Emergency fire response plans have been instigated by Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) as it prepares for an extremely challenging summer. Australian authorities have predicted especially hot and dry temperatures and sanctuary teams across the country are on high alert as wildfires are already risking landscapes and wildlife.
After three years of enjoying cooler temperatures stemmed by the atmospheric phenomenon La Nina, the Bureau of Meteorology has formally declared an El Niño event and Australians are facing a significant and worsening fire weather forecast. Abnormally early hot and dry conditions have prompted all Australian states and territories to issue warnings, most which advising of a premature start to the wildfire season. Generous rainfall during La Nina has led to an abundance of fuel load across Australia, and as such fire management and fire preparedness is critical this upcoming season.
Fire management takes place year-round at AWC’s owned and managed sanctuaries and partnership sites. A key part of this management includes planned burns early in the season carried out in partnership with Traditional Owners. Anticipating a longer, drier and hotter summer, AWC commenced planned burns earlier this year, on lands covering up to 7.6 million hectares across northern and central Australia, WA and parts of NSW – the largest privately-run fire management program in Australia.
These mosaic-like early season burns create patches of fire scars across the landscape that break up and slow down wildfires and reduces their severity. The benefits of commencing these burns earlier this year was witnessed in central Australia this month, when an unplanned fire at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary was contained as it merged into fire scars from last year and this year’s planned burning.
Melissa Riessen, Operations Manager for AWC’s National Operation Team, is confident that current and recent fire scars from planned burns will reduce the impact of this year’s extreme weather conditions across AWC’s sanctuary network.
“Our sanctuaries in northern and central Australia have a very deep and historic fire management history that we believe will increase our capacity to manage and minimise impacts of fires this summer,” said Melissa. “Additionally, this year we have revised each sanctuary’s emergency response plan to sharpen our ability to respond to major wildfires, whether they be on one of our sanctuaries or through supporting our neighbours.”
AWC’s emergency response plans take into account individualised sanctuary fire threats such as infrastructure and accommodation types. Regional operations managers have also prepared programs with staff availability and expertise, should they need additional personnel in emergency situations.
“One of the biggest issues we, and any emergency response unit, will face during a major wildfire event is fatigue management,” explained Melissa. “Battling major fires mostly take place after sundown, so one of our key considerations is how we can we ensure our teams are getting rest.”
Being prepared with resources and skills has also enabled AWC to quickly deploy staff for rapid response activities in the past, such as providing post-fire shelter and protection for wildlife.
“AWC’s response to the Kangaroo Island fires in 2019/20 is a great example of how being organised with resources and skills enables us to quickly and effectively respond after fires to protect wildlife such as the critically endangered Kangaroo Island Dunnart,” said Melissa.
“In the days following the fires, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife (KI LfW) detected dunnarts in an unburnt patch of critical habitat in the Western River Refuge. AWC immediately provided gear and people to assist rapid assessment of dunnart habitat, and played a leading role in the establishment of a feral predator-free refuge, which we still manage.
“Without urgent intervention, the Kangaroo Island Dunnarts were headed for extinction.”
Unplanned fires occur in natural environments such as grassland, forest and scrubland, and can be triggered by natural events (lightening) or human-related incidents including arson. The severity of an unplanned fire will increase in dry conditions, high winds and in areas of high fuel load – vegetation communities with an accumulation of flammable materials such as grass, leaves, dead branches and stems.
Fire has played an important role in the evolution and function of Australian landscapes for tens of thousands of years. Indigenous Australians used fire extensively, and many species and ecosystems have evolved to become dependent on regular or occasional exposure to fire, particularly a fine-scale mosaic of burnt and unburnt habitat.
Fire management is a critical part of AWC’s large-scale practical approach to conservation. Restoring ecologically appropriate fire regimes is the primary objective of managing fire on AWC sanctuaries and partnership properties.
AWC’s approach varies between regions and ecosystems: different strategies are required to manage fire in the Central Australian deserts to the tall, wet eucalypt forests of Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary, or in the tropical savanna woodlands of Cape York and the Kimberley.
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