwellers of the power of fire, as smoke affected many of our major cities; power, telecommunications, and ground and air transport logistics were also disrupted. However, it should be noted that, at a national scale, the burnt area across northern Australia was significantly greater than the area of south-eastern Australia that was burned (Figure 10).

Figure 10 National burnt extent map for the 2019–20 bushfire season, from the National Indicative Aggregated Fire Extent Dataset

The consequences of the 2019–20 bushfires are many and varied. Formal reflection has been conducted through the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, several state inquiries, and a growing number of scientific papers and reports. In some instances, valuable lessons have been learned through review of previous bushfire events.

Thirty-four lives were lost in the fires themselves or in fighting them (Binskin et al. 2020); a further 417 deaths are estimated to be attributable to bushfire smoke (Borchers-Arriagada et al. 2020). Smoke generated from the fires travelled 11,000 kilometres offshore to South America and is estimated to have added up to 900 million tonnes of carbon to the air (Filkov et al. 2020). The Black Summer fires are responsible for loss of an estimated 8 million native animals in New South Wales alone, with 1 billion estimated lost nationwide (Dickman et al. 2020). In some places, the 2019–20 bushfires compounded or exacerbated the environmental consequence of earlier fires, or of other events such as the preceding drought (see case study: Bushfire impacts on freshwater habitats).

In January 2020, the Minister for the Environment, the Hon. Sussan Ley MP, convened a Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel under the lead of the Threatened Species Commissioner. The expert panel was convened to assist in prioritising recovery actions for native species, ecological communities, natural assets and their cultural values for Indigenous Australians, and to provide advice on the types of actions that would support recovery. In collaboration with national, state and territory government agencies; nongovernment organisations; the research sector; and community organisations, the expert panel identified 810 priorities, focusing on 92 vertebrate animals (Legge et al. 2020), 213 invertebrates (DAWE 2020b), 486 plants (Gallagher 2020) and 19 threatened ecological communities (DAWE 2020a).

In support of the expert panel, the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment also commissioned work from the National Environmental Science Program’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub to provide guidance for postfire on-ground assessment of species, communities, habitats and threats (Southwell 2020).

Case Study Currowan fire, New South Wales

Michele Lockwood

Heralded by a decade of increasingly dry conditions, record-breaking temperatures and 2 consecutive years of severely deficient rainfall, the Black Summer fires of 2019–20 were the result of a drastically changing climate. The early-season fires in south-east Queensland and north-eastern New South Wales were driven largely by a long period of preceding drought and strong winds, in combination with high levels of available ground fuels (Sharples 2020). These extreme conditions persisted into summer, when the second phase of fires began in south-eastern Australia in late November.

The Currowan fire, like many others of that season, was sparked by a lightning strike to a heavily forested area of the state forest, north-west of Bateman’s Bay. It ignited a blaze that burned for 74 days, across nearly half a million hectares, and was responsible for igniting the Clyde Mountain, Morton and Charleys Forest fires, ultimately destroying assets, infrastructure and habitat over 4 council regions (NSW Rural Fire Service 2020).

The Currowan fire and others equally devasting, including the Gospers Mountain, Green Wattle Creek and Badja Forest Road fires, resulted from complex fire behaviour associated with extreme bushfires. Sharples et al. (2016) described this phenomenon as a fire that exhibits deep or widespread flaming in an atmospheric environment conducive to the development of violent pyroconvection, often manifesting as towering pyrocumulus or pyrocumulonimbus storms. The fire thunderstorms were reported to have generated extreme winds reaching more than 80 kilometres per hour (NSW Rural Fire Service 2020).

This fire behaviour was notably unpredictable, making the fires difficult to control. Fires typical in the Shoalhaven–Currowan area are known to travel in a south-east direction run by north-west winds, but the 2019–20 season saw an element of change. The Black Summer Currowan fires were associated with a southerly afternoon wind. Normally, that pattern would also bring rain, but these southerly changes brought only strong, dry winds that further exacerbated the flames at rates that had never been seen before (NSW Rural Fire Service 2020).

Figure 11 Currowan fire aftermath, 15 January 2020

Photo: Oliver Costello

Case Study Bushfire impacts on freshwater habitats

Brendan Ebner, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University

The 2019–20 bushfires followed a period of prolonged drought but were followed by a period of above-average rainfall. This combination has exacerbated the impact of the fires on the catchments burned, as pre-bushfire populations of some species were already fragmented and isolated in drying streams; the fires themselves removed bankside vegetation and shading; and postfire erosion and run-off reduced water quality, with sediment loads rich in ash, nutrients, organics and metals.

An assessment of the Upper Murray catchment in south-eastern New South Wales and north-eastern Victoria found that nearly one-third of forested and rural regions were burned, resulting in high loads of sediment and ash entering the Murray River and Lake Hume. Sediment delivery to Lake Hume was 7 times that of the previous year, at 600,000 tonnes per month. High levels of suspended sediment caused local mortality of fish, reduced hatching success of key crustacean food sources and high mortality of freshwater snails (Joehnk et al. 2020).

Deaths were recorded in at least 27 species of fish and 4 crustacean species across 15 waterways in New South Wales and Victoria, including 11 obligate estuarine species – the first global record of bushfire impacts on water quality extending into estuaries (Silva et al. 2020). Some species were especially badly affected – in Victoria, East Gippsland galaxias (Galaxias aequipinnis) had 100% of potential habitat burnt; Yalmy galaxias (Galaxias sp. ‘Yalmy’) had 95% of its habitat within the fire extent; and roundsnout galaxias (Galaxias terenasus) had 38% of potential habitat extent burned (DELWP 2020).

Salvage collection of fish and crayfish from the wild was attempted in several jurisdictions to create captive, insurance populations. River blackfish (Gadopsis marmoratus), mountain galaxias (Galaxias olidus) and spiny crayfish (Euastacus sulcatus) were collected in the Queensland headwaters of the Darling River in late 2019 and early 2020 (Ebner et al. 2020).

