ACT State of the Environment 2007

Indicator: Fire

Summary

The ACT Fire Brigade and ACT Rural Fire Service responded to 1172 wildfires during the reporting period, 99% of which burnt less than five hectares. The frequency of wildfire has increased substantially each year since 2003. Re-establishment of vegetation cover (and therefore, fire fuel) and some reduction in the level of community fire awareness are factors likely to be contributing to this increase. Both the 2005–06 and 2006–07 bushfire seasons featured extremely dry and unusually warm weather conditions.

In the first half of the reporting period, the ACT Government made major changes to the legal and planning framework for fire management in the ACT. The key legislative change was the Emergencies Act 2004, which established the ACT Rural Fire Service and requires the Emergency Services Agency (ESA) to prepare a Strategic Bushfire Management Plan for the ACT. The Act also sets out requirements for managers of Territory Land to prepare Bushfire Operational Plans. Version 1 of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan was released in January 2005 and the ESA expects to release Version 2 in 2008. Under the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan, ESA have developed and implemented Bushfire Operational Plans, improved bushfire response capability, constructed new fire trails and maintained existing ones, and undertaken community awareness programs. Different fuel management zones have been established for the ACT with corresponding treatment types and indicative burn cycles. During the reporting period, Parks Conservation and Lands, in conjunction with the ACT Rural Fire Service, undertook fuel reduction to decrease fire hazard by burning (66 burns/8824 ha), grazing (20,537 ha), slashing (7991 ha) and physically removing woody material (907 ha).

During the reporting period, the ACT Government established programs to monitor vegetation recovery after the 2003 bushfire and after controlled hazard reduction burns. It also established an auditing process for Bushfire Operational Plans to determine the extent to which activities had been carried out and had met prescribed standards. The ESA has also begun planning for a proposed fire management database and information system as part of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan Version 2. Monitoring gaps that need to be addressed during the next reporting period include assessing the effectiveness of all fuel reduction activities in terms of reducing fire hazard, and monitoring the impacts of grazing, slashing and physically removing material on native ecosystems and their component plant and animal species.

Building a scientifically based local and regional knowledge base is a significant part of fire management, as are monitoring programs to assess fuel reduction activities and their impacts on native ecosystems. While vegetation monitoring programs have now been established to assess the ecological impact of bushfires and hazard reduction burns, similar programs are needed to determine the impacts of other fuel reduction activities (such as grazing, slashing and physically removing material) as well as assessing the actual effectiveness of all fuel reduction programs in reducing fire hazard. All such monitoring programs require long-term commitment and funding support.

Improved processes and effort are also needed to obtain comprehensive data on unplanned fires. Such data should include measures of their intensity and severity, a record of the specific vegetation types affected, the ecological and other impacts of the fires, for example, on water quality and erosion.

Since the 2003 bushfire, the level of interaction between various government agencies involved in fire management planning, especially during development of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan, has increased. However, there is no central and uniform source of information about fires, the hazard reduction activities of all agencies, the effectiveness of these activities, and relevant ecological data and monitoring outcomes. It is important that the proposed fire management database and information system – part of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan Version 2 – is intended to meet this purpose. The availability of such diverse information and the ability to integrate disparate types of data are essential to help ensure fuel reduction activities are appropriate (in terms of their frequency, physical locations and spatial scales, etc.) to reduce Canberra's bushfire risk to an acceptable level, while ensuring that such programs do not have unwanted and unplanned adverse impacts on the Territory's native species and ecosystems.

