FIRE MANAGEMENT IN NATURAL AREAS
NATIONAL PARKS ASSOCIATION of NSW Inc.
Policy No: 2, December 1980
This document replaces the policy statement entitled FIRE CONTROL IN NATURAL AREAS, released and distributed by the National Parks Association of NSW in 1972. It consists of a summary statement followed by a more detailed statement and explanatory note.
The policy differs quite radically from the previous one in emphasising ecological management as the Association's primary interest. However, this means that NPA has also a vital interest in the suppression of unplanned fire, quite apart from a natural concern for human life and property, hence a number of constructive suggestions for upgrading the effectiveness of protection measures. The basic A and B divisions of the Policy are intended to ensure a clear distinction between these two fundamental aspects.
On the principle that a policy should be continuously reviewed, NPA invites comment at any time.
The Policy covers the full range of:
1. Factors entering into fire management:
1.1. Types of environment and ecosystems.
1.2. Fire control: prevention, mitigation, detection and observation, suppression, and ecological management burning.
2. Essentially natural areas, especially national parks, nature reserves, and other conservation reserves, such as water catchment areas, natural type state forests, and state recreation areas.
A. PLANNED FIRE.
B. UNPLANNED FIRE.
DETAILED POLICY STATEMENT
A. PLANNED FIRE
1.1. All natural areas should be managed, in accordance with a set of objectives.
1.2. A universal objective is the maximum practicable retention of intrinsic indigenous values, both ecological and scenic.
1.3. Management is a positive procedure, requiring control over both environment and wildlife factors and over human usage, within feasible limits and appropriate to an area's allocated purposes.
1.4. Protection of human life and property is an essential part of management.
2. MANAGEMENT PLANS.
2.1. Every natural area (alone or part of a group) should have a management plan, so that its nature and usage can be controlled in accordance with its allocated purposes through a defined set of objectives.
2.2. Management planning should be undertaken by a committee consisting of staff of the managing authority, experts in each major aspect of the plan, and relevant lay interests. Public comment is essential. As regards national parks, the local advisory committee should be represented.
2.3. An interim management plan should be drawn up as soon as possible after an area has been declared a natural reserve of some kind.
2.4. MANAGEMENT PLANS SHOULD INCLUDE AT LEAST
- Statement of objectives, including the specific purposes for which the area is intended, and specific values for which it was reserved, with a detailed zonation plan drawn up in accordance with these and with the area's natural and man-made resources.
- A fire plan (see 3).
- Plans for other aspects of management, e.g. ecological (including conservation of plant and animal species); recreational: public and service access; facilities; public safety. Relationships between these should be recognised and allowed for in planning.
- Implementation details: techniques, timetables, staffing, funding, equipment, administration, etc., for each aspect of the plan.
2.5. Consultation and co-operation between the natural area's land manager, relevant public authorities, local councils, and neighbouring landholders should take place.
2.6. The publication of an environmental impact statement (EIS) before finalising a management plan should be a routine procedure.
2.7. Management plans should be reviewed regularly, taking into account results of recent research and public comment, and should become more specific each review.
3. FIRE PLANS.
3.1. Fire management should be in accordance with a fire plan, which forms part of the management plan.
3.2. An interim fire plan should be prepared as a matter of priority in relation to the interim management plan,
3.3. Managers of large public natural areas for which there is no statutory requirement for a management plan should nevertheless prepare and publish fire plans for public information and comment, even if the full management plan is not available.
3.4. FIRE PLANS SHOULD INCLUDE AT LEAST
- The necessary fire regimes which have been calculated from adequate knowledge and experience to achieve the ecological objectives of management.
- Local modification of regimes to maintain microclimatic variations (if necessary); to foster specific ecosystems, or plant and/or animal communities or species by fire manipulation or to preserve certain aesthetic values.
- Local modification of regimes to produce firebreaks and fuel-reduced zones for the protection of human life and property within the neighbouring area from bush-fires in the natural area, and for the protection of the natural area and human life and public property within it from fires in the neighbouring area.
