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

22. Reconciling fire protection and conservation issues at the urban-forest interface

Jon Boura
Risk Management Department, Country Fire Authority, Victoria

22.1 Abstract

Two of the most pressing issues confronting land managers at the urban-forest interface are fire protection and conservation of the local environment. Where a suburban population is combined with significant patches of remnant forest both considerations are extremely important, and the challenge is to find an appropriate balance between fire protection and conservation.

One of the most effective ways to achieve this balance is active co-operation between the fire brigade and land managers.

The Country Fire Authority, Victoria (CFA) is currently involved in a number of processes which facilitate this interaction. These include: roadside management planning; the use of prescribed fire as an environmental management tool; and the Community Fireguard public education program. All can assist residents to develop effective bushfire survival strategies which take into account the environmental qualities of their properties.

Descriptions are given of recent projects where collaboration has resulted in mutually advantageous management strategies. Whilst the examples are drawn from Melbourne's urban-forest interface, the processes described could be successfully applied to other areas of Australia.

Key words: fire protection, conservation, reconciling issues, urban-forest interface, remnant patches.

22.2 Introduction

There is extreme bushfire danger somewhere in Victoria every two or three years (Luke & McArthur 1978) and significant loss of life and property once or twice a decade (Krusel & Petris 1992). One of the most hazardous areas, in terms of both human and economic loss, is Melbourne's urban-forest interface. These outer suburban areas can be densely populated, have high property values, and can be exposed to fires of extreme intensity burning through sizeable pockets of remnant eucalypt forest. In such locations even comparatively small fires can become disasters by claiming lives and destroying homes (Country Fire Authority 1983; Cheney 1976).

Factors influencing the bushfire threat include the likelihood of a bushfire starting, the intensity with which it could burn, the damage it could cause (Garvey et al. 1993), and the ease of suppression (Morris & Barber 1980). Thus the bushfire threat is influenced by: a number of environmental constants such as topography and climate; a number of human variables such as land use, firefighting capability, and residents' responses to bushfire; a number of environmental variables which humans can alter, such as fuel load and vegetation type.

Traditionally, fire protection effort has concentrated on modifying the environmental variables, by measures such as fuel reduction burning or roadside slashing, to reduce the chance of a fire starting and the intensity with which it could burn. The recently introduced Community Fireguard program (Country Fire Authority 1993) has broadened the approach by targeting residents' behaviour and knowledge base.

As fuel load is one of the major determinants of fire intensity, and high fuel loads are often associated with natural vegetation, areas of high fire hazard can often be of high environmental value. Unfortunately many management practices designed to reduce fire hazard also reduce environmental quality, and similarly plans to protect the vegetation can result in undesirably high fire hazard. Thus there is considerable potential for conflicts of interest, which can cause bitter social divisions within local communities.

Given that in many instances fire hazard and environmental value are inter-related, it is not surprising that fire brigades and conservationists are often interested in the same areas of land. Both groups have definite opinions about the management of our bushland, and both advise local government, residents, or other property owners on land management issues. Often the fire brigade will be advocating actions which the conservationists consider environmentally destructive, but the conservationists will be advising policies which the fire brigade believes endanger life and property. Then each side tries to ensure that land managers follow their recommendations. Both sides are deeply committed to their beliefs and confrontation can lead to bitter disagreement and long lasting suspicion (Boura 1993; Robinson & Putting 1993; Symons 1983, 1992).

This competitive approach means that the land managers must make an all or nothing decision and select fire protection over conservation or vice versa; or devise their own compromise which may fail to satisfy either side. The policy selected will often be determined as much by the land manager's own beliefs as by the validity of the expert advice given. Either way this process is most likely to produce a win-lose, or even a lose-lose, result.