What the results tell us about the ACT

Wildfire occurrences

The ACT Fire Brigade and ACT Rural Fire Service responded to 1172 wildfires (bushfires or grassfires not including hazard reduction burns) during the reporting period (see Table 1). The annual number of fires attended has increased substantially in each year following the January 2003 bushfire, with the highest number in 2006–07. This is almost twice the number attended in 2005–06, three times the number attended in 2004–05, and more than six times the number attended in 2003–04. Over the reporting period, most fires occurred between October and February and in April, but were more evenly spread across the year in 2004–05 (see Figure 1). The majority of fires occurred in and around grassland, woodland and dry forest close to the urban area of Canberra, although a number of larger fires occurred in the rural area. Though accurate data is not available, ignition sources can be broadly categorised into lightning and human actions. Human caused ignitions include malicious lighting (arson), accidental, and deliberate (or planned) fires. The frequency of human caused ignitions is greater close to human settlement and access routes. Conversely, lightning caused ignitions are proportionally higher in montane and remote areas.

Table 1: Number of wildfire ignitions, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007
Year All fires Fires = 5 ha in area Fires > 5 ha in area
Total number Total number
(% in year)
Total number Total area burnt (ha) Max. area burnt (ha) in single fire
2003–04 92 89 (97%) 3 240 220
2004–05 196 196 (100%) 0 0 0
2005–06 296 292 (99%) 4 110 80
2006–07 588 583 (99%) 5 59 20
Total 1172 1160 12 409

Source: Emergency Services Agency, July 2007

Only 12 wildfires (1–4% of fires each year) burnt more than 5 ha of land over the reporting period (see Table 1). The total area burnt was just over 400 ha, with the largest fire, in May 2004, burning 220 ha in Namadgi National Park. The majority of wildfires were grassfires in urban and rural areas of the Territory.

The total area of land burnt in wildfires during the reporting period and the maximum size of any one fire were significantly lower than during the previous reporting period. The ACT was affected by major bushfires in December 2001 and January 2003, the latter burning about 70% of the Territory (ACT Commissioner for the Environment 2004). The smaller area burnt between July 2003 and June 2007 in part reflects the greatly reduced fuel loads across much of the ACT over that time, as well as continuing dry conditions that have limited plant growth.

The increasing number of fires in successive years of the reporting period may be related to a variety of factors. Re-establishment of vegetation cover means there is, over time, a progressive increase in the level of available fire fuel compared with immediately after the 2003 bushfire. There may also have been some reduction in the level of community awareness resulting in an increase in the number of careless ignitions and malicious arson. It is a key function of the ESA to ensure, through public education campaigns, that bushfire awareness is maintained.

Figure 1: Number of wildfires each month, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007

Graph of number of wildfires each month, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007

Source: Emergency Services Agency, July 2007

No comprehensive data on intensity/severity of unplanned fires, specific vegetation type/s affected, the ecological impacts of fires, other impacts of fires (e.g. erosion, water quality) or time since the area was last burnt were available for the reporting period. This is principally because the necessary systems and processes to collect such data were not yet established.

Fire management

In the first half of the reporting period, the ACT Government made major changes to the legal and planning framework for fire management in the ACT. These changes were largely in response to the McLeod Inquiry conducted after the January 2003 bushfire. The key legislative change was the Emergencies Act 2004, effective from 1 July 2004. This established the ACT Rural Fire Service (sections 51–55) whose main function is to protect life, property and the environment from the effects of fire in rural areas in the ACT.

Section 72 of the Emergencies Act 2004 requires the ESA to prepare a Strategic Bushfire Management Plan for the ACT. This plan must provide (section 74) the basis for bushfire hazard assessment and risk analysis, bushfire prevention (including hazard reduction), and agency and community preparation for and response to fires. Sections 78 and 79 of the Act detail the requirements for land managers to prepare Bushfire Operational Plans for Territory Land they manage. These sections also include Bushfire Operational Plan specifications for rural lessees that take account of their land management agreements in relation to the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan and the declared Bushfire Abatement Zone.

Version 1 of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan was released in January 2005. It was prepared in consultation with fire response agencies, the community and land management agencies. The plan provides a 10-year strategic outlook and is underpinned by annual Bushfire Operational Plans that set priorities and schedule fuel management operations for a given year.

