Back in 2009, the devastation wreaked by the Black Saturday fires in Victoria shook Australians to their core, as the worst bushfires in the country’s history resulted in unprecedented casualties and loss of property.

For fire services across the nation, it was a major wake-up call, and prompted those in other states to ask themselves, “Are we prepared for something like this?”

In response to Black Saturday, the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) launched a review of its prescribed burning practices, and sought the help of local researchers to ensure a more sophisticated, evidence-based approach.

“In Tasmania, there was the potential to just go and burn in our western wilderness areas. But you could go out there, burn 5% of the state easily, and it’s not going to protect anyone from bushfires,” says Dr Grant Williamson, landscape ecologist and spatial scientist at the University of Tasmania, and affiliate with the NHMRC Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research.

“We wanted to know where we could plan the burning to make the best impact on lives and property, and where we could make the best impact on biodiversity as well.” 

In collaboration with the TFS, Dr Williamson and his team simulated fire behaviour under 14 different methods of prescribed burning.

They found that the most effective way to protect lives and property from bushfires was to undertake prescribed burning close to towns and cities. They also found that the effectiveness of their prescribed burning would increase if the TFS assisted land-owners in burning vegetation on private property.

The close involvement of TFS staff throughout the project has seen the research swiftly translated into practice. 

“In the last two or three years, we’ve seen significant prescribed burning around the Hobart area close to the city, on the urban fringe,” says Dr Williamson.

“We’ve also increasingly been seeing the fire service burning on private land, and we’ve been working with land-owners to do that.”

Credit: Grant Williamson

Smoke pollution: a personal warning

While greater prescribed burning closer to urban areas can reduce the risk of wildfires, it increases another risk to public health: smoke.

According to Dr Williamson, smoke is a major cause of air pollution in Tasmania.

“Ozone and nitrogen dioxide – those sorts of industrial pollutants aren’t a big issue here,” he explains. “But what we do have are significant smoke impacts from bushfires and prescribed burning through part of the year, and from wood heater smoke in the winter through the rest of the year.”

An innovative collaboration between researchers in the University of Tasmania’s School of Natural Sciences, the Menzies Institute for Medical Research, and Tasmania’s Environmental Protection Agency is using data from the state’s extensive network of air pollution monitors to investigate the links between fire in the landscape and the impacts of smoke on public health.

The result is AirRater, a first-of-its-kind smartphone app that provides real-time information on atmospheric smoke, as well as personalised health alerts for users.

The key innovation of AirRater, says Dr Williamson, is that the user can routinely submit their symptoms to the app, and it will build a picture of their specific triggers, such as temperature, smoke, and pollen. The app can then alert the user when certain environmental conditions are most likely to affect their health.

If a user gives consent, their symptom data can be accessed (anonymously) by researchers to help them better understand the impacts of smoke on public health. 

In the 12 months following its launch in October 2015, more than 3,000 people had used AirRater, logging 5,606 symptom reports. A version of the app was released for users in the ACT in 2017, and a Northern Territory version is due for release in late 2018.

Dr Williamson says many users report that they check the app every day.

“They’ve told us that they’re changing their behaviour,” he says. “They’re making decisions about whether they’ll go outside, or if they’re going to take their preventative asthma inhaler with them, based on what the app is telling them.”

Grant Williamson

New approaches to forest regeneration

According to Dr Williamson, it’s not just humans who need to be prepared for a future where fires are more frequent and severe. The health of Australia’s alpine forests is also under threat.

In 2013, the Harrietville-Alpine bushfire burnt more than 15,000 hectares of alpine ash forest, including more than 13,500 hectares of alpine ash within the Alpine National Park, located in the Central Highlands and Alpine regions of Victoria.

“It’s really quite shocking,” says the University of Tasmania’s Dr Lynda Prior of the event. “You’ve just got bare soil that is exposed to erosion, and stumps of trees as far as you can see.”

Occasional severe fires are an important part of the life cycle of alpine ash forests. Mature trees are killed, the seeds held in their canopies are released, and a new generation of alpine ash grows up in the nutrient-rich ash bed created by the fire.

But it takes more than 20 years before those trees are mature enough to flower and set seed. If another fire kills the immature trees before they have a chance to prepare, the forest can be quickly replaced by vegetation that has adapted to more frequent fires.

The Harrietville-Alpine bushfire was not the first time much of the alpine ash forest in the national park had been burnt in the past 10 years, and research led by Professor David Bowman from the University of Tasmania revealed that the forest would be unlikely to recover without human intervention.

The decision to assist the forest’s recovery needed to be made quickly, says Dr Prior. “There’s a window of just a couple of months when you can reseed successfully.”

Alpine ash seeds need to be exposed to the winter’s cold before they will germinate. If reseeding is left until the following year, the regrowth of other species prevents the alpine ash seedlings from establishing.

While aerial seeding by helicopter is a common practise in commercial forestry, the practise had never before been used as part of a conservation intervention. In this case, seeing as the re-seeding area was so large, national park managers were left with little choice but to use this alternative approach to native forest management.

Following the intervention, there were fewer seedlings than there would be in a naturally regenerating stand of alpine ash, but the researchers were surprised to find that they were able to survive, against all odds.

“We were concerned because it was a fairly dry summer and quite hot,” says Dr Prior. “Nonetheless, it was enough to get the seedlings growing.”

The seedlings survived that first summer, and the rapid reseeding intervention effort had saved the native forest.

As Australia continues to experience record-breaking temperatures into the future, protecting ourselves and our most vulnerable forests will be a major challenge in the decades ahead.

The best chance we’ve got is preparing for the worst of it now.

Key facts about AirRater

  • From its launch in 2015 to the end of 2016, AirRater was downloaded by more than 3,000 individuals across Tasmania. 
  • By December 2016, 5,606 symptom reports had been logged through the app, and the website had attracted 3,620 unique users. 
  • By 2017, the app had expanded to the ACT, and 50 per cent of its users rated it as 'very' or 'extremely' useful. 
  • In 2016 AirRater was recognised by the Tasmanian State Emergency Service Resilience Award for strengthening community disaster resilience, and was runner-up in the Australian Information Industry Association’s iAwards for community services.

Dr Lynda Prior

Dr Prior is a researcher in the School of Natural Sciences. Her current research focuses on tree growth and fire ecology. She has a special fondness for Callitris, a native conifer on which she worked intensively. She has also worked on the ecophysiology of savanna trees near Darwin, and salinity and irrigation of horticultural crops in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Professor David Bowman

Professor David Bowman holds a research chair in Environmental Change Biology. His field of inquiry spans ecology, evolution, biogeography and management of environmental change using Australia as a model system. He is particularly interested in researching the ecological impacts of landscape fire, and the interplay between human and biomass burning, a field of inquiry he describes as 'pyrogeography'. Hallmarks of Bowman's research are crossing disciplinary boundaries, building enduring research partnerships and translating research findings to broader policy and management debates.

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