Management of specific impacts

Research into past events, their impacts and the factors that influenced the nature of these impacts has allowed policy-makers, regulators, industry and communities to learn from past events and respond. The 2019–20 bushfires were unprecedented, but, as tragic as the impacts were, the number of lives lost was markedly lower than in previous events (Figure 20).

The recently adopted National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework (DHA 2018) provides a foundation to build a systematic approach to reducing risk and enhancing resilience. But more can be done, and it is important that this occurs in a harmonised way with appropriate local customisation.

Figure 20 Fire impacts, 1939–2020

Tropical cyclones

A review of the impact of severe tropical cyclone Debbie (IGME-Qld 2019) set out a series of recommendations relating to planning and preparation for, and response to, cyclones and associated storm surges. Economic analysis of the wide, indirect impacts of severe tropical cyclone Debbie showed a significant spillover of effects into regions and industries not directly impacted by the cyclone. This suggests that the supply chains supporting industry and commerce should be considered in planning, to improve the resilience of regional and national economies (Lenzen et al. 2019). The announcement of the establishment of a National Freight Data Hub in May 2021 goes some way to addressing this; a partnership between government and industry is developing the standards needed to track goods, and share information about destinations and potential disruptions.


The most significant guide for enhancing management approaches to preparation for, and management of, bushfires is the report of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements (Binskin et al. 2020). Its recommendations relate to improving national coordination arrangements, harmonising data governance and national standards to support decision-making, enhancing Australia’s aerial firefighting capability, undertaking community education, improving emergency planning, improving land-use planning, ensuring greater collaboration in managing environmental data to protect wildlife and heritage, and increasing engagement with Traditional Owners to improve understanding of Indigenous fire management and to leverage insights to better plan and execute public land management activities.

The Royal Commission drew on the extensive published scientific literature and reports from nongovernment organisations, community organisations and industry, as well as from government-supported initiatives such as the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, and the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub of the National Environmental Science Program.

Indigenous fire management

A key element of the caring for Country movement and Indigenous land and sea ranger programs has been cultural fire management or comparable fire practices by local Indigenous knowledge holders (see case study: Bushfires impacts on cultural values and the revival of cultural burning in Banbai Country). Grass-roots continuation or post-colonial revival of cultural burning is well established in northern and central Australia, and has grown in recent years in the southern regions (Smith et al. 2021). Early-season burning in northern Australian tropical savannas for carbon farming has generated a new economy (see case study: Savanna burning) (see the Land chapter). This new economy has created many benefits and reduced fire impacts dramatically. The success of the fire programs in the northern Australian tropical savannas provides insight into the emerging opportunities to improve Indigenous management and adaptation to bushfires across other parts of the country. Re-establishing Indigenous fire regimes and holistic traditional management practices can create many opportunities for Indigenous empowerment, contributing to significant cultural, environmental, social and economic benefits. Public awareness of Indigenous cultural fire management practices is helping to drive support, with more than 70 case studies of cultural burning in south-eastern Australia being documented in recent years (McKemey et al. 2020).

Numerous established partnerships recognise the need to support and resource cultural burning practices. These have led to, or emerged from, some key policy interventions – for example, the National Bushfire Management Policy Statement for Forests and Rangelands; the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Aboriginal Fire Management Plan, Aboriginal cultural guidelines for fuel and fire management operations in the ACT; the Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy; the Gurra Gurra Framework 2020–2026; and the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service Cultural Fire Management Policy (Freeman et al. 2021). Despite these policy interventions, there are still many gaps and significant improvements that are required in agency policies and legislation to meet Indigenous aspirations and the growing public pressure for Indigenous-led approaches (McKemey et al. 2021a, Smith et al. 2021). Cultural burning may still be considered an underused practice, with many barriers restricting Indigenous-led fire practices. It is currently applied over less than 1% of the land area of Australia’s south-eastern states and territory (McKemey et al. 2020). Considering the high return on investment from Indigenous natural resource management elsewhere (Pert et al. 2020) (see the Land chapter), expanding cultural burning to appropriate areas at the landscape scale should be considered a priority for investment across Australia. This will require significant improvements in current government agency and industry strategy, policy and practice frameworks to better resource and enable Indigenous-led caring for Country, and land and sea ranger programs.