The ACT Government has provided significant funding for bushfire management. Grants from the Australian Government's Natural Disaster Mitigation and Bushfire Mitigation programs provided targeted funding for fuel reduction around the urban interface, for improved bushfire fighting infrastructure such as signage, and for improved fire trail access for bushfire fighting vehicles.

Activities undertaken since January 2005 to give effect to the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan include planning, response and review; access; and community awareness and preparedness.

Planning, response and review
  • Development and implementation of Bushfire Operational Plans, commencing in the 2004–05 fire season.
  • Improvement of bushfire response capability, including the use of fast attack vehicles and equipment, aircraft, the use of remote area fire fighters, and the provision of seasonal firefighters to the ACT Department of Territory and Municipal Services (TAMS).
  • Development and implementation of internal and external audit and monitoring procedures for Bushfire Operational Plans.
Access
  • Construction of three new fire trails (Potters Hill, Grassy Creek and Tangos Trail), including one (Potters Hill) as part of a wildfire suppression operation.
  • Planning approvals obtained for two new fire trails (Bullen Range, Long Flat Diversion), with construction planned to begin in 2007–08.
  • Assessment of the environmental, cultural and hydrological affects of proposed fire trails and the technical feasibility of their construction.
  • The ACT Government assessed the impacts of the proposed Orroral Tors and Stockyard Spur fire trails as unacceptable on environmental grounds. No further work will be undertaken on Orroral Tors. The proposed Stockyard Spur Fire Trail will be replaced, in part, by a walking track, with construction planned to begin, subject to planning approval, in 2008–09.
  • The proposed Hardy Range Fire Trail is on hold until the future of the former pine plantation area is finalised.
  • The proposed Gibraltar Fire Trail was found to be not technically feasible.
  • Maintenance works carried out on more than 2000 km of existing fire trails. These works aimed to improve the running surface of the trails and to reduce their environmental impacts by improving drainage.
  • Planning approvals for existing fire trails identified for upgrade to float standard will be sought in 2007–08, with construction to begin in 2008–09.
Community awareness and preparedness
  • Development and implementation of general community awareness and education programs.
  • Development and implementation of the Farm Fire Wise program on rural leases, which will encompass the bushfire management requirements of both Land Management Agreements and Bushfire Operational Plans. All rural lessees will participate in this program.
  • Development of standards and guidelines for bushfire management.
  • Assessments of capability and training needs for the ACT Rural Fire Service.
  • Significant changes in urban planning and design, including establishment of partnerships and shared responsibilities between the community, land managers, planning authorities and the ESA.

Strategic Bushfire Management Plan, Version 2

When Version 1 of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan was released (in January 2005), the ESA recognised that it was an interim document that met the ESA's statutory requirements under the Emergencies Act 2004 and provided the framework for implementing bushfire risk mitigation programs. The Foreword to the plan noted that further analysis and investigation would be conducted until 1 July 2005 when Version 2 would be finalised.

Development of Version 2 was deferred to 2007–08 and it is anticipated that the revised plan will be completed and released in mid-2008. Reasons for deferment of the plan included:

  • the need to resolve government land management arrangements in the ACT, which included future land management options for former plantation areas and consolidation of a number of separate government land managers into a single agency – the Department of Territory and Municipal Services (TAMS)
  • the increased body of research findings of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre (see 'Knowledge underpinning fuel hazard reduction programs' below) that will be available for incorporation into the plan
  • the provision of the Coroner's findings into the 2003 bushfire and the government response, which occurred in early 2007.

Key elements of the plan that have been undergoing refinement since January 2005 include:

  • bushfire risk assessment
  • broad area fuel management zoning and access strategies (on both government managed and rural lands)
  • bushfire management guidelines and standards for fire management
  • programs for community preparedness.

The review of the Plan will include consideration of fuel management objectives, ecological fire intervals, seasonality and intensity of burns, operational factors relating to burns (e.g. patchiness), and catchment and social values.

