Happy New Year

Happy New Year

What an end to 2019.

Where I live there is a drought that is deep and wide. It is the biggest drought on record in Australia, the place renown as a parched land.

In our neighbourhood, the rainfall for the past two calendar years was less than half the longterm average. This means the soil is bone dry, the trees are gasping for some moisture, and the leaves and twigs they have shed in profusion are like tinder.

No surprise then that we have been ringed by bushfire since the beginning of December. When we are not on alert for the flames we are trying not to breathe in the smoke.

At the time of writing some 5 million hectares of NSW has burned including a huge swath of forest, some 512,000 hectares, to our north and an active fire still heading our way from the south.

Across the country, the area burned in this one fire season is 10.7 million hectares, an area bigger than Portugal.

Alloporus has written about bushfire before — Bushfire in our backyard — after we experienced one in 2013.

This is something else altogether.

The fires this year have made headlines around the world, devasted local communities and changed forever the lives of the people in them. Over 20 people have died and some 1,823 homes have been destroyed and already some 8,985 insurance claims lodged.

And it is still going.

It could be the end of January or later before significant rain — the kind that puts fires out — is likely to fall across many parts of the country.

There is some good news. The community has rallied. People have helped each other and the, mostly volunteer, firefighters have gone above and beyond and beyond again to tirelessly protect lives and property.

These fine people are remarkable as are those who lead them. The fire chiefs and local coordinators have put the politicians to shame with their calm and steady leadership.

All of the emergency services personnel are legends.

Compared to these people the politicians, especially the prime minister, need to take a very hard look at themselves and then do the honourable thing and resign. But we’ll leave that conversation to twitter.

Here is a practical point.

There is an ecological reality from the extent of these fires.

A large proportion of many forested areas have burnt all at once. This is not what we understand happens. We think that forests burn in a mosaic leaving patches, even small ones, unburnt in most fires. These unburnt areas are refuges for animals and sources of seed and dispersal for plants. They also hold reservoirs of source populations for the other 99% of biodiversity that we don’t normally think about — microbes, fungi and invertebrates.

When the whole forest burns, all 500,000+ hectares of it near us, there are far fewer, if any, refugia. The source populations of many organisms are gone. The likelihood for local extinctions of many species is very high. Not the iconic koala of course, despite what you will read, but a host of far more useful organisms.

Then we see that these big forests are all burning at the same time. Here is the extent for southern NSW on the 7 January 2020, green areas are the larger patches of native vegetation and most of them are shaded as a fire scar.

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The forest patches left unburnt are mostly small or isolated or intermingled with human habitation. The large, wild areas needed by many sensitive species burned, often intensively.

This is an ecological step change.

The pattern of disturbance (fire) is now more widespread, intense and all at the same time.

This will have any number of effects on the ecology of Australia’s southeastern forests. The regeneration will happen as it always does. But the plants were stressed by extended drought before the fires, the burns were mostly intense and so we cannot expect the vegetation to recover to its former state even though many of the trees and shrubs will miraculously resprout with epicormic growth and the seed bank will flourish in the ash beds, if and when it rains.

If the recovery effort for the ecology that will be tasked once the people are back on their feet must accept that what was before is no more. The future forests will be different. For a start, they will need to be resilient to this kind of disturbance on a much more regular basis.

Of course, this sort of fire season will have happened before. Not in the memory of the western settlers perhaps but no doubt the ancestors of the first peoples witnessed something like it. But only rarely. The climate record suggests this type of event is possible. What will be interesting is if it happens again and again. That the ecology has not seen before.

So not so much of a Happy New Year here.

We have experienced a step-change though. One that does not happen very often when the scale of a disturbance to the natural world is so wide and so deep that it changes the ecology.

There is an opportunity in such a change.

We can get rid of old and unhelpful conservation paradigms like our desperate focus on the rare things and look to resilience for the goods and service we need from nature whilst helping it protect itself from its own powers of destruction.

That’s it for now but we’ll come back to our need for dominion again soon.

Hope you have a Happy New Year and all your resolutions hold.

It is not everyday that you can point your phone directly at the sun and get away with it — smoke haze in the Blue Mountains, NSW
December 2019

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