A viable alternative to the competitive approach is active co-operation between fire brigades and conservationists at the local level to provide land managers with mutually acceptable plans. In this way the two advisory groups retain direction of the process rather than surrendering control to the land manager who can be less well qualified to reconcile fire protection and conservation issues. Few land managers will reject a proposal which is supported by both the fire brigade and the conservation movement (unless it is financially unrealistic).

The basis of any effective planning is a thorough knowledge of the issues – an accurate assessment of the fire danger, realistic assessment of the effectiveness of fire protection works (CSIRO 1987, 1988), recognition of environmental values and the effect of fire protection works on these values (Boura 1994; Good 1985).

This paper briefly outlines three fire management projects where a collaborative approach from the fire brigade and conservation movement has successfully reconciled fire protection and environmental objectives.

22.3 Roadside Management Planning

One of the main areas in which CFA brigades are becoming involved with conservation groups is the debate over fire protection along roadsides. Since the release of the Shire of Gisborne Roadside Management Plan (RMP) in 1992 many Councils have selected this approach to managing roadsides and especially for reconciling the conservation value of some road reserves with the requirement for roadside fire protection works.

Local governments are charged with the dual responsibility of managing roads for fire protection under the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 and for conservation of flora and fauna under the State Conservation Strategy, the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 and the Native Vegetation Retention Controls (S16 & S17). This means that local governments must do all practicable fire protection work, but should do so in such a way that environmental damage is minimised. Achieving both these goals can be difficult, and requires input from both fire brigades and conservation groups. A successful RMP requires each stakeholder to recognise the validity of the others' aims and that each possesses expertise in their own field. They can then combine knowledge and actively seek solutions which satisfy all involved.

To help brigades work through this process the CFA and the Roadsides Conservation Committee have produced Roadside Management Guidelines for Fire Prevention Planners, which outlines some of the ecological and fire control issues which should be considered. The RMP is not necessarily about limiting the uses of road reserves, but rather about investigating ways of continuing all requisite activities using methods that reduce associated environmental degradation (Roadsides Conservation Committee 1982). It does, however, provide a formal framework which ensures that environmental values are considered in fire protection planning. Early and active participation by the fire brigade in the development of an RMP ensures that fire protection issues are an integral part of the plan.

It is essential for any fire managers involved in this process to have prepared a thorough and realistic fire prevention plan which includes roads to be treated, recommendations as to what treatment, reasons for the treatment (e.g. fire break, strategic control line, safe access for fire brigade vehicles, reduce fire intensity impinging on the road, prevent roadside ignition), and the likelihood of that treatment achieving the aim.

Assessments of the conservation value of the roadsides are conducted and the results overlaid on the fire prevention plan. This allows contentious roads (with high fire protection value and high conservation value) to be identified. Local experience is that it is not appropriate to set firm rules regarding the management of all roads of any particular conservation class. Rather each roadside should be assessed individually taking into account both its conservation value and its fire protection value. A suitable management plan which satisfies all legislative requirements can then be agreed upon by those directly concerned with that particular road.

General principles which can be considered when planning roadside works, and which in certain circumstances can satisfy environmental concerns without causing a significant decrease in fire protection, include the following.

Until roads have been inspected it is not possible to say what compromise may be appropriate, nor exactly what effect an RMP will have. Several municipalities have been pleasantly surprised at how few roads have required discussion, and how painlessly compromises have been negotiated. RMPs can be introduced over several years, with the impact of initial compromises being evaluated prior to further negotiations. It is important that everyone realises that it is a living document which will need to be regularly reviewed and adapted to reflect changes in fire hazard and/or conservation value.

Every group with an interest in the road reserve should be involved in the formulation of the RMP. This will allow them to establish partial ownership of both the process and the finished document, and ensure that development and implementation occur through consultation rather than confrontation.

22.4 Fire as an environmental management tool

Many scout camps, council owned reserves, and other public areas which occur in predominantly residential zones contain valued patches of remnant bushland and are hence subject to intense conservation and fire protection pressures. Owners of such areas are becoming increasingly aware of their responsibilities as land managers and are either preparing their own management plans or commissioning external agencies to prepare plans for them. Any land management plan for an area of the urban-forest interface needs to consider fire protection, and if necessary include a fire management plan.