The 2014 National bushfire management policy statement for forests and rangelands, developed by the Forest Fire Management Group, signalled a policy intention to better promote the use of cultural fire nationally (FFMG 2014). The third of the 14 national goals (‘Promote Indigenous Australians’ use of fire’) was ‘where relevant to Indigenous people, and appropriate, further integrate traditional burning practices and fire regimes with current practices and technologies to enhance bushfire mitigation and management in Australian landscapes’. The policy was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments; however, 7 years later, there are still significant funding gaps and policy barriers across many jurisdictions that restrict the implementation and expansion of Indigenous Australians’ use of fire.

Case Study Bushfire impacts on cultural values and the revival of cultural burning in Banbai Country

Banbai rangers and Michelle McKemey

On the New England Tablelands of New South Wales, the Banbai rangers manage the 480-hectare Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) for the conservation of biodiversity and cultural heritage (Patterson & Hunt 2012). Despite disruptions to their traditional cultural practices (Sonter 2018), the Banbai rangers started to renew their cultural fire management from 2009 (Figure 21):

Until 2009, we didn’t do any cultural burning at Wattleridge IPA and then we started to reintroduce a few burns, which made the land a bit healthier. After the burning we saw more animals, more native plants coming through, and very few weeds. Cool burning leaves habitat behind for animals, birds, and plants. The canopy is sacred, and we try not to burn it. My Mother taught me how to put the fire out, and to have respect for it. She used to burn every year … Fire is a good tool, but it can also be destructive, and knowing how to work with fire is a benefit for the people, the Country, and the animals. Cultural burning has given us a chance to get out on Country and get to know it better. (Lesley Patterson, Banbai Elder and ranger)

Figure 21 [EXT_19a] Figure 21 A cultural burn undertaken by Banbai rangers at Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area

Photo: Michelle McKemey

In 2013, the Firesticks Project partnered with the Banbai rangers to enhance cultural burning at Wattleridge IPA (Figure 22), as well as supporting Michelle McKemey to undertake the PhD project ‘Developing cross-cultural knowledge (‘right way’ science) to support Indigenous cultural fire management’ at the University of New England. This cross-cultural monitoring program monitored the impact of cultural burning on a totemic species, the kukra (short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus), and a threatened plant species, the backwater grevillea (Grevillea scortechinii subsp. sarmentosa) (Figure 23). It also involved co-production of Winba = Fire, the Banbai fire and seasons calendar (McKemey & Banbai Nation 2020, McKemey et al. 2021c):

We have been working together to develop Winba = Fire, going out on Country to look at the plants that are flowering and fruiting, the birds that are coming and going, what the wallabies are doing, the snakes becoming active in the warm weather ... We burn in autumn and winter to make it safe for the Country and people, so it is not going into a wildfire – we can control the winba during the cooler months. (Lesley Patterson, Banbai Elder and ranger)

Figure 22 [EXT_19e] Figure 22 Banbai ranger Dominic Cutmore lighting a cultural burn at Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area

Photo: Sam Des Forges

Figure 23 [EXT_19c] Figure 23 Banbai rangers Cody Patterson, Tremane Patterson and Mervyn Torrens measuring a threatened backwater grevillea as part of a long-term cross-cultural monitoring program at Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area

Photo: Michelle McKemey

The cross-cultural monitoring program found that cultural burning did not affect the kukra at Wattleridge IPA, possibly to enable echidnas to avoid predation, whereas a higher-severity hazard reduction burn at neighbouring Warra National Park impacted echidna habitat and foraging activity (McKemey et al. 2019):

Cold, mosaic burns are best for the kukra, the ones that don’t come through and burn everything out like logs and all that, open them up for predators so definitely low burns and cool burns. (Kane Patterson, Banbai ranger)

