There’s been a lot of encouragement to head back to the towns that have been ravaged by fires and help these areas get back on their feet. But when it comes to bushland that’s been burnt out, it’s better if we stay away.
I was recently scrolling through my photography portfolio and become increasingly depressed as I realised that almost every wild place I photographed in 2019 has been impacted by this summer’s bushfire emergency – Mt Barney, Crowdy Bay, Deua, Wollemi, the Budawangs.
My summer was spent on the couch or the beach, feeling like a prisoner isolated from the wild lands I love. As the fires have begun to ease I’ve started venturing back into the bush, and in many cases I’ve been confronted by what I’ve found. Forests that once resonated with the sounds of birds are eerily silent. Beaches that used to be framed by bushy headlands now look like they’re surrounded by burnt matchsticks and strewn with a confetti of ash.
But amongst the devastation, hints of rejuvenation are already appearing. Nature is resilient, but given the magnitude of this disaster will it be able to recover? And will it be able to recover without our help?
Fire’s Not New
Bushfires have been a feature of the Australian landscape for millions of years, and many Australian plants have evolved to cope. Some, like gum trees, sprout wreaths of new leaves called epicormic shoots, from parts of the tree that survive the fire, like trunks or roots. Smaller plants, like banksias and hakeas, will be killed, but produce seeds that survive it, exploiting the bare, ashy, post-fire soils to produce the next generation of plants.
Less than a month after fires ravaged the area around Lake Conjola on the NSW South Coast, greenery is already starting to reappear, but it’ll still take years until the bush has fully recovered.
While plants will bounce back with some ease, animals and birds may be harder hit. Many animals didn’t manage to escape the fires, with estimates that over one billion birds, mammals and reptiles have been killed this fire season. Animals that did survive, face new challenges from a lack of food and shelter.
Wombats and echidnas usually make it through a fire by burrowing underground where temperatures remain bearable. The world they return to is drastically different. With plants, leaf-litter and most insects incinerated, food is absent for these creatures. Some will manage to find food by travelling away from their home ranges, others will starve.
Small mammals and birds might be able to find food, but in turn might become food, as a loss of ground cover makes it difficult to hide from predators, especially feral cats and foxes. In the most severely burnt areas wildlife populations will plummet. Unburnt or lightly-burnt areas will become a refuge for wildlife, hopefully allowing populations to recover over time.
The great concern this fire season is the extent of the impacts (estimated at around 18 million hectares) and that areas that haven’t historically seen fire, like the rainforests in northern NSW and southern Queensland, have been burnt too.
Recovery in these areas will be much slower, as the traditional absence of fire means that plants and animals don’t have the adaptations that are widespread across more regularly burnt parts of the country. These areas would once have acted as refuges for wildlife and natural barriers to stop the spread of fire, but this year they’ve burnt too.
What Can We Do To Help?
In most cases the bush will eventually regrow, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t help it along the way. One of the most significant actions we can take is to refrain from walking through burnt areas. While it might seem possible to justify visiting a crag, canyon, beach or lookout that’s had its access track burnt, this will slow regeneration.
Walking across a burnt landscape damages newly sprouted plants, and erodes the soil, making it harder for plants to regrow. Entering areas closed for regeneration will also antagonise landowners, potentially impacting access beyond the immediate recovery period.
Rather than lamenting the areas that you can’t visit right now, think of this as an opportunity to seek out new adventures. But remember, unburnt bushland isn’t only a refuge for you, but for the wildlife that escaped the fires, so be mindful of the footprint you leave there. In particular, do not take pets into the bush, as they can disturb the resident wildlife.
Animals that survived will travel greater distances in search of food. This will bring more animals into contact with cars, either as they cross roads or nibble the few blades of grass that remain unburnt along the verge. In many fire-affected areas, speed limits have temporarily been reduced so animals are less likely to get hit. As you drive through these places, be aware of animals, slow down and try to avoid driving at dawn or dusk when many animals are most active.
A range of organisations are trying to help wildlife, either by rescuing and caring for injured or sick animals or by leaving out food and water until the forests begin to recover. Consider donating or volunteering with one of these groups. If you come across injured or struggling animals report them to a wildlife rescue organisation, such as WIRES (NSW), Wildlife Victoria, Fauna Rescue (SA) or the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.
Given time the bush will recover. An increase in the frequency of fires will have significant impacts on the diversity of plants and animals, especially if areas are burnt again before they’ve fully recovered.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that climate change will increase the risk of fires, so while there are many ways we can make a difference in the short-term to help recover, we must also look at the longer-term action required to reduce the risk of a summer like this occurring again.