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Print Version  - Fire and the Environment - a teaching resource

1. Exploring research frameworks for Fire and the Environment

Key Question:

How do the ways we frame our knowledge about fire influence the range of research that is conducted,
our approaches to management of the land and our notions of what it means to live with fire? 

Appropriate level of university study:

'Fire and the Environment' is designed for undergraduate students of environmental science, environmental studies, ecology, land management, and geography. Although the material in this section is sourced primarily from science, we give empahsis to the framing of this scientific knowledge by referencing perspectives from the humanities. The advantages of integrating disciplinary knowledge is in the process of being recognised by a number of universities that prioritise philosophical frameworks for first year students planning to pursue different professions.

Fire and Environment: A Rationale

In Australia it is primarily science that represents and seeks to understand bushfire as an environmental problem of sometimes catastrophic proportions. Different branches of science research fire behaviour and fire ecology that in turn feeds into land management programs. Across Australia there are key differences in how bush fire is experienced and this geographical diversity has accounted for many case studies that highlight a suite of characteristics that articulate bushfire patterns in the north and south of the continent, between east and west. It is a complex and at times very creative science that has given shape to contemporary knowledge about bushfire. 'Bushfire' science is not always associated with disaster frameworks and many of the bigger questions relate to how fire has co-evolved with life in Australia and over the entire earth to be integral to a dynamic process that explains change over deep time. Science approaches bushfire as a 'problem' of the immediate envirnomnment as well as a key to understanding environments past and present. Like any framing of knowledge these approaches have a cultural context that in this section we introduce through an awareness of  both the history of the science and of other approaches to bushfire knowledge. 

The following pages in this section use a range of resources, including case studies, to help students:

  • appreciate the key concepts that structure scientific knoweldge about fire
  • explore a range of alternative perspectives and approaches
  • engage with current national debates on key issues such as validity of prescribed burning, the referencing of indigenous bushfire knowledge, and the wider 'living with fire' challenges. 

Key themes for learning:

  1. Understanding fire regimes  - how useful is this concept?
  2. Prescribed burning and biodiversity -  what are the different ways that ecological objectives are framed?
  3. Living with fire  - How integral to our culture is bushfire, what are our ideas about fire?

 Each of these themes is embedded with question-based tasks and supported by an introduction, resource material and further reading.

 The following questions give the narrative sequence of these key themes about Fire and the Environment:

  • How do we use fire to control fire, to create a landscape with values that have been designated as significant, such as the primacy of human life, the diversity of flora and fauna?
  • How do we find an effective scientific language that harnesses the behaviour of fire and gives us some knowledge of its potential as a tool in landscape modification?
  • How do we evaluate the full implications of wielding this tool in the wider context of 'landscape-scale' fire? More fundamentally, how resolved are we, in an ideological sense, of becoming architects of landscape change?
  • Do we understand how to live with fire?

2. Exploring fire ecology research

Key Question:

To what extent does fire ecology research give us adequate understanding of the ecologies to make effective management decisions?

Within the vast world of fire ecology research there exist multiple approaches across spatial and temporal domains. In terms of geographic scale there exist two broad research camps. One end of the spectrum is engaged with the theory and practice of linking fire, biodiversity and land management. This camp uses the term ‘landscape biodiversity’ to convey the broad scale of investigation.

At the other end are the ‘species’ ecologists, with research focusing around the dynamic of fire and particular life-cycles. How do plant species and communities respond to fire of different intensity, intervals, scales and during different seasons?  The response of vegetation to a range of fire regimes is easier to observe than the response of fauna, of birds, and of the myriad of life forms that primarily live in a subterranean world. How does a range of fire regimes impact on habitat values?

In between might be scientists interested in determining key cycles, such as the impact on nutrient cycles and soil capacities to support habitat regrowth. After fire, what are the bio-chemical changes in the soil? At what point does the particular life that is supported by the soil become effected in the long-term? What is the impact on carbon cycles?

There are ecologists who focus on the impact of fire intervals in historic time-frames and those who investigate fire as an evolutionary force that has been part of the earth-making dynamic over millenia. With the contemporary focus on climate change, this latter perspective of 'deep time' is challenging the boundaries of ecological objectives. 