While few fire brigades are qualified to produce a total land management plan, the local brigade should be in the best position to provide expert advice on fire hazard. It is of great advantage for brigades to participate in the development of these plans to ensure fire protection gets the consideration it deserves throughout the planning process. Experience has shown that it is much better to incorporate fire protection as an integral part of the overall plan, rather than try to force a fire prevention plan over a completed management plan and be forced to issue fire hazard clearance notices. Such an approach could throw the rest of the land management plan into chaos and cause a lot of ill feeling.

Reserves can be ideal sites for co-operative fire management projects as in the past they have been frequently neglected and often benefit from active management. There is also the security of ownership which allows long-term planning and the prescribing of burning programs which may take many years to complete. Many councils are relinquishing day-to-day management of reserves to volunteer friends groups, who by their very nature are likely to be conservation-minded. This situation makes it especially important for brigades to become involved in the decision-making process.

Fire is becoming an increasingly popular tool in reserve management. Many land managers now realise the importance of appropriate fire regimes to the health of native vegetation (Good 1985), and some are requesting fire brigade assistance with regeneration or biodiversity burns in long unburnt areas. Fire can also be a useful component of weed control programs (Barca 1992), and there are several current examples of CFA brigades participating in prescribed burning for bone seed, sweet pittosporum, and serrated tussock control.

These burning programs, which are aimed primarily at vegetation management, may seem outside the fire brigade's scope, however there are five obvious benefits from brigade involvement:

  1. fuel reduction is an inevitable side effect;
  2. fire brigade involvement will lessen the risk of burns escaping;
  3. they provide invaluable real fire training;
  4. they can foster good relations with the local community;
  5. conservation and fire protection are seen to be complementary.

The CFA and Greening Australia (Victoria) are jointly sponsoring a series of field-days focussing on the use of prescribed burning as an environmental management tool. The days consist of theory sessions on fire behaviour and ecology, followed by a practical site assessment and then participation in a prescribed burn conducted by local brigades.

This program, which is targeted at local government parks and gardens staff as well as environmental group members, will lead to an enhanced understanding of the benefits and limitations of fire as a management tool; it will also help to ensure that those who choose prescribed burning use it safely.

22.4.1 Upper Beaconsfield

An example of a Land Management Plan which resolves the problem of prescribing fire for both environmental management and fuel reduction is the plan negotiated between the Upper Beaconsfield Rural Fire Brigade and the Upper Beaconsfield Conservation Group for the Hamilton Reserve in Upper Beaconsfield (Boura 1993). An 8 ha council bushland reserve has been divided into 12 segments, with one portion being burnt each year. In this way no part of the reserve will be burnt more frequently than once every 12 years. This fire frequency favours retention of the current vegetation structure, and means that different parts of the reserve will always be at different stages of recovery thus maximising the number of plant species present. A wet area and a reference area will not be burnt, and one section requires weed control prior to burning.

From a fire protection point of view, even if the worst case scenario is assumed and dangerous fuel loads accumulate within three years, at any point in time at least a quarter of the reserve will be significantly fuel reduced. Another benefit is that Conservation Group members are attending the prescribed burns and are gaining an enhanced appreciation of the heat and smoke generated by even a slow moving fire when it is burning through an area with a high fuel load (last burnt in 1983, fine fuel loads are now in excess of 20 t ha-1). It does not take much imagination to work out what the fire would have been like on a blow up day. This is very effective fire awareness education.

One of the concerns that conservationists can have regarding prescribed burning, is not the fire itself but rather the damage that associated fire control activities cause. Fire brigades can refine their controlled burning techniques to make them more environmentally-friendly. For example, sympathetic use of hand tools, limiting vehicle movements off road to reduce soil disturbance, the use of natural or existing control lines whenever possible, and planning long-term burning programs which allow fire regimes suited to the particular vegetation type. There are many small procedural changes which can make burning more acceptable, without making it harder work or more hazardous.