Figure 12 Hand-feeding river blackfish in captivity

Photo: Brendan Ebner, James Cook University

Other recent bushfires

Rainforest burns very infrequently – much of the rainforest along the eastern seaboard is bordered on its western edge by a thin band of wet sclerophyll forest, which marks the ecotone between mesic rainforest habitat and pyrophytic (‘fire loving’) savannas, woodlands and dry forests. Bushfires running in from the west typically stop where wet sclerophyll meets rainforest because of lack of dry fuel and green vegetation. However, the combination of cyclone-derived fuel and long dry periods can enable fires to penetrate rainforest, where few species have any adaptations to survive fire.

Recent examples include the bushfires that burned 11,217 hectares (ha) of rainforest in the Eungella–Crediton area in 2018, fuelled by debris from tropical cyclone Debbie (2017; see case study: Severe tropical cyclone Debbie), and an exceptional late fire season characterised by an extreme heatwave and a lack of cloud-derived precipitation in preceding weeks. Much of the rainforest that burned had been logged in previous decades, and the gaps created had been dominated by the weed lantana, which likely exacerbated the fire. Damage to fire-sensitive communities is likely to take decades to centuries to recover (Hines et al. 2020).

Similarly, tropical cyclone Trevor (category 3 cyclone, March 2019) crossed the coast just south of Lockhart River and caused significant damage to rainforest in Cape York’s Kutini–Payamu (Iron Range) National Park. Fires encroached on rainforest habitat between September and November 2019, burning dry cyclone debris. Bushfires also encroached into rainforest near Silkwood in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and in the Border Ranges National Park in south-east Queensland in late 2019.

Dry lightning ignited several bushfires across Tasmania during December 2018 to January 2019, which ultimately burned through 210,000 ha or 3% of the state, having significant social, economic and infrastructure impacts and extensive environmental impacts (TasRECOVERY 2019). The environmental impacts included burning of 6% of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and included damage to alpine systems, conservation stands, native forestry areas and some culturally significant areas. Among the areas affected were systems composed of fire-sensitive species that will be slow to recover, if they ever recover, as well as areas likely to suffer increased rates of erosion or browsing by feral animals. Long-term studies in the Australian Alps (Verrall & Pickering 2019) suggest that subalpine grasslands can recover from single fires, but, with warmer and drier conditions, and thus a risk of repeat fires, the distribution, structure and composition of such communities will likely change.

Fires have broad impacts on ecosystems but can also directly affect vulnerable species. Western ground parrots (kyloring; Pezoporus flaviventris) are listed as Critically Endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and are now believed to be restricted to the south-eastern part of Cape Arid National Park in Western Australia and adjacent areas of Nuytsland Nature Reserve. They occur in long unburnt (more than 40 years since the last fire) coastal heathland; they can forage in, although not roost in, recently burnt habitat, but are not able to survive in areas that have been extensively or frequently burned (Burbidge et al. 2016). A single bushfire event in 2011 impacted about 30% of the known population (DPW 2014). In 2015, 90% of known occupied habitat was burned; contributing factors included long-term climatic changes, seasonal weather patterns and changes in farming practices. Huge increases in cropping area and a decrease in sheep numbers by up to 65% meant that fuel loads had increased, and the firebreaks created by grazed paddocks had often disappeared (Nous Group 2016). Further fires in 2016 burned adjacent to this habitat, and a bushfire in December 2020 burned through 49,000 ha of Cape Arid National Park/Nuytsland Nature Reserve, including 6,000 ha of known western ground parrot habitat (DBCA 2020). In addition to extensive and frequent bushfires, western ground parrots are at risk from habitat fragmentation, feral animals, habitat dieback from Phytophthora and climate change. Coastal south-west Western Australia is likely to experience significant changes to its climate in coming decades, and climate models are being deployed to provide information on the location of any potential translocation sites (Molloy et al. 2020).

The impacts of feral animals can inhibit community recovery after fire. Monitoring populations of 2 native rodents in the Kimberley, Leahy et al. (2016) showed that mortality after bushfires was primarily due to increased predation as a result of loss of groundcover. Birds of prey, snakes, cats and dingoes were implicated. The detailed fieldwork in this study supported a meta-analysis comparing declines of native rodents in northern and southern Australia, and predation pressure from feral cats and red foxes associated with loss of cover for shelter, nesting and foraging due to grazing and fire (Lawes et al. 2015).

Indigenous fire management

Indigenous peoples have practised caring for Country, which has included the use of fire, for more than 65,000 years (Clarkson et al. 2017). Caring for Country is much more than using fire – it is a vast array of interconnected practices and relationships that are reciprocal in both tangible and intangible ways (Pascoe 2014). These practices are learned and regenerated through observation, interaction, ritual and storytelling, which helps to ground people in a sense of connection and awareness that we all come from, and are always a part of, Country. By being present with purpose and learning with Country, people can better understand their roles, relationships and responsibilities to Country.

Fire management is a foundational caring for Country role that Indigenous people have developed to take responsibility for their Country. Fire has its own lifeforce, which has shaped landscapes and biota for millennia. Fire has significant cultural values for First Nations people all over the world. Fire practices go well beyond landscape stewardship; fire is a key element in many traditional and contemporary gatherings, food preparation, arts, crafts, customs, ceremonies and industries. Fire is one of the most critical elemental technologies humans have learned to harness. Fire combustion technology has shaped all traditional and modern societies, industries and economies in significant ways and continues to provide opportunities for growth.

Bushfires include all types of fires in the bush – prescribed burns for weed control, cultural burns, fuel reduction burns and wildfires. Wildfires are bushfires that are out of control, whether they are managed fires that have escaped control or fires that were not lit deliberately.