- Basic prescriptions for burning necessary to maintain fire regimes, detailing all possible factors: e.g. weather conditions, state of fuel, slope, aspect etc., for different areas.
- Provision for monitoring the effects of all fires
3.5. Fire plan should be reviewed at least annually and in accord with the management plan, taking into account experience, recent research, and public comment; new techniques and equipment availability; and should tend to become more specific at each review.
4. PRESCRIPTION BURNING.
4.1. Prescription burning should be deliberately applied to natural areas in order to attain ecological management objectives, but only when it is virtually certain that the required basis of scientific knowledge is adequate to ensure this attainment and that the essential pre- and post-fire surveys and monitoring will be carried out, and when unplanned fires which happen to fulfil the prescription requirements do not occur
4.2. Recognising that much ecological prescription burning will be applied over broad areas, it is emphasised that such burning is inadvisable in the absence of adequate knowledge as to its total effects upon communities and species of plants and animals.
4.3. Reducing fuel for the protection of life and property is also a proper use of prescription burning, provided due care is taken to minimise adverse ecological and aesthetic impacts. Some modification of natural conditions should be accepted.
4.4. Burning plans should take into account undesirable environmental impacts such as increased erosion and siltation of streams, and ensure that these are minimised.
5.1. There is a pressing need for research into various aspects of bushfire effects, behaviour, and causation.
5.2. There is an even greater need for applied research which correlates research results and provides fire managers with the basis of fire policies, plans, regimes, burning prescriptions, monitoring methods, efficient suppression.
5.3. Experimental burning of areas no longer than necessary to produce viable information, is permissible in nature reserves, to a lesser extent in national parks, and to various extents in other areas. Burns planned for the purpose of experiment only must be scientifically planned and supervised, and provided for in the management plan.
B. UNPLANNED FIRE.
1.1. Bushfires, whether man-made or naturally occurring, which do not accord with the management plan, should be suppressed as rapidly as possible.
1.2. Strategies to suppress unplanned fire should be adopted by land managers after consultation with local fire authorities in advance of fire seasons. Such strategies may form part of the fire plan, and must basically accord with its objectives.
1.3. Methods used to suppress fire in natural areas should be as far as practicable be those which cause the least damage to natural values, and conflict as little as practicable with management objectives. Those making decisions on suppression methods should be aware of the nature and allocated purposes of the natural area and the objectives set down in the management plan. Where damage does in fact occur, arrangements for rehabilitation should be made.
1.4. Prompt initial suppression is vital, and the use of certain aircraft to drop retardant merits serious consideration. Particular attention should be paid to the use of light aircraft, especially helicopters, for delivering small drops to starting fires.
2.1. Continuing efforts should be made by land managers to prevent the occurrence, or certain consequences, of man-made bushfires, in the following ways:
2.2. Continuing public education is necessary, on the need for caution in lighting fires; the bushfire laws; and what the landholder/resident can and should do in self- and property protection.
2.3. Permits to burn issued by local councils to private landholders and residents should have conditions attached, as provided for in the Bushfires Act, Section 10 (2)(a)(iii), (4), and (5).
2.4. Laws should be much more strongly enforced, through diligent police action and more severe court penalties, in order to create a major deterrent to contravention of the Bush Fires Act, especially Section 12.
2.5. Building design and placement in relation to bushfire danger should be a primary consideration of all local councils, especially in regard to approving subdivisions in fire-prone areas. Such consideration in relation to the recommendations of the Department of Environment and Planning's Circular 16 should be a statutory requirement.
3.1. A continuous firebreak strip should be provided along the boundary of any natural area where fire is considered by either of the neighbouring land management authorities, or the local council, or a majority of affected residents, to be a hazard.
3.2. The width of the firebreak should be calculated from a consideration of all relevant factors aspect, slope, vegetation type and state, etc. - to place the neighbouring land or improvements thereon beyond the likely stretch of flames under the severest fire conditions.
