Research Letter #13

Can Fire Management take place within an Emergency-Service Framework?

Fire-suppression activity is sometimes separated from land management for administrative efficiency. In these circumstances, bushfire occurrence has been seen by some to be an "emergency" - not a land-management issue. Most ACT bush fires, at least, do not constitute an emergency. However, in the suburbs or city, each fire is more properly regarded as an emergency; there, an efficient, professional, urban fire brigade is able to respond immediately to an outbreak. In this situation, the focus is on threats to substantive social (human life) and economic (buildings and contents) assets. For a bushfire in a remote locality, the threats to human life and property may be less immediate but the efficient, professional, land-management agency operating there will be concerned with its characteristics and its potential to assist with, or detract from, the aims of management. The land management agency may see both prescribed and unplanned fires as integral parts of its management. In this situation, the focus is on natural assets.

Although the ways in which land managers and specialist bushfire fighters think about fires can be quite different, there may be a way in which the ideas behind their thoughts can be brought together. If there was such a way then there could be a sympathetic integration of specialist fire-agency procedures with the ideas of land-management – which necessarily consider fire occurrences in a broader context.

A simplified view of the emergency service (or "disaster") approach is to treat each fire outbreak as part of the preparedness-response-recovery planning system (Kelly 1999). A fire-fighting organization prepares for an outbreak through training and through maintaining equipment, for example, responds to it by rapid despatch and efficient suppression, and recovers from it by repairing any damage to its resources. The preparedness-response-recovery planning system can be seen as a circular process where the recovery phase leads to, or occurs simultaneously with, the preparedness phase (Kelly 1999). Below, I adopt the idea of preparedness-response-recovery planning in the context of land management for biodiversity conservation to assess its value.

In fire management for biodiversity across landscapes, the preparedness phase may consist of the monitoring of selected species in order to gauge when enough time has elapsed since the last fire such that, in the event of another fire – whether prescribed or unplanned – no species will go extinct. Gill and Nicholls (1989) provide an example of how this can be for plant species.

Through the monitoring process, the land manager will know where the species under his or her care could be threatened by an unplanned fire. In the response phase, then, attention of fire fighters may be directed to particular areas where natural assets are at risk if the fire, of a particular intensity, was to reach them. Minimum impact suppression tactics (M.I.S.T., see Mohr 1994) apply in such circumstances. The effects of suppression are sometimes unfortunate when judged against the aims of land management (e.g. Caling and Adams 1999). The aims of management of each area visited by suppression forces should be known and taken into account when a fire occurs so that suppression activity can be in sympathy with those aims.

In the immediate-recovery phase, there is a temptation in some quarters to "assist" nature. After the 1988 fires in Royal National Park in Sydney, well-meaning residents put out vegetables and other herbage for wild animals to feed on (personal observation). For a national park, this is unnecessary, and probably misguided, interference; there is a chance that the material laid out is harmful even to target animals, is inappropriate to the animals of the area and poses a potential weed problem. Another temptation is to spread large areas with seeds of exotic pasture species to ‘halt the erosion’. Again, this is out of place in the National Park context.

The preparedness-response-recovery process is cyclic in the emergency-response framework (Kelly 1999) just as the consideration of the effects of fires in the landscape depends on recurrences of fires, as ‘regimes’. The significance of the preparedness-response-recovery process in the emergency situation will depend on the magnitude of an event just as the effects of fires in the landscapes depend on properties of the fires during a landscape event (‘intensity" is the usual variable considered in fire regimes). [‘Regimes’ consist of the components:- fire type, between-fire interval, fire seasonality and fire intensity – Gill 1975).]

The preparedness-response-recovery planning system seems to fit the land-management example used. The same framework could be used for other situations of landscape fire management also, e.g. urban interfaces, farms and plantations.

Literature

Caling, T. and Adams, R. (1999). Ecological impacts of fire suppression operations in a small vegetation remnant. In: Bushfire 99 Proceedings, Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW. Pp. 69-75.

Gill, A.M. (1975). Fire and the Australian flora: a review. Australian Forestry 38, 4-25.

Gill, A.M. and Nicholls, A.O. (1989). Monitoring fire-prone flora in reserves for nature conservation. In: N. Burrows , L. McCaw and G. Friend (eds). Fire Management on Nature Conservation Lands. W.A.Dept.C.A.L.M. Occ.Pap.1/89, pp. 137-151.

Kelly, C. (1999). Simplifying disasters: developing a model for complex non-linear events. Australian J. Emergency Management 14, 25-27.

Mohr, F. (1994). M.I.S.T. – Putting the concept into practice. Wildfire 3 (4), 4-15.

Malcolm Gill
4 April 1999