Fire management research up for Eureka

Bushfire researchers have been short-listed for a 2014 Eureka Prize.

Eureka finalists - Professor Andrew Bennett (left), with La Trobe's Professor Michael Clarke.
Eureka finalists - Professor Andrew Bennett (left), with La Trobe's Professor Michael Clarke.

A team of researchers from Deakin's Centre for Integrative Ecology has been short-listed for one of Australia's science "Oscars" - a Eureka Prize.

The short-listing acknowledges game-changing research that challenges Australia’s current fire management practices.

In partnership with a group from La Trobe University, the researchers have spent the past six years undertaking one of Australia's most comprehensive studies on the effects of more than a century of fire on Mallee vegetation and wildlife.

The Mallee Fire and Biodiversity project is one of three finalists for the 2014 NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research.

Jointly led by Deakin’s Professor Andrew Bennett, Associate Head of School (Research) in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, and La Trobe's Professor Mike Clarke (Head, School of Life Sciences), the study has transformed current understanding of the effect of fire and revealed the need for a rethink.

The research took place in Mallee landscapes over three states - Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia – and involved several Deakin PhD students: Dr Dale Nimmo, Dr Simon Watson, Dr Luke Kelly and former PhD student Dr Angie Haslem.


Mallee fire PhD students and research officers, from left: Dale Nimmo (Deakin), Sarah Avitabile (La Trobe), Rick Taylor (La Trobe), Lisa Farnsworth (La Trobe), Luke Kelly (Deakin), Simon Watson (Deakin), Lauren Brown (Deakin/La Trobe), Kate Callister (Deakin/La Trobe) and Sally Kenny (La Trobe).

"There has been a widespread assumption that wildlife diversity will be enhanced by a mosaic of numerous fire age-classes in the vegetation," said Professor Bennett.

"Instead, we found that the overall extent of particular age-classes, particularly older unburnt vegetation, was a much better predictor of the diversity of wildlife in Mallee landscapes than a variety of fire ages."

"Our research shows that vital habitat features, like large old trees with hollows, take at least 40 years to even begin to develop in the Mallee. This challenges current policies,” explained Professor Bennett.

In the fire-prone states of Australia, regular burn offs have become integral to fire management practices, with the aim of reducing undergrowth and the risk of bushfire. The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission - held after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires - recommended a blanket five per cent burn off target for public land in Victoria each year.

Professors Bennett and Clarke argue that the five per cent target, if sustained, would have profoundly negative consequences for Mallee ecosystems. Instead, an alternative approach that identifies areas to burn, on the basis of where the greatest reduction in risk to life and property can be achieved, should be adopted.

"Assuming no areas are burned twice within 20 years, meeting this target would essentially result in all Mallee vegetation in the region being less than 20 years post-fire within 20 years. If that was to happen, the consequences for many species would be disastrous," said Professor Bennett.

"Species at risk would include the South-eastern Long-eared Bat and Major Mitchell's Cockatoo, which need tree hollows, and the Mallee Emu-wren that requires mature spinifex clumps."

Information from the study, plus its fire maps and data on fauna and flora, is now being used to help revise fire planning in south-eastern Australia to better manage fire and biodiversity.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes have become Australia's leading awards in the fields of research and innovation, leadership, science communication, journalism and school science. The winners will be announced on September 10.

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