The cross-cultural research also concluded that cultural burning resulted in lower mortality of mature backwater grevillea and less impact on reproductive output than bushfire. Both the Crown Mountain bushfire and cultural burning at Wattleridge IPA stimulated a mass germination event, but the cultural burn preserved a multi-aged population, whereas the wildfire killed 99.6% of mature grevillea shrubs (McKemey et al. 2021b). Comparison of fuel load changes resulting from cultural burning, hazard reduction burning and wildfire indicated that fuel loads were reduced by all fire treatments, although the cultural burn was less severe than other fires (McKemey et al. 2021b).

When the Pinkett bushfire came through as part of the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires, prior cultural burning managed to save a rare rock art site of cultural and archaeological significance (Figures 24 and 25) (McKemey 2020a):

We had performed a cultural burn at Kukra rock art site prior to the severe bushfire that hit Wattleridge. Our cultural burn helped us to stop the bushfire from reaching the rock art and we were able to protect it, unlike other cultural places in the region that, unfortunately, were damaged by the bushfires. (Tremane Patterson, Banbai ranger)

Figure 24 [EXT_19b] Figure 24 Banbai ranger Tremane Patterson surveying Indigenous rock art at Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area that was saved from bushfire damage following preparations by the Banbai rangers, including cultural burning and protective measures

Photo: Michelle McKemey

The collaborative study provided quantitative and qualitative evidence of some of the cultural, social, ecological and wildfire management outcomes of Indigenous cultural fire management. Cultural burning promoted regeneration (McKemey 2020b), did not burn the canopy, reduced fuel loads (McKemey et al. 2021b) and had less impact on wildlife habitat (McKemey et al. 2019) than other fires. As part of this process, the Banbai rangers were empowered to share their story of cultural fire renewal, which was undertaken by their community in a post-colonial nation-state where fire management has been altered since European settlement. Most importantly, the study demonstrated that Indigenous cultural fire knowledge and practice are alive, even in areas where the impacts of colonisation were severe, and can be renewed under supportive circumstances. This process of revitalising culture, caring for Country and co-producing knowledge is relevant for many Indigenous communities around the world (McKemey 2020b, McKemey et al. 2021c). The Banbai rangers intend to continue and expand their cultural burning program, as well as providing mentorship to others, noting:

Us Banbai rangers have got the knowledge and the know-how to do it on our own property. Cultural burning is the way to go, you know your canopy and the old trees are going to survive if you do low-intensity burns. It does the Country better, it doesn’t take as long to come back, as it would with a wildfire. (Lesley Patterson, Banbai Elder and ranger)

Figure 25 [EXT_19d] Figure 25 Fire damage to Wattleridge Indigenous Protected Area and Warra National Park following the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20

FESM = fire extent and severity mapping

Source: Michelle McKemey

Case Study Savanna burning

Andrew Edwards and Jeremy Russell-Smith, Charles Darwin University and North Australia and Rangelands Fire Information

Despite the obvious signs of climate change in the decade to 2020, especially increasing numbers of hot days of more than 35 °C, fire management in many locations across northern Australia’s annually flammable savanna landscapes has fundamentally improved. This improvement is attributable to development and implementation of a collaborative approach, involving both Indigenous fire management and scientific knowledge traditions, widely known as ‘savanna burning’. The approach has involved applying traditional Aboriginal landscape fire management through extensive implementation of low-intensity early-dry-season fires to ‘break up the country’ and reduce the risk of late-dry-season wildfires. It has also involved complementary development of market-based methods to account for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from late-dry-season wildfires, through prescribed early-dry-season fire management. Over the past decade, outcomes from enhanced savanna burning fire management have been delivered mostly on Indigenous-managed lands.