Version 2 will also incorporate many of the Coroner's Inquiry recommendations that have been agreed by the ACT Government; these include recommendations 32 and 38, and part of recommendation 34. These recommendations relate to the accessibility and extent of the fire trail network, and achieving a patchwork of fuel-reduced areas across the landscape. It is expected that Version 2 will identify general areas where limited access will significantly restrict fire suppression and provide a range of options for dealing with this, rather than specifying the construction and upgrade of specific trails, as in Version 1. The planning process that has been followed for all fire trail works attempts to ensure works are undertaken in a way that minimises the impact on natural, cultural, social, view field and catchment values.

Fuel reduction

Planning

The Strategic Bushfire Management Plan Version 1 specifies that each Bushfire Operational Plan must include (among other things) a 2-year program of fuel management and burning for ecological outcomes; a 2-year work program related to the fire access network; and priorities and schedules for annual fuel management operations (pp. 44–5, 72). The plan notes that fuel reduction may be achieved through a variety of means, including prescribed burning, slashing, grazing and tree thinning, the latter especially applicable to native forest and woodland areas adjacent to the urban edge and throughout the ACT (p. 44). The aim of fuel reduction is 'to increase the probability of first fire attack success, contain ongoing fires, break up potential fire runs and minimise fire impacts on communities, natural and built assets' (p. 41). Since January 2005, the former Environment ACT, ACT Forests and Canberra Urban Parks and Places and their single agency successor, Parks Conservation and Lands (Department of Territory and Municipal Services (TAMS)) have prepared Bushfire Operational Plans for the lands they manage in the ACT.

Table 2 shows the indicative treatment types envisaged in the Territory's various fuel management zones.

Table 2: Preliminary fuel management standards (excluding pine plantations), January 2005
Fuel management zone Treatment types Indicative burn cycle
Inner Asset Protection Zone Slashing, shrub/tree removal, prescribed burning 4–8 years
Outer Asset Protection Zone Prescribed burning, slashing, shrub/tree removal 4–8 years; minimum 80% coverage
Landscape Division zone Prescribed burning, slashing, shrub/tree removal 8–12 years; minimum 80% coverage
Land Management Zone Prescribed burning, no planned burning for natural assets that should be protected from fire, pruning, roller chopping slash, thinning Varies with ecological community

Source: Strategic Bushfire Management Plan V.1, Appendix 4

Parks Conservation and Lands will also prepare sub-regional fire management plans by the end of 2008–09 to detail the desirable pattern of mosaic burning across the natural landscape to achieve fire prevention and ecosystem management objectives for each discrete area. Sub-regional fire management plans will be compatible with, and will illustrate the strategies that will be implemented over a 5-year period to achieve, the standards in Version 2 of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan in a specific geographical region. The strategies in sub-regional fire management plans will be developed to minimise impacts on ecological, natural, cultural, social and catchment values.

Hazard reduction – burning

Parks Conservation and Lands, in conjunction with ACT Rural Fire Service volunteers, carried out 66 hazard reduction burns during the reporting period, covering a total area of 8824 ha (see Table 3). Most (82%) of the burns were less than 10 ha in extent (see Figure 2) and 61% of burns were 5 ha or less. The most extensive burn was 671 ha at Potters Hill in Namadgi National Park, carried out in April 2007.

Table 3: Hazard reduction burns, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007
Year No. of burns Area burnt (ha)
2003–04 4 4555
2004–05 16 2004
2005–06 25 1242
2006–07 21 1023
Total 66 8824

Source: Parks, Conservation and Lands (TAMS) and Emergency Services Agency

Figure 2: Size of hazard reduction burns, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007

Graph of the size of hazard reduction burns, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007

Note: The break in size class between the 51–60 and 650–700 ha size
Source: Parks, Conservation and Land (TAMS) and Emergency Services Agency

Over the four years of the reporting period, most hazard reduction burns were carried out in August, January–February and April–May. Fewer hazard reduction burns were undertaken in the other months (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 : Monthly incidences of hazard reduction burns, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007