3.3. The firebreak should be substantially cleared of flammable material, but with full consideration for the aesthetic value of the strip, and with care to avoid the entry of exotic plants facilitated by baring or disturbing the soil. Where practicable, hand labour or mechanical methods are preferable to burning. Trittering is an acceptable method.
3.4. The firebreak should be backed by a fuel-reduced strip or zone of appropriate width for the maximum fire conditions expected.
3.5. Wherever possible, existing firebreaks, natural or otherwise, should be utilised in fire control, e.g. wet gullies, railways, powerline swathes, roads etc.
4.1. Mitigation, or reduction of fire intensity and rate of spread, may be obtained by fuel reduction for certain purposes of protection, e.g backing firebreaks, along or near some roadsides, and around picnic areas, buildings, car parks and other improvements.
4.2. Fuel reduction should involve mainly removal of excessive dead dry material, without removal of the lower damper or decomposing litter layers or baring the soil, but can also involve thinning of live vegetation where necessary
4.3. Fuel reduction may be obtained mechanically or by hand labour over small areas, such as adjoining some suburban properties beyond fire breaks. Tritters and other machines may be used, but these are generally more suited to firebreak construction. Hand work (mainly slashing and raking) is more suitable for fuel reduction in small areas.
4.4. PRESCRIPTION BURNING, planned and applied to minimise both aesthetic and ecological damage, is to date the only practicable way to fuel-reduce larger areas.
- Narrow fuel-reduced strips may be produced within the body of a natural area in strategic locations based on knowledge of fire patterns, e.g. certain north-west slopes and wind funnels. They should be established minimally in national parks.
- Prescription burning is generally ill-advised in the smaller urban bushland areas, provided adequate firebreaks and handworked fuel-reduced strips are provided at the edges. Poor aesthetics and weed incursion are the main objections.
- Broad area prescription burning is unacceptable for protection purposes alone, and must not form part of a management plan for these purposes.
5. DETECTION AND OBSERVATION.
5.1. Detection of bushfires at an early stage is of paramount importance to the effectiveness of suppression measures, justifying considerable attention and expense.
5.2. Aircraft are a most effective means of detection and observation, and should be used increasingly. On all days of high fire danger, light aircraft should patrol fire - prone areas continuously in daylight hours.
5.3. The Fire Prevention Associations should be considered for the performance of an aerial detection and observation role. This would require an amendment to the Bush Fires Act to enable them to operate in respect to all lands. (See Section 41 b(h)).
5.4. Ground observation from high points of land and from the water are useful methods of detection and observation. However, fixed fire towers are in general undesirable in national parks and kindred reserves, as their presence intrudes upon and depreciates the natural values which such areas purport to preserve.
5.5. All fires should be observed continuously until completely extinguished.
6. TRANSPORT AND ACCESS.
6.1. Fire fighters on the ground need to reach a fire as quickly as possible, but the means for providing access should not unduly depreciate the area in regard to its allocated purposes or natural values.
6.2. Transport of men, equipment and retardant by aircraft, where and when practicable, has obvious advantages in time and human energy conservation, and should be utilised more frequently.
6.3. Helipads or STOL (short take off and landing) strips in carefully selected locations within large natural areas particularly national parks and wilderness areas, are generally preferable to roads
6.4. Fire roads are essentially undesirable in national parks with whose nature and spirit they conflict. The should be provided minimally if at all, and the method of their construction should be such as to cause minimal disturbance to natural values, The benefits of roads are often offset or outweighed by their disadvantages, e g increased access for firebugs and increased erosion. They do have some advantage as firebreaks against light fires. There should be no roads of any kind in designated wilderness areas.
7. NEW TECHNIQUES AND EQUIPMENT.
7.1. New techniques and equipment for firefighting should be continuously considered for incorporation into Australian operations. NPA rejects both the negative approach of authorities who refuse to keep an open mind and the ill-considered optimism of those who assume that all techniques are universally applicable, e.g. heavy water tankers over many parts of Australia.