A further benefit of this project is a pseudo-scientific study being conducted by members of the two organisations. In order to determine the form of fuel reduction most appropriate to this common vegetation type the brigade are measuring fuel reaccumulation and the conservation group are monitoring weed invasion and biodiversity following fires of different intensity and season. It is hoped to identify the most environmentally-friendly form of fuel reduction which can then be incorporated into wider fire protection activities.

This management plan, which satisfies both fire protection and conservation requirements, was jointly developed by officers of the brigade and conservation group members, and agreed to by Council. The joint project has gone a long way towards building a co-operative approach and mutual understanding of each groups concerns, and overcoming the strained relationship which had characterised brigade dealings with the Conservation Group since its establishment shortly after the 1983 Ash Wednesday fire.

22.5 Community Fireguard

Community Fireguard is an innovative public education program designed to reduce the number of lives and homes lost through major bushfires. It is based on the premise that, in major bushfires, the CFA cannot provide every person and home with individual protection, and so many people will have to face fire alone. Bushfires are survivable, if communities take responsibility for their own safety.

Residents of high threat areas are being encouraged to come together in groups to consider their bushfire problem, and develop survival strategies suitable for their particular situation. The CFA supports Community Fireguard groups with trained facilitators, who provide assistance with resources and facilitated learning to help the people recognise their concerns; finally arriving at strategies based on a solid understanding of the science and experience of major bushfires.

Community Fireguard allows residents to develop strategies tailored to their location, lifestyle, and values. So there is much greater scope for incorporating protection of environmental values into informed and effective survival strategies than there is if community education is limited to generalised prescriptive advice.

Some residents of areas of high fire hazard and significant conservation value have chosen Community Fireguard as a means to gain the knowledge necessary to develop survival strategies which go beyond simply reducing fuel load. Community Fireguard has been adopted by a number of LandCare and local conservation groups, and includes many residents involved in the Land for Wildlife program. The local community can be deeply divided on the fire protection/conservation issue, and Community Fireguard can be an ideal vehicle for rational discussion of what can be a controversial and emotional issue.

Many of these Community Fireguard groups are identifying and implementing ways of increasing home and personal survival without wholesale clearing of native vegetation (e.g. Robinson & Putting 1993). Whilst this may involve some departure from the 30 metre circle of safety concept (Country Fire Authority 1990), it is recognised that some residents are unwilling to clear vegetation but may be able to improve fire protection through environmentally-friendly methods such as modifications to house construction (e.g. Ministry for Planning and Environment 1990; Ramsay & Dawkins 1993; Wilson & Ferguson 1986), changes in behaviour, raking up of litter etc.. It is recognised that home and personal survival will not necessarily be increased significantly unless fuel reduction is complemented by behavioural change.

These green residents are often classic illustrations of where an all or nothing approach from the fire brigade is likely to achieve nothing, whilst an approach which recognises that there are many ways to decrease community vulnerability will result in some improvement.

22.6 Conclusion

Environmental issues are becoming increasingly important to sections of the community, and to government; so their significance in fire protection planning is also growing. Whilst fire protection works may have a generally negative impact on the environment, the fire hazard of much of the urban-forest interface justifies the conducting of well planned works.

Fire brigades and conservationists have different priorities in land management, but several recent collaborative projects have shown that, if each side is willing to communicate and respect the validity of the others' views, mutually acceptable management plans can be formulated. This co-operation can lead to improvements in fire protection which would not have been possible given an authoritarian approach.

It is important to recognise bushfire as being a community problem, rather than just a fire control agency problem. Involving the entire community in fire protection planning puts some of the responsibility for fire safety on their shoulders, and their input can result in balanced and effective strategies.

