Australia and US Wildfire, Similarities and Differences: III. Coverage of Negative Impacts of Wildfires on Wildlife and Water

A boom floats across a small bay near the dam wall at Warragamba Dam in Warragamba, Australia, on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. Although there have been no major impacts on drinking water yet from the intense wildfires, authorities know from experience that the risks will be elevated for years while the damaged catchment areas, including pine and eucalyptus forests, recover. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

In the last post in this series, we talked about “to what extent do models show that Australia and US wildfires are impacted by climate change?” Although that scientific work did not show Australia’s fires as necessarily having a big climate imprint, most of the stories I have read have focused on the climate angle. What is interesting to me is that that lens has led to many stories about the negative impacts of fires on wildlife and watershed.

In this AP story, the narrative is that bad/intense/hot fires lead to drinking water problems and flooding. The author even mentions the efforts of Denver Water to “clear trees and control vegetation” albeit perhaps not only in “populated areas” as the story says. There were also the stories (e.g., here in Scientific American) on wildlife deaths and burns. It’s true that Australia has many more unique species, so the loss in terms of biodiversity is different, but if you are a deer or elk or bear or raccoon, it would be equally unpleasant to be burned or killed by fire.

It seems that in the US there was a certain school of thought that fires were “natural” and so unpleasant effects to wildlife and water were just part of the deal, and in fact were particularly good for some species (while obviously not good for others, at least in the short term).

However, if you thought that the fires were “unnatural” due to previous fire suppression policies, then perhaps it might be more OK to intervene in terms of fuel treatments? Another question that perhaps was never discussed was how do you weigh making more habitat for one species compared to the deaths and injury to individuals of other species?

Looking back on the coverage, it looks to me like the narrative goes “climate change is bad and watershed and wildlife impacts from hot fires will be really bad” is a popular way to frame the Australian case. (If we don’t solve the international problem of climate change, the future looks worse and there are many negative impacts).

But in the US case, when the challenge was to do fuel treatments to help with suppression, (if we do prescribed burning and mechanical fuel treatments, it will help suppression folks deal with fires and lessen the likelihood of these negative impacts to wildlife and water) the same kinds of negative impacts to wildlife and water did not get as much press.

I’ve noticed in the press and in many climate science papers, as we shall see, predictions are made about bad things happening without acknowledging the efforts of other communities to dampen these effects. Some of these communities include fire suppression, plant breeding, water managers, and so on- each of whom have their own scientists who understand the mechanisms of responses and relevant uncertainties and unknowns. At the same time, other factors, such as fire suppression policies, or changes in prescribed burning practices, in the Australia example, may be overlooked in stories designed to attract attention in relatively small space. My concern is that it could make people more despairing and fearful about the future than they might be given what is known by all these scientific communities. Fear leads to anger at “the other” and the idea that the ends justify the means, and the accompanying unpleasant impacts to our society of that worldview.

Does anyone doubt that the western US and Australia would still need to deal with wildfires if there were no climate change? Hint: existence of fire-adapted plant and animal species.

5 thoughts on “Australia and US Wildfire, Similarities and Differences: III. Coverage of Negative Impacts of Wildfires on Wildlife and Water”

  1. I don’t think there is any comparison between the species and ecosystems. Being generally familiar with what’s happened to species in the U. S., I just don’t see reports that fires are leading to extinction. (Yes, the long-term trend for some species may look like it, but not with this urgency.)

    “Australia is one of the great biodiversity hot spots in the world. The island continent was isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years, allowing evolution to take strange new paths, with little human influence until fairly recently. Before the fires, its great diversity was already threatened due to invasive species, habitat destruction, and climate change, according to Australia’s science research agency, CSIRO. Now, ecologists fear severe ecological consequences from so much land being burned at once.

    Brian Resnick
    Is there any aspect of this story that you think needs more attention?