8.1. The safety of fire fighters is important, and expense should not be spared in providing for it.
8.2. All fire fighting vehicles should be provided with some form of fire shelter large enough for all members of a crew.
8.3. Personal protective equipment should be issued free of charge to all members of bush fire brigades.
9.1. The State Government should ensure that all bush fire brigades have adequate funding for modern vehicles, adequate equipment, personal safety equipment, and normal firefighting clothing, gloves, and footwear, as well as training in suppression and prescription burning, including education in ecological fire management.
9.2. The staff ceiling of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of NSW should be raised in order to enable a much larger field staff to be deployed, inter alia, for fire control purposes.
9.3. INCREASED STATE AND FEDERAL FUNDING should be provided for:
- research into all aspects of bushfire, especially its effects upon natural ecosystems, communities, and species; succession following fire in different ecosystems; fire behaviour.
- expansion of the investigation and field testing of new equipment and techniques of fire control and safety measures.
- police detection and prosecution of arsonists.
This policy takes a positive line: management in order to realise a set of ecological and other objectives, which may involve carefully prescribed fire. Unscheduled fire is regarded as an aberration from this system and therefore a problem of ecological management as well as a challenge to protection systems. Absolute suppression capability should be an ultimate goal alongside absolute ecological management capability.
BASIC PRINCIPLE 1.
Fire is undoubtedly a major factor of many Australian environments, because evidence of a number of evolved fire adaptation mechanisms is plain to see. There are devices for withstanding or surviving fire (underground rootstocks, thick bark etc.) and for regeneration (sprouting from stems, branches, and rootstocks; prolific seeding.)
BASIC PRINCIPLE 2.
Man has extensively modified the original wilderness. The Aborigines frequently used fire for their own purposes: keeping the bush ways clear for passage, flushing out game, and providing green pick for grazing animals. Europeans light fire for many reasons, and the "safety" match makes the act so simple. Since settlement, Europeans have also cleared about half of the original forest cover in NSW, leaving isolated natural fragments of various sizes.
These two factors - a great increase in the frequency of the fires, and fragmentation and reduction of the wilderness add up to what may reasonably be termed an unnatural condition. As it is unlikely that we will allow a reversion to the original wilderness, the natural remnants will need management to ensure their retention in some sort of natural form. This is unlikely to be the pre-Aboriginal environment for perhaps a number of reasons. For one, we don't know exactly what this was. Again, the climate has changed since those days (over 60,000 years ago), and may no longer support the flora of that time.
Finally, although there might be some merit in trying to recapture that past environment in some areas, it would seem to make little sense to make this a general goal, if only for the above reasons. We may as well then deliberately manage - prudently and carefully to be sure - to attain objectives upon which we ourselves have decided with as much wisdom as we are capable. On average, these will probably seek to maintain some approximation of the status quo. On the other hand, some judicious manipulation is in order, and a well-known example of this is the periodic firing of some of the Nadgee heaths in order to maintain a low height habitat for the green ground parrot. In another area, a perfectly responsible decision might be made to suppress (by fire) patches of woodland to encourage wildflower shrubs.
BASIC PRINCIPLE 3.
This simply aims to curb any tendency to make or allow fundamental changes through management. For example, no native species should be removed from or added to the environment, and in general the essential character of the environmental vegetation type should remain, even where some characteristics may be 'emphasised or inhibited by prudent manipulation.
Some may be regarding this concept with suspicion. This is not surprising, as management and meddling have in the past tended to be indistinguishable. Mismanagement is almost a synonym for human history. In this policy we are talking about the most highly responsible management that can be obtained, not only from scientific expertise but also from an input by intelligent and concerned laymen considering reasonable options for management objectives.
