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4 September, 2020

Fire without brimstone really works

LOCAL LANDHOLDERS and Longreach-based community natural resource management group, Desert Channels Queensland (DCQ), haven't been playing with fire, yet they have been responsible for some of the columns of smoke rising this winter.

CEO Leanne Kohler said landholders in the region were helping DCQ to increase its knowledge about fire and understand its impacts, especially fire's impacts on the management of weeds. 

"The areas have been well mapped, monitoring sites put in place, and teams of people have been not only burning but also mopping up," Ms Kohler said.

"DCQ staff has been collecting the data and the imagery to better understand impacts and outcomes.

"This work is important as fire is by far the cheapest management technique available to landholders and, if done correctly, can be one of the most effective.

"It won't replace spraying of weeds altogether, but it can make that job much smaller and more manageable, particularly in the watercourses."

Ms Kohler said almost all invading weeds were susceptible to fire when very young and some were even susceptible when more mature, but warned that to incorporate fire came at a cost.

She said the loss of pasture was an obvious one but repeated studies had shown that, left untreated, the invasive weeds like rubber vine and prickly acacia would reduce pastures and impact on property management for decades, not just the year of the burn.

"The fire also has a positive benefit on native critters, creating the homes they will need post the fire, and reducing the populations of parasites," Ms Kohler said.

"Nutrient flows into watercourses can stimulate and benefit food chains in waterholes further expanding the positive impacts of the fire.

"Fire is a friend to land managers and needs to be embraced. The challenge is in incorporating planning for burns as we would other management activities and controlling the grazing pressure so that sufficient material is available to burn. It needs to be in conjunction with wet season spelling and so good long-term planning is essential."

Ms Kohler stressed that the need for burning was not just for property owners out bush. It needed to be done on stock routes and town reserves. 

"To achieve that we all, regardless of where we live, have to understand the need, the benefits, and the necessity of fire in our landscape," Ms Kohler said.

"For land managers, it's about good stewardship and healthy landscapes. It's about managing for production with natural systems. And it's about restoring the rangelands.

"For the rest of us in the region, it's about understanding how our rangeland environment works. 

"It's also about supporting and applauding the good stewards and accepting that, while short-term inconvenience will be experience, follow-up rain will provide benefits for years to come.

Ms Kohler said it was realised that burning could be a dirty word. It stirred up emotions and, as with most things in the environmental space, there were people for it and against it.

"Our fear of fire is the obvious - the great clouds of smoke, the heat, the destruction, and the almost apocalyptic scene following fire," Ms Kohler said.

"The ground is black, infrastructure can be destroyed, plants are dead and the circulating hawks are the opportunistic bringers of death for anything lucky enough to survive the fire.

"But for millions of years, as the continent has dried, our vegetation and animals have been adapted to fire. In the past, fires would have moved across the landscape with little to stop them.

"The impact was widespread and, along with climate and soils, has led to the types of environment in the rangelands we call home.

"While fire brings change, it's only in the way you look at it for it to be considered good or bad. On a cold winter's night, a campfire can be the source of warmth and joy, but uncontrolled and raging its the bringer of tears.

"And so it is for the environment. Our western grasses need disturbance. They go rank without it, and many of our tree species are not only controlled by fire, some types also germinate with fire.

"Images from a fire scene are taken to be dramatic, and often play on our sense of fear. They show the blackened landscape and the loss of trees, stock, or infrastructure. By their nature, the images and stories are negative."

But Ms Kohler stressed the Australian landscape was resilient to fire and the process of recovery began almost immediately for some and following the first rains for others. 

She said the very act of burning, something demonised by many, made nutrients available to plants, and critically they were available where the plant needed them most, at the root zone. 

For those people interested in the chemistry, they were available in ionic form, meaning they were easily taken up by plants when the rains came.

The result could be an astounding recovery and multiple studies had been done on the impacts of fire.

"However not many studies have been done in the rangelands where that science is really just maturing," Ms Kohler said.

"Previous studies have shown that for grasses, particularly our perennial favourites that underpin both the ecology and the grazing enterprises of Western Queensland, recovery post a fire won't increase your pasture bulk.

"It will however increase the tillering, or number of stems, meaning more growing point and more leaf. More leaf means the plants photosynthesise more and can more quickly store reserves for the dry.

"It also means more leaf for hungry mouths to eat, which means more kilos. If managed with wet season spelling, the recovery will be less than four months." 

Ms Kohler said in a region with highly variable rainfall, the decision to burn an area was one not taken lightly but for everyone living in the region, fire needed to be better understood.

She said when done correctly, burning was a planned sequence of good decisions from placement of firebreaks to the sequence of burning, the reading of the winds, to the feel of the grass, the moisture in the air, and the timing of back burns.

This knowledge came with time, experience, and applying lessons learnt.

Uncontrolled wildfires, with their high temperature fast burns, were the opposite of what was needed.

"Beneficial fires are slow burning and in the world of fire classed as cool burns," Ms Kohler said.

"They move at walking speed or even slower and dramatic footage is rarely taken of these boring fires.

"Some weeds, such as rubber vine, are particularly flammable due to their sap and when covering a tree, columns of black smoke are the sign that these candlesticks are burning.

"This, however, is the plant's defence and its had millions of years to get good at what it does. By burning the upper crown, the trunk survives and new leaves and canes can be produced within a week.

"While dramatic, fast hot burns of old growth rubber vine can have kill rates as low as 10 per cent, slow burns can kill as much as 70 per cent of plants." 

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