    Sarah Legge (Austrian ecologist)
    Obviously, the driver here is climate change, leading to extended drought and high temperatures. Australia is looking at 3 to 4 degrees of warming. I’m frightened to even imagine the country in that scenario. If this fire event is what we experienced with 1 degree of warming, what on earth are we going to be experiencing at 3 or 4 degrees of warming? It’s terrifying.

    Brian Resnick
    You said some of these species are adapted to fire, but not of this scale. How do some species normally respond to fire, and why wouldn’t they be able to use those strategies now?

    Sarah Legge
    Normally, just small parts of the overall distribution [of where the species lives] would be affected. The fire might affect 5 percent of the distribution, not 100 percent. And the fire would be lower in intensity.”

    (Yes, being terrified might lead to doing something.)

  2. ‘Global deforestation hotspot’: 3m hectares of Australian forest to be lost in 15 years
    March 2018

    The full article is here.

    Australia is in the midst of a full-blown land-clearing crisis. Projections suggest that in the two decades to 2030, 3 million hectares [or about 7.4 million acres] of untouched forest will have been bulldozed in eastern Australia.

    The crisis is driven primarily by a booming livestock industry but is ushered in by governments that fail to introduce restrictions and refuse to apply existing restrictions.

    And more than just trees are at stake.

    Australia has a rich biodiversity, with nearly 8% of all Earth’s plant and animal species finding a home on the continent. About 85% of the country’s plants, 84% of its mammals and 45% of its birds are found nowhere else.

    But land clearing is putting that at risk. About three-quarters of Australia’s 1,640 plants and animals listed by the government as threatened have habitat loss listed as one of their main threats.

    Much of the land clearing in Queensland – which accounts for the majority in Australia – drives pollution into rivers that drain on to the Great Barrier Reef, adding to the pressures on it.

    And of course land clearing is exacerbating climate change. In 1990, before short-lived land-clearing controls came into place, a quarter of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions were caused by deforestation. Emissions from land clearing dropped after 2010 but are rising sharply again.

    “It has gotten so bad that WWF International put it on the list of global deforestation fronts, the only one in the developed world on that list,” says Martin Taylor, the protected areas and conservation science manager at WWF Australia.

    In Queensland, where there is both the most clearing and the best data on clearing, trees are being bulldozed at a phenomenal rate.

    About 395,000 hectares of native vegetation were cleared there in 2015-16, 33% more compared with the previous year. And despite the re-elected Labor government promising changes to rein it in, notifications of planned land clearing in Queensland have jumped a further 30%, suggesting woodlands could be bulldozed even faster in coming years.

    To visualise what clearing of that magnitude looks like, Guardian Australia has created a tool that will lay an area that size over any location you choose. Mapped over Sydney, for example, 395,000 hectares covers an area stretching from the central coast in the north, to Campbeltown in the south, and the Blue Mountains in the west.

    That equates to more than 1,500 football fields worth of native woodland and scrub being cleared each and every day in Queensland.

    Stopping the clearing in Queensland is possible. Indeed, under its Labor premier Peter Beattie it brought its land clearing problem under control. Tough laws passed in 2004 meant that by 2010 land clearing had dropped to an all-time low of about 92,000 hectares.

    But when the Liberal National party’s Campbell Newman was elected in 2012 he broke an election promise to keep the laws, gutted them, and introduced several ways for farmers to clear land easily. The bulldozers roared back into action immediately, bringing the state to the point it is at now.

    “Researchers feared more than 1 billion animals were killed in the wildfires. While analyzing the destruction, the wildlife panel set the number of animal species requiring the highest priority in the coming weeks and months at 113. That includes 13 bird, 19 mammal, 20 reptile, 17 frog, five invertebrate, 22 crayfish and 17 fish species, Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said. Most of them saw at least a third of their range burn.”

  4. Here’s a similarity, though:

    “The Supreme Court has ordered a halt to some logging operations in eastern Victoria in the wake of the bushfires, as green groups celebrate a first round win in a new legal battle over the region’s native forests… the case could have big implications for the future of native forestry in eastern Victoria – scheduled to end within 10 years – in the wake of the unprecedented damage done by the bushfires.”


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