Graph of monthly incidences of hazard reduction burns, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007

Source: Parks, Conservation and Lands (TAMS) and Emergency Services Agency

The area of hazard reduction burns carried out on ACT Government managed land for the period 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007 is shown in Table 4. The largest area was in pine plantation land to the west of Canberra. The large area in 2003–04 was due to the burning of windrows of pines killed in the January 2003 bushfire. The data for Namadgi National Park show the area of a burn carried out at Potters Hill in 2006–07. Burning was undertaken in Canberra Nature Park in each year of the reporting period (Table 4), covering 10 main areas (Table 5). In Canberra Nature Park the most concentrated fuel reduction effort was on Black Mountain, where hazard reduction burning was undertaken across 28% of the reserve area, due to high fuel loads and the need to protect the adjacent urban edge. Red Hill had the next largest area of burns, with 57 ha burned.

Table 4: Area of hazard reduction burns by category of ACT Government managed land, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007
Category of land 2003–04 2004–05 2005–06 2006–07 Total
Pine plantation area 4500 1732 1136 184 7552
Canberra Nature Park 55 167 66 142 430
Urban Open Space 8 40 26 74
Jedbinbilla Nature Reserve 51 51
Namadgi National Park 97 671 768
Total 4555 2004 1242 1074 8875

Source: Parks, Conservation and Lands (TAMS) and Emergency Services Agency

Table 5: Area of hazard reduction burns within Canberra Nature Park, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007
Canberra Nature Park Units 2003–04 2004–05 2005–06 2006–07 Total
Aranda Bushland 3 18 21
Black Mountain 41 82 1 124
Coolamon Ridge 9 9
Gossan Hill 13 13
Mount Painter 4 4
O'Connor Ridge 16 13 29
Red Hill 53 4 57
The Pinnacle 22 22
Urambi Hills 28 28
Wanniassa Hills 18 17 35
Total 54 153 68 67 342

Source: Parks, Conservation and Lands (TAMS) and Emergency Services Agency

No data was available on the intensity/severity of hazard reduction burns. Ancillary data, such as the specific vegetation type/s affected, the ecological impacts of the fires, other impacts of the fires (e.g. erosion, water quality) or time since the area was last burnt, is derived when required.

Hazard reduction – other methods

Grazing, slashing and physical removal of woody material were also undertaken each year of the reporting period on TAMS-managed land to reduce vegetation fuel loads (see Tables 6, 7 and 8).

Grazing by sheep or cattle was used at Coolamon Ridge and in Crace , Mulanggari, Gungaderra and Dunlop nature reserves. Slashing and physical removal of material was carried out on roadsides and nature strips in urban areas, especially at the urban–bushland interface. The use of grazing in some parts of Canberra Nature Park was controversial with nearby residents, and requires careful monitoring to assess its impact on natural vegetation values as well as the reduction of introduced weeds.

Table 6: Fuel reduction by grazing, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007
Year Number of areas grazed Area grazed (ha)
2003–04 (48) No dataa
2004–05 67 6,177
2005–06 35 11,034
2006–07 44 3,326
Total 146b 20,537

Notes:
a Area data were not kept in the 2003–04 works programs.
b Does not include 2003–04.
Source: Parks, Conservation and Lands (TAMS)

Table 7: Fuel reduction by slashing, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007
Year Number of areas slashed Area slashed (ha)
2003–04 (227) No dataa
2004–05 531 2,770
2005–06 219 2,406
2006–07 257 2,815
Total 1,007b 7,991

Notes:
a Area data were not kept in the 2003–04 works programs.
b Does not include 2003–04.
Source: Parks, Conservation and Lands (TAMS)

Table 8: Fuel reduction by physical removal of woody material, 1 July 2003 to 30 June 2007
Year Number of areas Area of physical removal (ha)
2003–04 (119) No dataa
2004–05 90 444
2005–06 44 112
2006–07 58 351
Total 192b 907

Notes:
a Area data were not kept in the 2003–04 works programs.
b Does not include 2003–04.
Source: Parks, Conservation and Lands (TAMS)

Knowledge underpinning fuel hazard reduction programs

The role of fire in Australian ecosystems is complex. Similarly, fire management is complex especially when there are multiple objectives, such as maintenance of ecosystem integrity and catchment condition, and protection of private and community assets. Building a scientifically based local and regional knowledge base is an important foundation for appropriate fire management.

