Thursday, December 8, 2022

Effective low intensity burning – barriers and opportunities: John O’Donnell

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Low intensity burn
Photo: Peter Rutherford

Reviewing barriers and potential opportunities for effective low intensity/ ecological maintenance burning fire management of forest areas across south east Australia.

This article relates to the ongoing debate on ARR.News: Open for Debate – Bushfires, Logging, Burns & Forest Management

John O’Donnell

An interesting paper “A review of contemporary Indigenous cultural fire management literature in southeast Australia” by McKemey et al. (2020) describes 22 types of barriers to contemporary cultural fire management in southeast Australia from assessing academic literature. The type of barrier and frequency at which barriers that were discussed included:

  • lack of recognition (coding frequency = 14);
  • protocols (14);
  • legislation and regulation (8);
  • application of cultural burning (8);
  • power (7);
  • knowledge (6);
  • partnerships and agreements (4);
  • lack of trust (4);
  • ecological understanding (4);
  • resourcing (4);
  • capacity (2);
  • bushfire risk (2);
  • public perceptions (2);
  • training requirements (2);
  • access to land (1);
  • cultural links and protocols (1);
  • altered landscapes (1);
  • fire suppression policies (1);
  • climate change (1);
  • sharing benefits (1);weather (1); and
  • infrastructure (1) barriers (total = 89).

Taking into account the assessment above, it is also valuable to assess barriers to the use of low intensity burning of forest areas by land owners and managers (farmers, foresters, conservation staff etc) of state, freehold and lease land forest areas across southeast Australia. This assessment has been undertaken in good faith to tease out the barriers, especially noting very small areas of low intensity burning achieved in south east Australia over the last 30 years, often of the order of 1 to 2 % of forested areas per year.

Low intensity burning has been titled as prescribed burning, controlled burning, mild burning, cool burning and more recently ecological maintenance burning, with ecological maintenance burning (EMB) preferred in this article as it best covers all the fire requirements on contemporary burning practices. Reasons for undertaking EMB would vary but include fuel reduction, asset protection, establishing healthy habitat, setting up safe and healthy landscapes, weed reduction and other reasons.

Barriers to effective EMB by land owners and managers are outlined below. These barriers apply throughout south east Australia, but not necessarily in all states. This barrier list is written in a different way from the cultural management literature review, written in a more specific way and not grouped by broad barrier types. Barriers are broken down into sub categories and include the following.

Legislation, regulation and policy:

  • bushfire suppression focussed policies and management at the expense of fire mitigation options;
  • restrictive legislation and regulations in relation to active and adaptive management;
  • prescriptive and restrictive rules and policies in relation to fire and EMB;
  • focus on individual species rules for EMB, rather than broader ecosystem requirements;
  • long length of minimum fire intervals for vegetation formations set for EMB. This increases bushfire risks considerably and there remain broad areas of same age fuels across large bushfire areas.

Bushfire related issues:

  • lack of action in regards to placement of fire fighters in dangerous situations in bushfires where large fuel loads are present in forests;
  • failure to give adequate consideration of all the impacts of major high intensity bushfires including fauna, flora and heritage impacts, targeting measures such as EMB to reduce these bushfire impacts using EMB;
  • lack of adequate assessment of environmental, social and economic costs of bushfires and alternative mitigation measures;
  • lack of understanding of extent of EMB needed to reduce bushfire risks;
  • complacency over time in regards to bushfire management and low levels of EMB;
  • failure to address all the contributory factors to large bushfires, including mild burning;
  • failure to learn the lessons from major bushfires and address the loss of lives in bushfires.

Recognition on the importance of EMB and safety:

  • failure to recognise the importance of EMB in maintaining forest health, reducing eucalypt decline, reducing fuel loads, maintaining community safety and reducing fauna/ flora/ heritage and water impacts;
  • failure to recognise the 60,000 year cultural burning data set and WA 70 year contemporary burning dataset in relation to mild burning, bushfire reduction and preservation of biodiversity;
  • resistance to EMB across landscapes and not utilising a cohesive wildland management strategy, as is happening in the USA;
  • lack of understanding of the use of adaptive land management practices to reduce bushfire risks and impacts.