Bushfires in general are seen as ‘bad’ fire to many people across the world because of the very destructive impacts of extreme fires, but not all bushfires are bad. In fact, if bushfires occur at times and in ways that suit the values of that Country, they can have positive impacts on flora and fauna. In many instances, the existence of biota and cultural values is somewhat or fully dependent on favourable fire regimes to either create crucial phases of lifecycles, such as breaking seed dormancy, or reduce the impacts of bushfire or other threats such as weeds and erosion.

Even out-of-control wildfires may have benefits to some species where the fire burns in a way that suits them. This is how and why Indigenous people learned to use, and continue to use, fire to look after Country. The old people learned to become custodians of cultural fire to enable more healthy fire regimes. Instead of suffering the uncertainty of less productive and more destructive naturally occurring fire regimes, they deliberately burned to increase abundance, and protect key cultural and natural values in different Country and ecosystems. This also helped to reduce the occurrence and negative impacts of wildfires. Many Indigenous people know this, and that is why they seek to burn or avoid fire in different places on Country as best they can. Indigenous people have also learned that not all Country needs or likes fire; some Country requires less or no fire at all. The old people saw as we see today the positive and negative impacts of different fire regimes and practices on different places, species and Country. Burning is not all about reducing fuel loads, but it does reduce impacts of fires at times and in places where they will do the most damage.

Many Indigenous people do not believe in the concept of taming Country or wildness, or that Country is better wild. Many Indigenous people feel that their connection and responsibilities to care for Country have tangible and intangible relationships of practices; when these practices are not maintained, Country can become sick and angry. This is when we see extreme events and bad things happen to people and Country. Indigenous people can feel ignored by western concepts of Country being tamed or left to be wilderness and may feel that this is abusing Country, which they may feel deserves to be recognised, respected and cared for as kin.

As we saw in the 2019–20 extreme wildfires, and many times before, inappropriate fire regimes can destroy or impact many Indigenous ecocultural values, including culturally significant ecologies, species, places and heritage values. Indigenous fire practices are very diverse and reflect people’s connections to Country. People’s cultural connections to Country are vast and complex in the same way flora, fauna and ecosystems are diverse across their Country. Community cultural values and relationships between seasons, weather, flora, fauna, ecosystems, kinship lore, resources and biodiversity have guided people’s use of fire or active exclusion of fire (sometimes or always). People learned these relationship as they moved through and engaged in Country, based on indicators of health and change. These indicators can help inform knowledge holders on what Country needs to flourish or heal. Fire used in the right way can increase and protect the diversity and abundance of key ecologically and culturally significant species and places (see Figure 13), while also improving landscape resilience and safety (Maclean et al. 2018a, Weir et al. 2020). Not applying the right fire to Country can have negative impacts on the environment, as well as disturbing traditional burning regimes.

Figure 13 Indigenous fire management at Dorrobbee Grasslands, Dunoon, New South Wales, on Widjabul Wia-bal Bundjalung Country, 20 August 2019

Caring for Country with fire

Indigenous people depend on Country for their identity, survival and wellbeing. People have a responsibility to care for Country as it has cared for us and provides all that we have. Indigenous people’s relationships with fire in the landscape have evolved over thousands of years of observation and practice, and are critical in caring for Country (Gammage 2011). People learned to walk with and hone the use of fire as a cultural responsibility. Fire became a principal way for people to manage vegetation for food, medicine and fibre in various types of Country (Cahir et al. 2016). Well-established lore and practice were in place to manage the landscape, including with fire, before the first settlers arrived:

Through traditional lore and the practical application of fire and various cultural practices land and waters were sustained, regenerated and protected for our natural and cultural values. The Country was cared for, with crystal clear waters weaving across the landscape, laced by wetlands, savannas, woodlands, forests, rainforests, grasslands and heathlands. Healthy ecosystems provided plenty of clean water and abundant foods, medicines and fibres for people. (Oliver Costello, Bundjalung man)

Colonisation by Europeans disrupted Indigenous caring for Country, and colonial land management practices were in contravention of traditional lore and customs. Aside from some limited records by early settlers and explorers, traditional practices, including practices of fire management, were largely misunderstood or went unnoticed by most of the colonial immigrants (Pascoe 2014). The disturbance of traditional landcare and fire practices led to more destructive bushfires (King 1963, Darug et al. 2019). This has been the dominant story of fire management in much of Australia for more than 200 years (Bourke et al. 2020).

Indigenous cultural fire management has been sustained or revived by Traditional Custodians of fire in many areas across the continent, and a strong push for revival of these practices has been seen in many areas of south-eastern Australia (McKemey 2020b). At the same time, the devastation of the 2019–20 bushfires has prompted reassessment of current strategies and a search for alternatives to prevent future bushfire disasters. As current management systems are challenged to respond to the changing nature of fire in Australia, including the exacerbating impacts of human-induced climate change, ancient practices of management are being recognised as viable alternatives to be reinstated (Williamson 2021). Indigenous cultural fire management is a dynamic practice that continues today, and could be applied continent-wide, given the opportunity to continue or re-establish Indigenous cultural landcare practices.

Statutory authorities in many parts of the country have given little support for the use of Indigenous burning methods and practices to manage fire risk – these are often viewed as having very little value. Other complex issues arise, such as managing risk and liability concerns. Despite this, many Indigenous groups are asserting their rights, and building their capacity and capabilities to burn their Country to protect their cultural and environmental knowledge and assets. For example, recommendations in the Victorian Government’s 2019–20 Fire Season Inquiry (IGEM-Vic 2020) highlighted the will and want of the Indigenous and broader community to use traditional fire management to reduce fuel loads and care for Country.