Vegetation monitoring programs set up by ACT Government agencies since the January 2003 bushfire (see below) are aimed at increasing scientific knowledge about key attributes of species and ecosystems in the ACT that are relevant to fuel management. This knowledge should aid development of fuel management programs that mitigate bushfire risk as well as maintain the ecological integrity of affected ecosystems, including their component plant and animal species.

Knowledge gained from the monitoring programs will build on other research commissioned by ACT Government agencies during the reporting period (e.g. AMOG Consulting 2004, Ellis and Gould 2004, England et al. 2004, Lindesay et al. 2004, Sullivan 2004, AMOG Consulting and ECOgis 2005, Lunt 2005) as well as the many research reports that followed the 2003 bushfire in the ACT and other areas of south-eastern Australia (e.g. Gill 2006).

The ACT Government has supported the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre through provision of personnel to contribute to key program areas. The Cooperative Research Centre is undertaking the 'High Fire' project, which is considering the impacts and implication of fire management in the Australian Alps. This project has included detailed bushfire risk analysis for the ACT. The Cooperative Research Centre is currently providing wide-ranging information to aid in bushfire management, including:

  • bushfire behavior and suppression, including guidelines on using aircraft in fire suppression
  • analysis of the impacts of climate change on fire management
  • recruitment, retention and management of fire-fighting volunteers
  • public safety and community preparedness, in particular information on preparing homes for the impacts of bushfire, and legal and social issues associated with evacuation or staying and defending properties
  • mechanisms for transferring knowledge and lessons learned from previous bushfires.

At the end of the reporting period, Research and Planning (Parks, Conservation and Lands (TAMS)) had received a grant to develop ecological thresholds1 for fire management in Namadgi National Park. The project involves updating the ACT fire response database, completing fire history mapping, and developing ecological thresholds for some of the vegetation communities in the ACT. The information on fire intervals will be particularly important for reviewing fuel management standards for Version 2 of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan.

Significant gaps remain in knowledge of the impacts of wildfires and hazard reduction activities on faunal species and populations.

Monitoring and reporting

Requirements under the Emergencies Act 2004

Section 103 of the Emergencies Act 2004 allows an Inspector to enter land to conduct a compliance audit in relation to the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan, Bushfire Operational Plans or fire fuel management aspects of land management agreements. Sections 81, 82 and 109 of the Act allow the ESA, its minister or an inspector to direct government and non-government land managers to comply with requirements in Bushfire Operational Plans.

Monitoring and reporting requirements acknowledged in Version 1 of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan include:

  • the need to collect data to understand the causes of unplanned fires (p. 25)
  • the need for a bushfire reporting and analysis system that enables an interagency approach to collecting bushfire related data and information across the ACT (p. 26)
  • the need to monitor the effects and effectiveness of fuel management activities, to determine if fuel reduction programs are meeting strategic objectives and whether the consequences of the programs are within acceptable limits in relation to the primary purpose of the land use (p. 41).

Version 1 of the plan specifies that a monitoring program for fuel management effects and effectiveness will be developed before Version 2 is completed. Version 1 also notes that a means of measuring the outcomes of Bushfire Operational Plans over a 2-year period in terms of 'fuel management, ecological sustainability, education and awareness, inspection and enforcement' will also be developed for incorporation into Version 2.

Findings of Bushfire Operational Plan audits

Since 2004–05, the ESA has developed and implemented a program of assessment and audit of Bushfire Operational Plans to:

  • assess the rate of implementation of the Bushfire Operational Plans, through 100% desktop audits
  • assess if the work being undertaken meets the standards identified in the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan
  • ensure the strategies and standards of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan are being achieved
  • ensure transparency in the implementation of the Bushfire Operational Plans and provide a report to government on their operation.