Across Australia, European colonisation in the 19th and 20th centuries brought about the removal of Indigenous people from their lands and the demise of landscape-scale Indigenous fire management. From available accounts, such fire management in many savanna regions involved the creation of mosaics comprising mostly lightly burned, interconnecting patches functioning as a firebreak network (e.g. Garde et al. 2009). With colonisation, the lack of such firebreaks across the landscape has meant that, once ignited, late-dry-season fires can become unstoppable, commonly burning tens of thousands of square kilometres. In 2004, for example, late-dry-season wildfires burned more than 60% of the Arnhem Plateau, an area of 30,000 square kilometres that contains the Northern Territory’s terrestrial biodiversity crown jewels.

This kind of fire occurrence was common in many parts of northern Australia until savanna burning approaches provided incentives for land managers to undertake more sustainable fire management through early-dry-season prescribed burning. Since implementation of the formally legislated savanna burning methodology in 2012, a quarter (around 300,000 square kilometres) of the entire eligible savanna region (receiving more than 600 millimetres of mean annual rainfall) is now registered under a savanna burning project (Figure 26).

Contemporary prescribed burning emulates traditional Indigenous burning practices, but also uses a range of technologies such as aerial ignition from helicopters to precisely and efficiently drop incendiaries to manage fuels over large tracts of country, and satellite-based fire mapping tools for planning and monitoring. Originally developed to assist Arnhem Land fire managers, the North Australia and Rangelands Fire Information (NAFI) fire mapping portal is now widely used for fire management applications across northern Australia and central Australian rangelands, and for associated greenhouse gas emissions accounting in the savannas.

NAFI has a number of map products that illustrate the location of fires. The first, and most viewed, is the ‘active fire’ information called ‘hotspots’, derived from Earth observation satellite images collected a couple of times a day. Each visible point on the ground, called a pixel, represents about 1 square kilometre. Although at a relatively coarse spatial scale, hotspots represent the thermal energy of an active fire-affected pixel in relation to the pixels around it. This active fire information is particularly useful for locating fires in remote areas and identifying imminent wildfire threats.

A second product is referred to as burnt area mapping (BAM). BAM uses slightly higher-resolution MODIS satellite images (250 m × 250 m pixels) to observe the amount of near-infrared light reflected from plants. By comparing 2 observations, before and after a fire, we can detect whether an area has been burned because some, or all, green plant material will have been destroyed – we can identify the pixels likely affected by fire. Obviously, this works best where there is moderate green vegetation cover. Where there is too much canopy, the effects of understorey fires may not be detectable; with too little canopy, there may be too little relative change to be certain.

The BAM product is mapped nearly weekly, reviewed monthly, then compiled and reviewed annually. The northern Australian fire season occurs every dry season, typically from May to October. There is relatively little fire activity outside this period; therefore a ‘fire year’ arbitrarily runs from January to December to encompass the dry season. The annual BAM product has been created since 2000, allowing us to create some very useful fire history metrics (Figure 27), such as the frequency of prescribed fire, the frequency of late-dry-season wildfire and the cumulative fuel age at any time (enabling determination of wildfire risk). Using these simple fire metrics and more sophisticated species modelling, the effects of fire regimes on biodiversity can be predicted. All these information layers are available on NAFI, and can be used in fire management planning and operations.

The NAFI fire history information is validated regularly and exceeds 90% accuracy. This level of reliability, the extent of its coverage over whole tropical savannas and rangelands, and the development of associated accounting tools has, since the mid-2000s, underpinned the creation of a new regional landscape-scale fire management industry delivering reduced greenhouse gas emissions, retention of landscape carbon stocks and improved biodiversity conservation outcomes. Importantly, it has also provided culturally relevant employment opportunities for many Indigenous land managers and communities across northern Australia.

Figure 26 Properties engaged in savanna burning in northern Australian tropical savannas

mm = millimetre

Figure 27 Fire frequency in northern Australian tropical savannas, 2000–20


Different types of floods require different types of management. In some instances, management is about prevention; in others about warnings, preparedness and resilience; and in others about recognising the inevitability of flooding and managing retreat or transition.