It is important to understand that fire management is not all about using fire. Many activities that people and other species can do to care for Country can also influence bushfires. Cultural practices and their outcomes, such as walking, can leave long, cleared pathways. Harvesting plants can reduce fuels, and promoting animals that eat grass or leaves can keep Country healthy and reduce bushfire risks. Plants and animals have evolved fire relationships that can promote or suppress bushfire. Many ground-dwelling animals leave pathways, or dig and spread soil and surface litter, which breaks up, composts or reduces flammable ground fuels. Herbivores – in particular, macropods such as kangaroos – can reduce fuel by eating plants, so burning and hunting regimes can be integrated to support healthy populations to produce food and reduce bushfire risk.

Benefits of cultural burning

Whereas most contemporary fire management practices are primarily focused on fuel management for hazard abatement, cultural burning extends far beyond this to incorporate a range of important ecological, cultural and community values and objectives. There are significant ecological and cultural benefits where Indigenous communities have been able to sustain or renew cultural responsibilities on Country (Ens et al. 2016, Pert et al. 2020) (see the Indigenous chapter).

Biodiversity and conservation benefits associated with cultural fire include exotic weed management; biodiversity promotion; native species regeneration; and decreased incidence of bushfire to protect threatened species and ecologies, and safeguard important habitat such as rainforests, deserts and Ramsar wetlands (Bird et al. 2008, Maclean et al. 2018a, Darug et al. 2019) (see the Biodiversity chapter). Indigenous fire management conducted early in the fire season in northern Australia can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the likelihood, severity and extent of more destructive bushfires that result in more significant emissions in the late fire season (see the Climate chapter).

Cultural burning practices are about looking after Country to keep it and people healthy. Healthy Country supports healthy people through cultural reinvigoration, intergenerational knowledge transfer, connection to Country for Indigenous wellbeing (see the Indigenous chapter), and intercultural engagement and learning (Smith et al. 2018, Darug et al. 2019, McKemey et al. 2019). Youth and community on Country engagement is an important way of sharing knowledge and aspirations to achieve healthy people and Country (see case study: Cultural burning for resilience – an immersive Aboriginal youth workshop).

Cultural fire practices should be led by knowledge holders who know where, when and how to burn, and have appropriate cultural authority for that place, to maintain authenticity and cultural integrity of the practice (see case study: Bagia narway gabun buridja, ‘learn today from yesterday for a better tomorrow’ – Noel Butler). Cultural fire practices create a mosaic of carefully burnt patches across the landscape, responding to the particular cultural values and indicators of the different species and Country types (cultural ecosystems). A key cultural ecosystem is the grassy cultural pathways that symbolise the importance of maintaining access to traditional pathways and the role of fire in connecting people to Country (see Figure 14). Cultural values and indicators reflect the cultural and natural features, values and processes of a cultural group’s relationships to a particular Country. These indicators are specific to particular ecosystems, places, species, vegetation, soils, climate and weather conditions. They relate to a cultural group’s identity, knowledge, practices, heritage, resources, society, environment, economy and spiritual beliefs. Indigenous fire practices incorporate an interconnected web of these systems, and the use of fire and caring for Country practices is specific to the ecology and totemic and cultural values of each place and community (see case study: Fire management of spinifex grasslands).

Fire management and monitoring policies and practices therefore need to consider the impacts on Indigenous values and cultural heritage (see case study: Partnerships between researchers, Traditional Owners and practitioners to manage the Carlisle Heath). Sites, places and species will often have particular values for food, materials, medicines, totems or ceremony, or might be important indicators for Country and seasons (Standley 2019, Steffensen 2020).

There is significant opportunity to develop resource management and assessment frameworks to better enable Indigenous people to implement traditional and contemporary cultural land management practices to improve protection and restoration of culturally significant species, places, heritage and values on their Country (see case study: Impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires on the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area and the benefits of restoring traditional fire regimes):

Country teaches as Lore and provides all that we have, but this relationship needs to be reciprocal – we need to give back to and care for Country. While Country has a long time to create and recreate within evolving natural and cultural systems and will endure, many species including humans must adapt and evolve within these systems or will perish during disturbance and change. Now is the time for people to wake up from their own dream and learn to share in the dreaming of Country. (Oliver Costello, Bundjalung man)

Figure 14 Burning grassy cultural pathway, Broken Head, New South Wales, on Arakwal Bundjalung Country, 30 July 2021
Case Study Bagia narway gabun buridja, ‘learn today from yesterday for a better tomorrow’ – Noel Butler

Noel Butler; Andrew Kaineder; Terri Janke and Gabriela Dounis, Terri Janke and Company Pty Ltd

Noel Butler is a Budawang Elder from the Yuin Nation (south coast of New South Wales). He is a qualified teacher, educator, mentor, horticulturist, chef and historian whose knowledge and resilience are exemplary. Together with his wife Trish, he runs Nura Gunyu (the Happy Camp), an organisation that delivers Aboriginal education programs – for example, bush foods, cultural knowledge walks, cultural camps and cultural awareness programs. For more than 35 years, their work has been connecting Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to culture and Country.

Noel and Trish live on a 100-acre property called Jamanee Gunya. Devastatingly, the Currowan fire of January 2020 destroyed the plants, animals and building structures on the property, deeply impacting their business and livelihood. The fire burned for 74 days through nearly half a million hectares of bushland. Before the fires, Noel and Trish had greatly nurtured the property. It was rich in bush food plants and served as the centre of their Aboriginal cultural programs. More than 50 species of birds frequently visited the place, and there were also kangaroos, wombats, wallabies and possums. The intensity of the fire was so hot that the trees exploded. It germinated seeds from deep within the soil, causing an excess of wattle (Acacia) plants to grow, disrupting the plant diversity and habitat of the understorey, and creating fuel loads for dangerous fires in the future.

Noel’s and Trish’s resilience and hard work ever since are extraordinary, including the continuation of their cultural programs. With the help of community volunteers, they have been working to build new structures and regenerate the land. There has been some great progress, with new growth and the return of animals. However, restoring the health of Country is an ongoing healing process. In the 2021 short film Mourning Country, Noel Butler says, ‘In this Country, from these fires, we have lost millions of our animals. When you think that our fauna and flora in this land is unique to the world, it could probably never be replaced to the extent that it was. That’s what I see as an incredible loss, it’s a destructive loss.’