Although manipulation is integral with our concept of management, the aim is, as underlined in Principle 3 above certainly not to make vast or basic changes, but more to ensure that nature is given every chance to show what she can do. This could be by creating, if necessary, the opportunities for plant communities to reach a climax perhaps by providing their first long-term protection from fire; to sustain a dysclimax; to create the conditions for a return of wildlife species which may have been driven from the environment.
As a guiding principle, we should probably tend to manipulate sparingly. Perhaps we should make some attempt to simulate the random occurrence of fire in the pre-man environment. A consensus seems to be that we should generally manage for diversity.
Objectives arising from a clear understanding of the allotted purposes of an area must of course be well defined if we are to make any sense out of management.
As provided for in the National Parks and Wildlife Act, all management plans must be submitted to the National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council before going to the Minister. In the case of national parks, this ensures an overview by a number of experienced people with somewhat diverse interests.
Every plant community or ecosystem may be regarded as having its individual fire regime. This means that its maintenance requires a fairly specific kind and degree of fire - if any. The regime may be, in broad terms, anything from no fire at all (zero fire regime) to periodic high intensity summer fire. The regime will be identifiable as a combination of the three principal factors - intensity, frequency, and time of year. It is unlikely to be so precise in its requirements that some latitude in one or more factors is not possible.
It should be clear from the policy that the oft-repeated charge that the NPA, amongst conservationists generally, is opposed to "control burning" is untrue. NPA has never opposed properly prescribed and controlled burning per se. We have always opposed it when applied to large areas (frequently thousands of hectares) in the absence of adequate knowledge as to effects. As such, it is ecologically indefensible. There are many kinds of natural environment subjected to prescription burning, and in none of these can any land management authority claim to have the required knowledge. Certainly that knowledge may be building up for certain environments, such as the Hawkesbury Sandstone, but until intensive research results tell us how it should be done, it is irresponsible to subject anything but small areas and strips to this potentially drastic form of treatment.
When we do know, then we must manage accordingly. This is hardly a "never-burn" policy.
It is obvious that much so-called "control" burning is simply "burning off". Some fire control authorities seem to have a disregard for the integrity of bushland, and burn when it suits them, or when they can get a "good burn", with protection of human life and property alone in mind.
Broad area burning for protection reasons alone is an unreasonable protection measure - rather like reducing all lakes to wading ponds in case somebody gets drowned.
It is obvious that without a vastly increased research program, we may never attain that level of knowledge which will enable us to manage all ecosystems competently. It behoves all who are concerned to press the NSW and Federal Governments to institute the kind of program that is needed.
SUPPRESSION OF UNPLANNED FIRE.
In the 1972 Policy on Fire Control in Natural Areas, no statement proved more controversial than the one of which B1.1 is essentially a restatement. It is hoped that this time, having stressed all along the need for only planned fires to be allowed to burn, if ecosystems are to be maintained according to the management plan, it will readily be seen that the only unplanned fires which can be allowed to burn are those which comply with the prescribed conditions. All others, including natural (lightning) fires, must be suppressed. A lightning fire is often, under the present unnatural conditions, just another unwanted fire. To return to natural conditions, in which every lightning fire would be allowed to burn, we would have to guarantee suppression of every man-made fire and return most of the land to wilderness.
Public education is still a major need. There is some validity in the claim that progress towards better fire control is limited more by community attitudes than by lack of willingness by fire authorities. However, we do believe that professional fire managers have a responsibility to guide public opinion towards the aims of management, rather than wait for the definition of a "community attitude". Community attitudes in country areas are particularly important if they inhibit policing and encourage minimum penalties. A strong attempt should be made by managing authorities and the Bush Fire Council to correct the traditional attitude that country landholders have a virtually automatic right to burn, and to compel them to observe all provisions of the Act.