In reviewing the 2019 flooding of Townsville, a community survey revealed that people had poor understanding of flood descriptors such as ‘1-in-100-year event’ and took less heed of flood warnings than of cyclone warnings (IGME-Qld 2019). The Australian Government’s recovery strategy also highlighted the need for better collection, collation and presentation of data, and a need to build digital capability across communities to enable people to understand and respond to information (NDNQFRRA 2020). We also need to improve the flood record so that we can better model flood events and use that refined knowledge to build more informative scenarios for future planning purposes (Allen et al. 2020).

In an assessment of the risks and potential adaptive benefits of protecting communities against coastal inundation, Fletcher et al. (2016) created a typology of communities based on their exposure to inundation risk, the distribution of risk within the community and the community’s capacity to adapt. By considering the response options available, incorporating equity and affordability into management decision-making processes, they identified preferred approaches for a range of scenarios, from ‘do nothing’ to household adaptation to government or community funding of engineering solutions. Geoscience Australia also noted that the economic viability of some mitigation works changed when considered from a broader perspective, in a study that investigated the impact of Launceston’s flood levee mitigation works in terms of avoided costs from potential floods in June 2016 over the short and longer terms (CSIRO 2020). These case studies reinforce the need for holistic assessment of intangibles when considering investment or action.

In some cases, flooding or inundation appears inevitable, as in the Kakadu wetlands over the medium term in the face of progressively increasing sea level. In such environments, policy-makers and planners should respect the high management priority identified by Traditional Owners, and support research to understand the cultural and socio-economic aspects of change (Bayliss et al. 2018). Sea level change is likely to pose insurmountable challenges to management in other systems too – for example, in the Gippsland Lakes, where storm surges are likely to result in chronic salinisation that threatens system viability (Boon et al. 2016). In such instances, managers may be forced to consider how to support transitional change.

Built environment

Builders, regulators and insurers need to continue to consider how extreme events will interact with, and exceed, the design thresholds of built infrastructure, and how this is likely to accelerate with climate change (see the Urban chapter). Issues that need to be considered include building and infrastructure standards pertaining to wind loadings in cyclone regions, rainfall and run-off design standards for urban stormwater design, and zoning for land-use planning for floods and coastal hazards. These considerations need to extend into impacts on land values, insurance costs for consumers (ACCC 2020) and stability for the financial system, which rely on a high level of building resilience.

Good progress has already been made on increased adaptation and resilience measures for events such as tropical cyclones, as evidenced by decreases in the impacts of cyclones on life and property. Whereas cyclone Tracy caused 65 deaths and damaged 70% of Darwin’s homes in 1974, analysis after cyclones Vance (1999), Larry (2006) and Yasi (2011) showed that updated regulations and standards have resulted in much less building damage and consequent loss of life. During cyclone Yasi, for example, 12% of older homes, but only 3% of newer homes, suffered severe roof damage. In Innisfail, which was rebuilt after cyclone Larry, insurance claims were half the cost of those in nearby towns that did not experience the post–cyclone Larry rebuild (ACCC 2018).

In 2018, based on research by James Cook University, supported by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, the Queensland Government introduced its Household Resilience Program jointly with the Australian Government. This program provides grants for up to 75% of the cost of cyclone-proofing homes built between Bundaberg and Cooktown before 1984, when the current cyclone building code was introduced in the aftermath of cyclone Tracy. By June 2020, 1,749 Queensland households between Bundaberg and Cooktown had seen their insurance premiums reduced by an average of $310 in recognition of improvements made under the program. In May 2020, the program was renewed as part of the Queensland Government’s Unite and Recover for Queensland Jobs stimulus package, designed to address the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (CSIRO 2020).

The infrastructure industries are also addressing these issues. Electricity transmission and distribution, and telecommunications network service providers are working with researchers to assess wind loading and failure, bushfire risk, and mitigation. These and others are collaborating in an Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities, which commissions and publishes research papers and policy white papers, including into social effects of disasters and infrastructure resilience.