The key to reconciling fire protection and conservation issues is communication. This is being facilitated by programs such as roadside management planning, Community Fireguard, and a variety of joint training and management projects organised by the CFA in partnership with a number of environmental agencies. Once fire brigades and conservationists are discussing the issues rationally, solutions which enhance both community safety and biodiversity can be found to most problems.

22.7 References

Barca, R. 1992, 'Ecological burning – maintaining indigenous vegetation and controlling weeds', in Fire and the Implications for Bush Management in the Mornington Peninsula. Greening Australia, Victoria.

Boura, J. 1993, 'Fire management: co-operation between the CFA and conservation groups – a case study from Upper Beaconsfield', in Managing for Fire and Nature Conservation in the Dandenong Ranges and Surrounding Areas. Greening Australia, Victoria.

Boura, J. 1994, 'Reconciling fire protection and conservation issues in Melbourne's urban-forest interface. Fire Management Quarterly, vol. 7, pp. 1-8.

Country Fire Authority. 1983, The Major Fires Originating 16th February 1983, CFA, Melbourne.

Country Fire Authority. 1990, Your Country Home, CFA, Melbourne.

Country Fire Authority. 1993, Community Fireguard, CFA, Melbourne.

Cheney, N.P. 1976, 'Bushfire disasters in Australia, 1945-1975', Australian Forestry, vol. 39, pp. 245-268.

CSIRO, 1987, 'The effectiveness of hazard reduction burning in reducing fire intensity and assisting fire control operations', Operations, vol. 182, pp. 4-5.

CSIRO 1988, 'Predicting the effectiveness of firebreaks', Operations, vol. 192, pp. 1-5.

Garvey, M., Stephenson, K. & Whelan, M. 1993, 'The use of geographic information systems at the Country Fire Authority', Fire Management Quarterly, vol. 3, pp. 1-8.

Good, R.B. 1985, 'The planned use of fire in conservation lands – lessons from the eastern states', in Fire Ecology and Management in Western Australian Ecosystems, WAIT Environmental Studies Group Report No. 14. Western Australian Institute of Technology, Perth.

Komarek, E.V. 1984, 'Fire – nature – and man', in Fighting Fire with Fire, ed. E.M.H. Ealey, Graduate School of Environmental Science, Monash University, Melbourne.

Krusel, N. & Petris, S. 1992, 'Staying alive: lessons learnt from a study of civilian deaths in the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires', Fire Management Quarterly, vol. 2, pp. 1-17.

Luke, R.H. & McArthur, A.G. 1978, Bushfires in Australia. Australian Government Public Service, Canberra.

Ministry for Planning and Environment. 1990, Design and Siting Guidelines: Bushfire Protection for Rural Houses. MPE, Melbourne.

Morris, W. & Barber, J. 1980, 'Fire hazard mapping', Operations, vol. 96, pp. 1-5.

Ramsay, G.C. & Dawkins, D. 1993, Building in Bushfire-prone Areas – Information and Advice, Standards Australia.

Roadsides Conservation Committee, 1982, Guidelines for Management of Roadsides Having Regard for both Conservation and Fire Prevention. RCC, Ministry for Conservation, Melbourne.

Robinson, R. & Putting, D. 1993, 'Living with the bush: management for fire and conservation on the home block', in Managing Fire for Protection and Nature Conservation in Melbourne's Northeast, Greening Australia Victoria.

Shire of Gisborne 1992, Gisborne Roadside Management Plan. Shire of Gisborne.

Symons, I.R. 1983, 'Conservation and fire prevention are complementary', Trees and Victoria's Resources, vol. 25, pp. 11.

Symons, I.R. 1992, 'Fire management – issues and techniques', in Fire and the Implications for Bush Management in the Mornington Peninsula, Greening Australia, Victoria.

Wilson, A.A.G. & Ferguson, I.S. 1986, 'Predicting the probability of house survival during bushfires', Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 23, pp. 259-270.