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Bushfire 2016

What about the other 70% of the landscape? Addressing fire management on peri-urban private land

The lack of fire, too frequent fire, lack of skills, lack of resources, lack of coordination are but some of the issues that are associated with the use of fire by private landholders across SE Queensland that have been identified by Susie Fifoot a PhD Candidate from the School of Earth and Environmental Science, The University of Queensland who is researching the private use of fire across the landscape in SE Queensland.

Susie recently presented her current research findings at the SEQFBC Fire Science Forum 2018, that was held on the 26th November 2018 as part of the ESA18 Conference in Brisbane. Below are some excerpts from that presentation.

Image courtesy of Healthy Land and Water, University of Queensland PhD Candidate Susie Fifoot addressing delegates at the SEQFBC Fire Science Forum on the 28 November 2018 in Brisbane on her ongoing research into fire management on private land in SE Queensland. 

The use of fire for landscape management is never without risks. These risks are exacerbated in peri-urban areas, where a higher density of residents and assets increases the potential for social and economic losses. Landscape fragmentation also increases the complexity and costs of fire management, in an environment of multiple managers and stakeholders, with often conflicting priorities and perspectives of fire management.

These factors combine with changing land use, weather, fire history and ecological processes to make the management of fire in peri-urban landscapes a particularly wicked problem.

Susie started her research by defining “the problem”, by interviewing 27 staff members involved in land and fire management, education and advocacy, across 21 government, semi-government and independent organisations. Interviewees were asked to reflect upon fire management both within their organisation, and more broadly across SEQ.

Out of the initial interviews Susie identified that fire management priorities and strategies varied according to land use and each organisation’s core business. Variation along an urban to rural gradient was also highlighted, with more rural locations associated with increased use and size of fires. Increased acceptance of the use of fire amongst the community was also reported, including an increased tolerance for associated risks and smoke impacts.

So, what about the other 70% of the landscape? In the interviews Susie summed up the responses around fire management in SEQ’s private lands as “the elephant in the room”, and concerns about a lack of appropriate fire were common. Susie went onto say that “Although practices are reportedly changing in some locations, rural areas were often associated with too much fire. Excessively frequent fire was largely perceived as arising from the persistence of historical grazing practices, where pasture was burnt annually to generate new green pick. However, interviewees were of the opinion that three- to four-yearly burning would generate improved pasture outcomes, potentially permitting higher stocking rates, whilst also generating improved environmental outcomes.”

Image: C Welden. Use of fire on private properties varies between the peri-urban and the more rural areas of SEQ. It is perceived that it is often more frequent in the more rural areas and less frequent in the peri-urban areas. 

In more developed, peri-urban areas, the converse was generally reported: not enough fire. This was the case both at the urban fringe and around smaller towns, and was typically associated with smaller landholdings, such as lifestyle blocks.

Numerous factors were identified as potentially contributing to this lack of fire, including limited knowledge and skills in the planning and implementation of fire management, and inadequate resources to achieve desired outcomes. Other potential drivers of inaction may include perceptions around a lack of risk from bushfires, a lack of responsibility for bushfire management, risk of litigation related to planned burns, and inaccurate perceptions of the role of fire in the local environment.
This lack of fire is not without consequences. Several interviewees were aware of locations with elevated risks from wildfires due to inadequate mitigation on private lands; and undesirable successional or wildfire-driven ecological changes were considered a likely outcome in many locations.

Susie will be extending her research to include two more Stages and we look forward to hearing more about these stages that include Community Perspectives & Private Land Management, surveying private landholders to investigate community perspectives of landscape fire and the management of private lands. The third and final step of Susie’s research will utilise focus groups to identify and explore options for addressing the barriers which impede appropriate fire management on private lands. It is envisaged that these focus groups will involve both community members and organisational staff, contributing a breadth of perspectives and permitting a range of options to be explored more fully.

To learn more about Susie’s research you can contact her via the School of Earth and Environmental Studies at the University of Queensland: https://sees.uq.edu.au/profile/3409/susie-fifoot and view Susie’s PhD project summary: https://sees.uq.edu.au/project/what-are-opportunities-improve-integration-risk-reduction-and-environmental-goals-fire-management-australia%E2%80%99s-fragmented-peri-urban-environments 

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