Operational audits of the Bushfire Operational Plans began in 2005–06. These audits only focused on bushfire mitigation outcomes and were not designed nor intended to assess other impacts.

Both the 2005–06 and 2006–07 bushfire seasons featured extremely dry and unusually warm weather conditions. The hot dry conditions in spring of both years made prescribed burning difficult. Spring and autumn are normally the main periods for such burning (see 'Hazard reduction – burning'). The ability to carry out scheduled prescribed burns was also affected by wet conditions in autumn 2007. Despite these conditions, the 2005–06 and 2006–07 final reports concluded that most programmed activities were undertaken and met the required standards. Access works remained at a satisfactory level in both years. The 2006–07 field audits of Bushfire Operational Plan activities deemed them compliant with the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan standards and only two were identified as marginal.

A major issue for both the 2005–06 and 2006–07 reporting periods was the relatively high number of 'not commenced' and 'incomplete' activities. A significant factor in this was delays related to ACT Planning and Land Authority or ACT Heritage requirements. The length of time needed to prepare required documentation and plans for the ACT Planning and Land Authority and the subsequent approval process can extend an activity into the following year.

Some problems in the reporting process were identified and resolved during 2006–07 as a result of 2005–06 audit findings. These included some consistent cases of data distortion as well as the need to refine definitions to ensure consistency across the reports. Development of an integrated fire management database/spatial data management and information system will be a key component of Version 2 of the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan. This will compile bushfire history in the ACT in a single format. The intent is for the ESA and all government land managers to record their bushfire management data in it. This database will include bushfires and hazard reduction activities. It is intended the database will have the capacity to include information on the effects of fire on plant and animal species/populations, and fuel loads for larger fires (possibly more than 5 ha) or those that occur in sensitive areas. ESA envisages that the database will also incorporate data required for other reporting purposes, such as state of the environment reporting, and that such data collection will commence in the 2008–09 fire season.

Monitoring ecosystem recovery post-2003 bushfires

Research and Planning (Parks Conservation and Lands) began a post-fire vegetation monitoring program in 2004 to assess ongoing forest vegetation recovery following the January 2003 bushfire. Thirty-eight monitoring plots were established in a range of vegetation communities in 2004, in previously surveyed locations and new locations targeting fire sensitive communities (see Indicator: Ecological communities). The aim of the monitoring is to record changes in plant species composition and vegetation structure, and the response of plant species to fire. One-third of the plots have been monitored each year since 2004, with all sites being resurveyed by early 2007 (see Indicator: Ecological communities for the summarised results of this monitoring).

The vegetation monitoring program is an ongoing project. The plots were established through Natural Heritage Trust funding, and annual surveys since 2004 have been resourced through the budget of Research and Planning (Parks, Conservation and Lands). The monitoring activity is resource intensive. For example, in 2007 the survey of 11 plots and subsequent data entry took 33 people-days to complete, and involved additional assistance from rangers and external volunteers. Following completion of the first full round of site monitoring, the ongoing survey frequency is being reviewed.

Monitoring the impacts of hazard reduction programs

In the Bushfire Operational Plans, each works activity including prescribed burning is monitored to determine whether the activity met the fuel reduction objectives. This is included in the reporting to the ESA on the plans. Assessments are undertaken on individual projects – especially burns – before and after the event and a report prepared. In addition, the Department of Territory and Municipal Services undertakes an annual fuel hazard assessment program throughout the ACT to assess the impact of fuel management activities on subsequent fuel hazard and to identify areas needing further fuel management.