Better land management is needed. People can learn from Aboriginal people’s knowledge and practice to restore the health of the land and prevent disasters such as these. Noel says, ‘Fire is needed, Australia is designed to burn, in small patches of land. We need the heat to crack the hard seeds. But you got to slow cool burn, to burn the debris off the ground’. He criticises the effectiveness of conventional fire methods such as hazard reduction burns, highlighting the importance of cultural burns being led by people who live on Country with a connection to, and knowledge of, the land, plants and animals in that place.

Looking after Country and connecting with culture will help to heal the land and the community. We can all manage Country together to avoid bushfires and catastrophic events in the future. Noel says there is much that Australia can learn from Indigenous fire management and biodiversity caring. He says: Bagia narway gabun buridja, ‘learn today from yesterday for a better tomorrow’ (Dhurga language of the south coast of New South Wales).

Note: Quotes from Mourning Country (Kaineder 2021).

Case Study Cultural burning for resilience – an immersive Aboriginal youth workshop

Uncle Nook/Noel Webster, Yuin cultural fire practitioner and Cultural Fire Unit, Department of Planning, Industry and Environment; and Dr Katharine Haynes, Centre for the Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong and NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub

This action research project explored the power of an immersive cultural burning workshop to increase cultural connection and wellbeing in Aboriginal youth. The workshop was held on Murramarang Country, Yuin Nation, on 1–3 June 2021. Twenty-three Aboriginal boys and girls aged 14–17 from Bomaderry, Nowra, Ulladulla and Batemans Bay high schools attended the 3-day workshop (Figure 15). The workshop was facilitated by standout young Aboriginal emerging leaders mentored by local Elders. The project was a collaboration between local Indigenous Elders and community: Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council and local Yuin cultural fire practitioners; researchers from the University of Wollongong; Treading Lightly Inc.; and Mane Collective Video Production.

The workshop used transformative and authentic learning processes to bring about positive cultural identity and resilience in Aboriginal youth. It was hands-on, enquiry-based learning that celebrates cultural fire knowledge and practice. The youth actively participated in a cultural burn over 2 days, alongside other cultural dance, art and toolmaking activities.

The research used the methodology of digital storytelling, where the young people were encouraged to reflect on their experiences and expectations before, during and following the workshop. A professional film crew assisted the participants and filmed overarching material. Young people face significant hurdles to get their voices heard and valued. In these circumstances, the use of digital storytelling is an effective way to promote young voices, to shift public debate and create more equitable outcomes.

Analysis of the digital stories and semi-structured qualitative interviews, undertaken with the youth, their teachers and workshop facilitators, demonstrated that the focus on cultural burning was a clear pathway for the youth to connect to culture and Country. The qualitative data collected revealed that the entire workshop demonstrated significant potency in empowering and engendering long-term resilience in Aboriginal youth.

Youth stated that the workshop helped them feel more connected to Country and each other, and that they had learned significantly more about their Aboriginal heritage than they previously knew and were now very motivated to learn more. They felt empowered, and had a renewed pride in their culture, and a new understanding of who they are and what their role is. Participating in the burn helped them to understand the reciprocal relationship between healthy and resilient landscapes and people. The youth felt less isolated and recognised the students from the other schools as kin.

The teachers plan to ensure that these relationships develop further. Teachers noted how attendance at school and their relationships with the students had improved. Students discussed the need to do well at school to ensure that opportunities to attend future cultural camps were offered to them. Many of the young people (teachers, facilitators and researchers too!) discussed how the atmosphere during the evening corrobboree, held on the second night of the workshop, was electric and charged with emotion – the young people described how they danced with their ancestors and felt the ongoing connection between past, present and future.

Figure 15 An immersive Aboriginal Youth Workshop, Murramarang Country, Yuin Nation, June 2021

Photo: Katharine Haynes

Overall outcomes and impact included:

  • development of a youth-led transformative learning process that supports the passing on of knowledge, and the development of positive cultural identity and resilience
  • mentoring of youth leaders and young participants, building capacity and empowering them to lead and have a voice
  • compilation of powerful digital stories on participants’ journeys of engagement with caring for Country, cultural fire knowledge and practice
  • a film screening workshop and promotion of digital stories via social media, ensuring that digital stories reach a broad audience in Australia and internationally
  • an authentic process that increases non-Indigenous people’s understanding of Indigenous ways of caring for Country for social and environmental justice.

Project team: Leanne Brook, Shane Snelson, Victor Channel, Paul Carriage – Ulladulla Local Aboriginal Land Council; Nook Webster, Ado Webster, Jacob Morris – Yuin cultural fire practitioners; Katharine Haynes, Vanessa Cavanagh, Lisa Slater – University of Wollongong; Jamie Lepre, Tad Souden, Harrison Dwyer – Mane Collective Video Production.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to all the Murramarang and Yuin Elders, past, present and emerging, who ensured the success of the workshop, and a big thank you to all the students and teachers from Bomaderry, Nowra, Ulladulla and Batemans Bay high schools who attended and shared their enthusiasm and energy. Without the incredible young participants and their teachers, this workshop would not have been possible. The workshop was funded by a grant from the University of Wollongong Global Challenges Program and Treading Lightly Inc.

Case Study Fire management of spinifex grasslands

Gareth Catt, Harvey Murray and Chantelle Murray, 10 Deserts Project

Fire is a well-documented destructive force across Australia, although its impact in the heart of the country is poorly recognised as a result of the remote nature and low population of the deserts.