NPA regards these as the front line of defence against fire crossing the boundary between a natural area and its neighbouring land - either way. We are of course chiefly concerned with the urban fringe. No house should burn down because of the direct flames at the fire front. The combined firebreak and fuel reduced zone should ensure that, no matter how bad the conditions, this cannot happen. It should be someone's job to make the necessary calculations as to minimum widths to ensure this. Properly done, this should remove the chief incentive for broad area protection burning, and enable firefighters to concentrate on fires away from houses or to be deployed safely in the urban zone attending to any spot fires.
Properly constructed and maintained, neither the firebreak nor the mitigation area behind it need be an eyesore. If every low growth of native greenery cannot be maintained, and weeds and grass take over, then the home-owner or landholder can resort to mowing, with a n acceptable result. The odd tree or shrub can often be left with comparative safety in the firebreak, depending on size and type. The fuel reduced zone can grade from a park-like isolation of trees and shrubs to the unmodified bush beyond.
Fuel reduction by prescription burning tends to be the most controversial aspect of fire control, because of its unknown - and known - effects upon native growth, its unattractive aftermath, and because it often favours the entry of weeds, on the one hand, and because it does slow down a racing fire to some extent, on the other. NPA's acceptance of this technique as a protection measure is qualified. We ask that it be applied with some discretion and sensitivity wherever possible, particularly in national parks. In places of particular beauty, it is sometimes possible to disguise or hide it by, say, not burning right up to a road, the edge of a picnic area, or the urban fringe. Such niceties are usually labour intensive and cannot be provided everywhere.
DETECTION AND OBSERVATION.
We believe that, in asking for a high degree of aircraft surveillance, NPA 'is expressing the feelings of many thousands of people who would willingly approve the expenditure of much public money to see this kind of system established. It is quite possible that it would soon pay for itself in the saving of vast fire damages. With usage, the adequate firebreak system cum aircraft detection and primary suppression could see most fires beaten before they could gain any momentum. Ground crews will still be very much needed, but they will stand a much better chance of winning the battle and with greater safety, particularly if airlifted to the site. It would seem that the latter system is being carried out very satisfactorily by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Fire towers in national parks should be unnecessary with an aerial detection system in operation. Structures such as these, buildings, and roads in national parks should be minimised as far as practicable because they are foreign to the concept of a national park, a place where one goes to be with nature and forget the world of man. These scruples apply even more in designated wilderness areas.
SUPPRESSION METHODS. There is a vast difference between the use of light aircraft carrying small retardant drops (water is comparatively ineffective) to starting fires, and that of a big tanker aircraft carrying up to 10,000 gallons of retardant (worth a similar number of dollars). The whole purpose of the former is that it is a quick thrust at a fire, just detected in its earliest stages from the air possibly by the same aircraft. The big tanker will tend to be used during the later stages of the fire, but even a 10,000 gallon drop will go nowhere if the fire is burning with great heat on a 10 kilometre front. Therefore we would say that, in comparison, the usefulness of such a suppression aid is a matter for further consideration. We have few such reservations about light aircraft, particularly helicopters.
Some methods of firefighting can be highly damaging to native ecosystems, notably firebreak clearing by bulldozer. Such methods therefore need much consideration before use, even in emergency situations when they may not be sufficient anyway, to stop a big fire.
OTHER METHODS. Our 1972 Policy was criticised for including impracticable or uneconomic methods. In part, this was a failure by out critics to read the "fine print". None of the methods was intended as a panacea, and we sought to stimulate "lateral thinking". In 1980 it is a bold man who is certain that activities which are currently impractical or uneconomic (or the converse) will remain so by 1985. Authorities would do well to cultivate an open mind.
SAFETY AND FUNDING. Let us take these together. Safety, like early detection and suppression, is so vital that almost no expense is too great to ensure it. Safety for firefighters at tankers should, however, be comparatively inexpensive. A fire-proof cabin or tent of heat reflective material would probably have saved the lives of five young men killed in the Royal National Park fire of October, 1980.
While staff ceilings and funding of research are both so tightly held down, it is difficult to see substantial progress being made in fire management in the near future.
Adopted by State Council December 1980
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