Biodiversity publications archive

Biodiversity and Fire: The effects and effectiveness of fire management

Proceedings of the conference held 8-9 October 1994, Footscray, Melbourne
Biodiversity Series, Paper No. 8

Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1996

Discussion: Papers 17-19

Rod Incoll

Q: What proportion of fires are deliberately lit?

Rod Incoll: The Department has a good data base which goes back over 20 years which shows 20% are deliberately lit, however 18% are unknown. We've started quite an investigation program, training investigators to determine fire cause. My personal opinion is that it is somewhere between 30 and 40% of all fires.

Q: Some of the control burning practices are making areas more fire prone because of the changes in the shrub layer – for instance you get blade grass replacing kangaroo grass – which when you get cigarette butts thrown out of the window ...

Rod Incoll: I am not sold on cigarette butts thrown out of cars causing fires. I'd like to see some work done on that – no one's ever done a project on it. Matches certainly don't, and I'd have to question cigarette butts. But certainly there are fire cause incidents along roads. That needs to be looked at, there's no doubt about that . And from a social science perspective, there's quite a bit of work to be done on maladjusted behaviour in fire causation.

Q: One of the good things is the increasing integration of fire management for ecological purposes with that for fire protection purposes. But one of the things that struck me yesterday was how many people, both in and out of the Department, were saying that even when fires were quite obviously required for conservation purposes, it was often really difficult to get the Department to actually burn the site, when that was the sole objective. I was wondering what scope you see in the future for increasing the integration of ecological and fuel reduction in the Fire Management Branch so that people aren't all the time saying "Oh – that's not my role – that's the role of the flora and fauna branch and it's not in my budget &nd so we're not going to do it".

Rod Incoll: There are a number of perspectives. Firstly, we have a large area to fuel reduce which it is damn difficult to achieve, and which we have to do. Secondly, we have a limited window of opportunity for fuel reduction burning, and lastly it's the same group of people in the Department that have to undertake the burning, because obviously it's highly skilled.

However I believe that (a) more knowledge has been gained about what the requirements are and (b) if it can be solved and I believe it can be, in many areas, and I believe the people within the new structure are better able to do this, than they have been previously and that's my fervent hope. When it is recognised that burning can be done for management objectives which meet the protection requirement then it really doesn't require more burning. I think it is knowledge, it's organisational and it's the will to do it – and I think those things are all appearing. From my feedback statewide this is happening, so I will be optimistic.

Q: A comment. I have been involved in the development of that coastal heath fire management in East Gippsland. For some years, the plans were generated basically on the ecological burning recommendations of Charlie Meredith. Each year we would, coming from the flora and fauna side, put in burning plans for selected heathlands and we often found it very difficult to achieve – it rarely happened. So the approach that we took was the development of the heath fire management plan, and integrated it with the fuel reduction plan, with some compromises each way, so that plan was basically built in as a predictable system for the foreseeable future. Since then, we have no particular problems in obtaining the ecological burning goals. I think 360 ha of heath were burnt last summer.

Rod Incoll: Thank you

Q: When is the MIRA report going to become available?

Rod Incoll: It is really a working document at the moment – now that the Department's been re-organised, we need to re-jig all the data. I hope things will be accomplished over the next 12 months, but I can't make any promises.

Mark Garvey

Q: You alluded that you are getting down, say, to roadside level. How far away are we from using GIS software for the level of planning which looks at specific roadsides. I know the potential is there.

Mark Garvey: There are only three 'hands on' GIS people at CFA and it might be ten years before there are GIS experts in every CFA region. But we already have a couple of regions, including Region 11 at Bairnsdale, looking to assist their fire management plans using GIS and CNR skills. So the users are going to create a demand as well as us taking our product around to the CFA. We've delivered three Regions for this threat mapping and completed another eight of the 20 and will finish the entire State by the end of the financial year. Once that's done, we will be getting feedback and moving down into that next level of users where "Fire Guard" groups and planning tribunals create a demand. Then we will be able to put it to the CFA that the resources are needed for this task. So – maybe two or three years.

Q: We must make sure that data on biodiversity and habitat values are eventually feed into these systems – so that we are integrating biodiversity and fire protection – and also ensure that the data sets are collected in a way so that they can readily be fed in.

Mark Garvey: Yes, I couldn't agree more – collected once and used many times.

Q: It's common in disaster management that, the magnitude of the disaster is most severe in areas where the frequency of occurrence is at the lowest – in the fire situation, there is a massive difference between two areas where under a lot of systems, you would not expect to have a frequency of fires in one area – often due to lack of preparedness. Have you got any way of incorporating this into the system and take into account the lack of preparedness of people in areas where fire frequency is lower?

Mark Garvey: I think that the threat mapping in those two particular areas with density values coming through will show up some exposures. The threat mapping process is going to be an evolving thing. I set out in the paper three or four areas where we are looking at getting more data and I am open to suggestions about data we can bring on board. I am not sure at the moment that we can turn that data that we have at present into a number that we can bring into the process. By that I mean – we've had one western district fire in the last ten years – and our analysis of the statistics won't show that up, but it is still a risky proposition to include it in our data set. I am not sure that we have got much to offer the big wildfires at the moment, other than losses, as density values will be reflected somewhere in the numbers.

Q: Do you think there's any possibility of developing this for application to insurance?

Mark Garvey: Possibly, yes. Already one month ago, one of Telecom's GIS groups was contracting to an insurance group looking for some bushfire threat mapping. But they would want to know what they are getting before they just start applying them. At all times when we are handing out regional threat maps, they both have a sticker on them explaining the default values, and how we came to put them there, and we give a three hour explanations of the data and their limitations. But I think they will be used more and more.

Q: One of the critical points needed in the decision making process arising out of GIS is how do we go about allocating values for particular components of the landscape. How do we deal with the notion that individuals' perceptions of the values may in fact be quite different. There may need to be a careful resolution of these differences in opinion. For instance, a tumble down old shack may be 95% of the personal wealth of someone – how do we compare this against a $20 million house? How do we say what is more valuable?

Mark Garvey: At the moment, they would each get one unit of scoring in the way we collecting the data! But I take the attitude that we will be improving, increasing the data sets and developing a better picture of what wildfire threat means to the CFA and Victorians generally. There might be more data sets that are missing that we might include in time. An example is the agricultural statistics - there's probably many more assets at risk in rural areas. At the moment we have only got three data sets which we are and can use for agricultural values at the moment, the reason being that they are the only decent data sets that are easy to work with and which are up dated. However there may be others we can add, such as heritage values, agricultural machinery etc, if they are good quality and spatially represented, that we can bring in. Your question relates to a data availability and quality problem.