Culturally applied fire is an important part of the integrity of spinifex grasslands. Traditional and cultural burning practices have been documented through the analysis of historical aerial imagery from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as oral histories from those who grew up living a traditional life on Country. The interruption of these practices as people left their traditional lands for missions and stations left the landscape ‘lonely’. With fuel accumulating unchecked, fire size around Lake Mackay grew from an average of 34 hectares in 1953 under human occupation to 32,000 hectares in 1986 (Burrows & Christensen 1990). The size of fires tells only a small part of the story; the spatial and temporal distribution of fire across an occupied landscape varies in a way that it cannot in an unoccupied landscape.

Harvey Murray, a Traditional Owner of part of the Great Victoria Desert, talks holistically about fire in the landscape:

Fire (waru) is one of the tools Yilka ancestors used to keep country, plants and animals healthy. When we burn Country, we burn in the cooler months, in winter or early spring. If the fire is too hot it really kills the Country and takes a long time to recover. We burn the spinifex and wind grass (Aristida spp.) but not the mulga. Burning is not something you can do on someone else’s Country. This is because you might burn the wrong place. When you burn it (spinifex) all the other seeds grow; flowers and a grass, and the spinifex takes a long time to grow back. So, the other things come up first, which attracts marlu (kangaroo), karlaya (emu) and nganurti (bush turkey). That’s how you rejuvenate the Country.

The spinifex grasslands of the central and western deserts have been subject to extreme fire events following higher-than-average rainfall seasons. Unlike forests, which are most susceptible to fire following drought, grasslands become most flammable when rain brings growth.

Early 2017 brought high rainfall and growth to the Great Sandy Desert. The summer of 2017–18 saw fires that stretched from near Eighty Mile Beach in the west to the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory. The largest of these fires occurred in the heart of Ngurrara Country, with the total area burned being approximately 3.8 million hectares. This fire was close to 5 times the size of the Gospers Mountain blaze in the summer of 2019–20 that has been reported as the largest single-ignition forest fire in Australia’s history (Boer et al. 2020).

Indigenous ranger groups are seeking to intervene in this pattern of ever-increasing and extreme fire events. Their practice takes many forms, from ground-based burning using traditional techniques, through to modern practices of using satellite imagery, fire scar mapping, and aerial burning from helicopters and planes. Each technique provides varying benefits, including cultural connection to place and landscape-scale buffering of future wildfire events.

The Ngurrara rangers have been quick to respond to the catastrophic events of 2017, with rangers upskilling and employing a variety of burning tactics to buffer the landscape against future wildfires. The motivation that has come from understanding the scale of this wildfire event on their Country has galvanised the ranger team into taking action. The same can be said for their supporting organisations and, most importantly, the Elders who hold the stories for this Country. Access to remote, trackless regions is costly and difficult but provides the benefits of continued connection to place, diversification of the landscape and reduction of fire-related impacts on neighbouring parcels of land – either native title or pastoral properties.

Ngurrara ranger coordinator Chantelle Murray explained the difference between unmanaged (simplified) landscapes and managed landscapes by referencing the colours of fire scars when looking at a large map:

This area has one colour, it’s all burnt. This area has lots of colours, so lots of different fire ages. We need to make this big area more colourful like the areas to the north.

Enhancing diversity in these remote regions is the base level required for biodiversity and cultural conservation. There has been a loss or reduction of many culturally significant species. Maintaining healthy populations of those that remain through considered landscape management is crucial.

This response that the Ngurrara rangers have taken is being replicated across many parts of remote Australia. Resourcing, training and expertise are limiting factors to how well broad landscapes can be managed. Future investment in Indigenous burning practices is critical for the health of these landscapes in the face of climate change. Where market mechanisms (such as carbon credits) are not currently available, fire practice, capacity building and research must be supported equally. The health of Australia’s desert landscapes and their people is linked now, as it has been for millennia.

Figure 16 Cool burning (left) and wildfire (right), approximately 6 months after fire, Great Sandy Desert

Photos: Gareth Catt

Lessons from the Black Summer bushfires for Indigenous engagement in land management

The historical and ongoing impacts of mismanagement of Country in many parts of Australia have led to vast areas of unhealthy Country and inappropriate fire regimes. Fire, Country and people have evolved complex and reciprocal relationships for thousands of years, but, during the past 200 years, these relationships have been disturbed across the majority of the continent. Displacement of Indigenous stewardship through colonisation of Country, along with land clearing, land-use change and altered fire regimes, have created sick Country with high fuel loads and extreme bushfire risk in many areas.

The 2019–20 bushfires were some of the most widespread and destructive fires seen in the nation’s history. The fires affected significant cultural and natural landscapes with critical habitats, conservation reserves and World Heritage Areas, including more than 80% of the Greater Blue Mountains and more than 50% of Australia’s Gondwana rainforests in New South Wales and Queensland. These fires damaged many sites of Indigenous and archaeological significance; impacts included loss of, or damage to, culturally modified trees, sandstone grinding grooves and engraved art (AAA 2020, Pickrell 2020). The estimated loss of 1 billion animals and damage to significant ecologies also has important ecocultural implications (Dickman et al. 2020).

The 2019–20 bushfires were a significant warning, but also present an opportunity for change in land, fire and climate policy and practice. The fires could be a lesson on the need to rethink and change the way we manage and care for Country. The timeframes associated with projected climate trajectories suggest that the exacerbating impacts of climate change for bushfires in Australia will likely be a factor in future fire seasons (CSIRO 2020) (see the Climate chapter). Significant action is required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and recapture carbon, while also developing measures to mitigate the impacts of extreme events exacerbated by climate change.

Notwithstanding the extreme climatic conditions, these bushfires and others in recent decades were exacerbated by a lack of appropriate fire regimes, which can create higher elevated fuel loads due to impacts on vegetation composition and forest structure (Williams et al. 2020). They emphasise the important role that cultural burning could play in bushfire management and hazard reduction, and highlight the need to empower Indigenous communities to sustain and revitalise traditional fire practices (CSIRO 2020). Cultural burning knowledge and practices, and cultural values of Country could play a significant long-term role in supporting recovery, restoration and resilience (Morrison 2020, Ridges et al. 2020).