Resilience and forest health:

  • lack of broad understanding of Australia’s fire history and cultural burning in regards to Aboriginal environmental and fauna safety, reducing burning opportunities;
  • lack of awareness of forest density and burning at time of European settlement;
  • inadequate understanding of resilient landscapes and setting up/ managing these landscapes;
  • lack of understanding of the importance of mild burning on forest health, tree health across landscapes.

Fuel loads, fuel strata and climate change:

  • inadequate collection/ provision of information on actual non simulated forest fuel loads and forest strata layers to allow independent assessment of bushfire risks and bushfire intensities;
  • uncertain processes for assessment of current fuel loads from bushfires, including the 2019/ 2029 bushfires, including dead standing and on the ground fuels, grasses and shrub layers;
  • focus on climate change and ignoring the fuel load/ strata issue when high fuel loads can be actioned in the short term with active EMB programs across landscapes.

Funding of EMB:

  • focus on bushfire suppression and emergency response, large plane fleets and disaster recovery, and a much lesser funding and action focus on EMB;
  • inadequate funding for EMB;
  • lack of incentives for EMB and inadequate support/ encouragement for freehold and lease landholders to undertake mild burning;
  • inadequate sharing of resources in regards to EMB.

Community and infrastructure:

  • inadequate community/ government partnerships and agreements in relation to EMB, such as fire adapted communities;
  • inadequate levels of protection of towns, cities and communities from bushfires, including mitigation measures;
  • focus on infrastructure protection (where it happens), with lower levels of mitigation away from infrastructure, increasing the risks of large landscape bushfires;
  • inadequate exploration of government and agency bipartisanship in relation to increasing EMB across landscapes.

Risk management:

  • inadequate bushfire risk and threat assessment processes and quality of bushfire risk management assessments, minimising EMB operations;
  • risk aversion to EMB and potential legal action from escapes;
  • restrictions on access to land types for EMB.


  • missed training requirements and inadequate training for mitigation opportunities;
  • loss of skilled fire managers.

Advice source for EMB:

  • provision of fire advice sourced from researchers, often at the expense of experienced land managers.

Bureaucracy and leadership:

  • centralised bureaucracy and decision making in relation to EMB;
  • failure in high level leadership and direction in regards to EMB;
  • inadequate involvement of local government in bushfire mitigation and suppression.

On the ground issues in need of resolution:

  • reducing elevated fuel loads across forested landscapes and associated safety risks that need actioning;
  • inadequate focus of increased implementation of mild mitigation burning under the burning windows we have;
  • inadequate focus on action mitigation options where weather restrictions apply;
  • in some cases a focus on public perceptions/ air quality risks at the expense of EMB;
  • inadequate resourcing capacity.

It is important to consider barriers in optimising EMB programs in Australia in order to optimise fire management. The barrier list teases out the majority of barrier areas in SE Australia. As expected, there are similarities and differences between the two barrier lists.

The majority of the barriers relate to government, some relate to government and fire/ natural resource agency barriers together, some relate to fire/ natural resource agencies and some relate to inadequate community partnerships. It is clear to see where the majority of actions are required to remove barriers, it is noted that there are some issues that are a little grey. Removal of the barriers is achievable, it will take government will and commitment, addressing areas such as legislation, regulation, policy, resilience and forest health, addressing fuel loads and EMB needs, better considering bushfire impacts, increasing funding, improving risk management, addressing bureaucracy and increasing involvement of communities in fire protection.

It would be great if Australian government/s and fire/ natural resource agencies address and remove the above barriers and restrictions and set up safe and healthy landscapes and resilient landscapes, using both cultural and ecological maintenance burning across landscapes. To do this it will take will and the right people. It would be optimal if this can be addressed in a bipartisan cooperative manner.

It would be beneficial for local organisations and individuals to also consider the above barriers and also opportunities for their areas, including land holdings, forests and reserves, in towns/ cities, in districts and at state levels, noting the difficulties in achieving this without government action in relation to these barriers.

About John O’Donnell

John is a retired district forester and environmental manager for hydro-electric construction and road construction projects.   His main interests are mild maintenance burning of forests, trying to change the culture of massive fuel loads in our forests setting up large bushfires, establishing healthy and safe landscapes, fire fighter safety, as well as town and city bushfire safety.



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