In order to assess some of the medium-term (5–10 year) ecological impacts of hazard reduction burning identified in the Bushfire Operational Plans, Research and Planning (Parks, Conservation and Lands) established a vegetation monitoring program in 2006. The program aims to monitor changes in vegetation composition and structure. Rapid assessment, full floristic surveys were undertaken in plots in the Tidbinbilla, Mount Ainslie and Wanniassa Hills nature reserves and photo monitoring was carried out at O'Connor Ridge during 2005–06. Areas of Aranda Bushland and the Potters Hill area of Namadgi National Park were added to the program in 2006–07. The program is ongoing and the majority of the data analysis will be undertaken after the sites are burnt and resurveyed.

Since 2005–06, all the areas identified for fuel reduction in the Department of Territory and Municipal Services Bushfire Operational Plan have been assessed through a desktop study to consider potential impacts on significant natural and cultural heritage sites, and significant species or ecological communities.  It is important that this be extended and built on by

improving the scientific knowledge of managers and custodians of the ACT nature conservation estate about fire fuel management through research, monitoring and evaluation,

with a focus on establishing a central and uniform source of information on fuel reduction activities of all agencies, and its effectiveness on ecological and catchment conditions.

To fully assess the impacts of fuel reduction activities, a comprehensive monitoring program that assesses the impacts of all fuel reduction activities (grazing, slashing, physical removal and burning) on native forests, woodlands and grasslands and their component flora and fauna is needed. Such monitoring is needed to develop hazard reduction programs that are optimal for the range of species and vegetation types in the ACT.

Data sources and references

The ACT Emergency Services Agency provided information about the Emergencies Act 2004 and the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan, as well as the following data:

  • occurrence of wildfires more than 5 ha in area (data from ACT Rural Fire Service Duty Log)
  • total number of wildfires: the data represents the total number of fires the ACT Fire Brigade and the ACT Rural Fire Service responded to (data from the ESA Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) System).

Parks, Conservation and Lands (Research and Planning), Department of Territory and Municipal Services provided data on hazard reduction programs from their fire history database, and information about their monitoring programs.

The Fire Management Section of Parks Conservation and Lands (Department of Territory and Municipal Services) provided the data on fuel management activities over the reporting period from the works contained within the Bushfire Operation Plans.

ACT Commissioner for the Environment 2004, Indicator: Fire, State of the Environment Report 2003, Australian Capital Territory

AMOG Consulting 2004, Effectiveness of integrated bushfire management activities, Report to Fire Management Unit, ACT Department of Urban Services, Canberra

AMOG Consulting and ECOgis 2005, ACT bushfire summaries: effects of varying fire regimes on hydrological processes, Report to Fire Management Unit, ACT Department of Urban Services, Canberra

Ellis P and Gould J 2004, The impact of fuel management on fire behaviour in Eucalypt forest, Report to Fire Management Unit, ACT Department of Urban Services, Canberra

Emergency Services Authority 2004, Strategic Bushfire Management Plan for the ACT, Version 1, ACT Emergency Services Authority, Canberra

England J, Doherty M, Keith H and Raison J 2004, Ecological effects of burning in ACT vegetation communities, Report for the Fire management Unit, ACT Department of Urban Services, Canberra

Gill AM 2006, Bibliography of the 2003 south-eastern Australian bushfires and their effects, available at <http://www.australianalps.deh.gov.au/publications/pubs/2003-fires-bibliography.pdf >, accessed 25 July 2007

Lindesay J, Colls K, Gill M and Mason I 2004, Historical climate and fire weather in the ACT region: a review, Report to the ACT Department of Urban Services

Lunt ID 2005, Effects of stock grazing on biodiversity values in Temperate Native Grasslands and grassy Woodlands in SE Australia, A literature review for Environment ACT, Environment ACT Technical Report 18, Canberra

Sullivan A 2004, Nature of severe fire events, Report to Fire Management Unit, ACT Department of Urban Services, Canberra

Note

1 Thresholds are a definition of the fire regimes (in this case fire frequency) that are likely to lead to a decline in plant species density and diversity in particular populations and they can be used as a set of guidelines to direct fire management for conservation.

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