However, greater support and resourcing is needed. The independent inquiry into the New South Wales experience of the 2019–20 summer bushfires revealed that insufficient support has been given to help Aboriginal people pursue cultural land management practices, including the use of cultural fire (Williamson 2021).

Case Study Partnerships between researchers, Traditional Owners and practitioners to manage the Carlisle Heath

Jack Pascoe, Conservation & Research Manager, Conservation Ecology Centre

The Carlisle Heath, on the western edge of the Otway Range in Victoria, spans the junction of 3 of the Maar language groups: Gadabanud, Kirrae Whurrong and Gulidjan. It is a highly diverse ecosystem that supports populations of threatened mammal species, including long-nosed potoroos and swamp antechinus, that were impacted by the 2019–20 bushfires in eastern Victoria. The Carlisle Heath has also been important habitat for ground parrots, a species identified by the Maar as significant.

The Carlisle Heath and the Anglesea Heath (on the range’s eastern flank) are not identical ecosystems; however, considerable research and management in the Anglesea Heath provides us with some insight into improving conservation outcomes. In stark contrast to the Carlisle Heath, mammal populations are in decline in the Anglesea Heath. The most significantly divergent landscape-wide impacts between the 2 regions that may help us to understand this discrepancy is the prevalence of hazard reduction burning and Phytophthora dieback. In the Anglesea Heath, there is significantly more hazard reduction burning and Phytophthora dieback is more widespread than in the Carlisle Heath.

In the past 3 years, there has been an increased focus on reducing the fuel hazard in the Carlisle Heath in response to a series of summer wildfires (see Figure 17), which threatened communities. Preliminary results of an ongoing research project found that planned burning was likely to have a devastating impact on long-nosed potoroo populations. As a result, a partnership has been formed between research institutions, conservation nongovernment organisations, Traditional Owners and land management agencies. This partnership is now investigating how planned burning will affect threatened species in the region, and how the practice can be adjusted to improve outcomes for biodiversity, cultural values and bushfire risk. The project is also looking at how fire practice can be improved to revive fire regimes that favour populations of ground parrots in the Carlisle Heath.

Without these types of partnerships between researchers, Traditional Owners and practitioners, there will likely be a continuing degradation of the natural and cultural values of these landscapes, and it is unlikely that decision-makers will recognise the damage their actions can have for Country and Traditional Owners’ cultural values.

Figure 17 Fire in the Carlisle Heath

Photo: Mark Le Pla

Case Study Impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires on the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area and the benefits of restoring traditional fire regimes

Andy Baker, Tasmin-Lara Dilworth and Oliver Costello

The importance of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area

The 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires affected 24 of the 50 reserves in the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area (GRWHA), sparking major concerns for their globally significant rainforest values (DAWE 2020d, Nolan et al. 2020). Together, these reserves protect the largest stands of remnant rainforest in subtropical eastern Australia, and support a high diversity of endemic and threatened rainforest biota (DAWE 2020d). Despite its name, rainforests in the GRWHA typically occur as discontinuous patches within a matrix of fire-dependent eucalypt forest. These eucalypt forests are also recognised as significant integral values of the GRWHA because of their evolutionary and ecological interrelationships with rainforest, and their inherent deep antiquity and threatened species habitat values (Bradstock 2016). The GRWHA is also a significant cultural landscape for many Aboriginal groups with connections to the cultural and natural values present, including the values of grassy and open forests as traditional pathways that connect people and significant places (Mcintyre-Tamwoy 2008).

Assessing the negative and positive impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires

Preliminary mapping suggested that approximately 50% of the GRWHA was affected by the 2019–20 bushfires (DAWE 2020d, Nolan et al. 2020). However, further ground truthing indicated that the extent of fire-affected rainforest is less than first anticipated (DAWE 2020d). For example, on-ground validation of fire boundaries in the Nightcap Range reserves (see Figure 18) found that fires were largely restricted to forests with fire-dependent eucalyptus and brushbox in the canopy, and that fires typically self-extinguished within 30 metres beyond boundaries with core rainforest (DPIE 2021). Despite this, rainforest biota was extensively affected where fires burned the rainforest understorey beneath sclerophyll canopy.

Assessments and monitoring indicate a remarkably high resilience and recovery of subtropical, littoral, dry and warm temperate rainforest. Assessment of postfire response across 8 GRWHA reserves found that around two-thirds of woody rainforest plant taxa were either strong resprouters or postfire seeders (Nicholson et al. 2020). Similar rates have been found in other postfire studies of Australian rainforests (e.g. Marrinan et al. 2005, Campbell & Clarke 2006, Williams et al. 2012), further demonstrating the high resilience of rainforest to occasional fire (Bowman 2000). Several threatened species are showing signs of recovery, including the rufous scrub-bird (Atrichornis rufescens), stuttering barred frog (Mixophyes balbus) and red bopple nut (Hicksbeachia pinnatifolia) (DAWE 2021). Despite strong indicators of resilience, the recovery of some taxa remains uncertain due to restricted distribution (e.g. nightcap oak – Eidothea hardeniana) or confounding impacts such as myrtle rust (e.g. peach myrtle – Uromyrtus australis) (Kooyman 2020). Overall, these early results suggest a strong potential for long-term recovery. Previous postfire studies of Australian rainforest show that rainforest structure can regenerate quickly after fire. For example, Williams et al. (2012) found that rainforest trees resprouting from ground level returned to pre-fire heights (4–8 metres) within 3 years.

Most of the sclerophyll forests affected by the 2019–20 bushfires in the Nightcap Range reserves were chronically overdue for fire (Baker & Catterall 2015, Bradstock 2016, NPWS 2018), and these fires are likely to have been largely beneficial in these ecosystems, triggering widespread reproduction of open forest flora and restoring early successional habitat (e.g. Whelan 1995, Chapman & Harrington 1997, Kelly et al. 2017). In the absence of fire, dry sclerophyll forests in the region are vulnerable to rainforest pioneer and exotic weed invasion (Lewis et al. 2012, Tasker et al. 2017, Baker et al. 2020a), and the subsequent elimination of open-forest flora and fauna (Baker et al. 2020a, Baker et al. 2020b). For wet sclerophyll forests with an inherent rainforest understorey, rare wildfires are also believed to be a crucial part of the natural regeneration cycle (Keith 2004, Kenny et al. 2004).

Figure 18 Fire scars left by the 2019–20 bushfires in Nightcap National Park

Photo: © NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service

Predicting climate change effects on fire regimes in the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area

Fires in the Nightcap Range rainforest are not unprecedented, with charcoal evidence of pre-European fires in subtropical rainforest every 300–1,000 years (Turner 1984), and modern intervals of less than 50 years in warm temperate rainforest (Floyd 1990). However, the effects of climate change on fire regimes in the GRHWHA are uncertain because of the many synergistic and antagonistic effects driving climate–fire–vegetation feedbacks (Bradstock 2010, Keeley & Syphard 2016).

Under normal climatic conditions, rainforest fuel structure and microclimate typically suppress fires at their boundary (Hoffmann et al. 2012, Little et al. 2012). However, this effect is likely to be muted under the hotter and drier conditions predicted across many parts of eastern Australia (Collins et al. 2019), leading to more frequent fire incursions into rainforest. Conversely, elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) accelerates rainforest expansion into open forests, leading to the suppression of understorey fuels and a more sheltered microclimate, potentially facilitating rainforest expansion even with increased fire frequency (Bowman et al. 2010, Wigley et al. 2010). Indeed, the dominance of closed forest in past CO2-enriched climates (McElwain 2018) suggests that increasing temperature and seasonal drought can be overridden by the fire suppression feedbacks associated with rainforest fuel arrays (Girardin et al. 2013, Bond 2019).

Understanding the benefits of healthy fire regimes in the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area

Maintenance of both rainforest and sclerophyll forest values are explicit objectives for the management of the GRWHA (Bradstock 2016). The restoration of appropriate fire regimes in fire-dependent ecosystems adjoining rainforest areas holds promise for maintaining both rainforest and sclerophyll forest values in an increasingly changing climate. First, research elsewhere indicates that planned burns in sclerophyll communities can mitigate the spread of unplanned fires into adjacent rainforest (King et al. 2008, Bradstock 2016), primarily by reducing the intensity, rate of spread and extent of fires approaching rainforest boundaries. Second, the long-unburnt status of many sclerophyll communities in the GRWHA and their vulnerability to degradation from rainforest pioneer invasion warrant the restoration of traditional fire regimes to maintain open forest structure and composition (Bradstock 2016). Additionally, planned burns have been shown to reduce wildfire severity within sclerophyll forests (Hislop et al. 2020), while cultural burning can effectively protect fire-sensitive refugia (McKemey et al. 2020).

Ultimately, the extent and severity of bushfires in modern Australia are linked to the demise of Aboriginal landscape fire and exacerbated by climate change (Bowman 1998, Bird et al. 2008). The restoration of historical fire regimes through cultural burning practices can play a key role in the recovery and ongoing protection of GRWHA values (Bradstock 2016), including the restoration of biodiversity, cultural pathways and connection to Country.

Effective fire management is also required in the highly flammable, sparsely populated northern half of Australia. Arguably one of the world’s most extensive fire management programs, the tropical savannas on average account for 70% of the area affected by fire each year. Their management is based on, and often carried out by, Indigenous rangers working for community-based groups and drawing on generations of traditional knowledge (Fisher & Altman 2020). Together with the central Australian rangelands, the tropical savannas require detailed ecological understanding to ensure that deliberate or prescribed burning is applied at appropriate times to support and not disrupt biological and ecological cycles.

To achieve adequate prescribed burning, increased coordination is required between fire management networks incorporating Indigenous ranger groups, remote communities, and other landholders and management agencies (Russell-Smith et al. 2020). Incorporation of the savanna-burning methodology for emissions reduction into the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund market has provided a financial incentive to support on-ground actions. Part of the success of this approach has been a significant decrease in the number and extent of uncontrolled, late dry-season bushfires (see case study: Savanna burning).

Assessment Impacts of extreme events on the environment
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

The consequences of extreme events on the Australian environment are mixed, with climate change and many floods having a negative impact but other events positive effects or not changing. However, the impacts of most extreme events are increasing as they become more frequent and severe with climate change.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal target 15.3

Assessment Climate change
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

We are already seeing the effects of climate change, and these generally lead to a reduction in environmental quality – that is, in the functioning of the natural environment or the resilience of the built environment.

Assessment Cyclones and storms
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Our infrastructure is built to accommodate statistically likely events. Our communities and industries are reasonably prepared for cyclones and storms. Increasing storm intensity or frequency, or extended distribution, may disrupt existing approaches.
Natural systems may not be resilient to increasing frequency of high-intensity storms.

Assessment Floods
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Floods recharge some groundwater systems and stimulate environmental responses. Inhabiting floodplains puts communities and industries at risk of inundation.

Assessment Heatwaves
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in poor condition, resulting in diminished environmental values, and the situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Heatwaves currently cause short-term impacts in natural systems and can be ameliorated in many modified systems.
Some natural systems and wildlife are affected by heatwaves and have limited time or capacity to adapt.

Assessment Bushfires
2021 Assessment graphic showing the environment is in good condition, resulting in stable environmental values, but the situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Bushfires serve to clean and regenerate Country, within bounds of intensity, frequency and extent.
Permanent buildings, infrastructure and agriculture are poorly adapted to bushfire risk.