In the world of research the questions are forever shifting and the answers seem to grow in complexity. How does a land manager navigate through these various perspectives?

Case Study


Researchers' question

Guiding questions for students

(paper, firenote, powerpoint,
video, existing fire managment strategies)

Application for fire and land management

Find it on the WIKI

Historical patterns of Bushfire in southern Western Australia

Western Australia

What is the historical variation in bushfire pattern in southern western Australia? How does this understanding provide a baseline for furtue fire regime data?

How has ‘fire history’ been understood by scientists? How have different understandings of fire history influenced the parameters of scientific research? 

Fire note 48  (PDF)

Bushfire CRC / AFAC Annual Conference 2009 - Gold Coast, Interview and Presentation Lachie McCaw - Fire regimes in semi-lands (order from BCRC)

Alison O'Donnell's video

Use of historical records of fire events so that there is a context for contemporary management

Prescribed Burning and Biodiversity

Fire Intervals and Biodiversity Responses in the south-west of WA

Western Australia

How does fire of different intervals effect biodiversity values of forest and shrublands in sw Australia? What are the management implications for prescribed burning?

How do you design a project to analyse the long term effects of repeated fire on biodiversity in a forest landscape?

Fire note 64  (PDF)

South West WA Fire in the Landscape video, (order from BCRC)

Translating the findings of fire ecology research into biodiversity objectives for planned burning; concept of 'landscape' biodiversity for management.

Fire Regimes,
Prescribed Burning and Biodiversity 

Eucalypt Decline in the Absence of Fire

Tasmania,  Western Australia

Is the absence of fire a factor in explaining eucalpt decline? In what ways?

In privileging the conservation value of one species, how does this project relate to the biodiversity values of a forest of different fire intervals?

Fire note 37  (PDF)

Bushfire CRC / AFAC Annual Conference 2009 - Gold Coast, Interview and Presentation, Neil Davidson - Tree decline and the importance of fire in the landscape (order from BCRC) 

Application of fire ecology research to establish ecological objectives for planned burning.

Prescribed Burning and Biodiversity 

Fire Dynamics in the Mallee Heath

South Australia

How can the fuel dynamics and fire behaviour be characterised for the semi-arid mallee heath? What are the management implications?

In what ways is the fire regime of the mallee-heath distinctive?

Fire note 66  (PDF)
Bushfire CRC / AFAC Annual Conference 2009 - Gold Coast, Interview and Presentation, Miguel Cruz - Shrubland fire behaviour modelling (order from BCRC)

Appreciatiion of  differences in  ecological objectives for forest, shrublands and heath.

Fire Regimes 

Project Vesta: Fire in Dry Eucalypt Forest Fuel Structure, Fuel Dynamics and Fire Behaviour

West Australia

How do high intensity bushfires behave in dry eucalypt forests of different fuel ages and understorey?

What methods have been used to capture and describe forest fire behaviour?

Link to the CSIRO and BCRC resources for Project Vesta

Assessment of the predictive value of forest fire research.

Fire Regimes 

Prescribed Fire and Biodiversity in Tropical Savannas

Northern Territory

What range of fire regimes meets biodiversity and cultural conservation for the northern savannas?

In what ways does this project highlight the differences in fire regimes and cultural valuing of fire between the north and south of Australia?

Fire note 36  (PDF)

Link to the CSIRO  and BCRC resources for this project

Link to the Tropical Savannas CRC website for additional resources

Integration of different knowledge systems

Fire Regimes, Prescribed Burning and Biodiversity, Living with Fire

High Fire

ACT, Victoria, NSW

What is distinctive about the fuels and fire behaviour of Australia's high country? How are competing values, such as fuel management and protection of water catchments, reconciled?

How comprehensive should a study of bushfire behaviour and risk management be to contribute to practical solutions?

Link to the project website

Bushfire CRC / AFAC Annual Conference 2009 - Gold Coast, Interview and Presentation, Rick McCrae - Foehn winds in south-east Australia (order from BCRC)



Suggested activities:

Critique of the research

Select from the above fire ecology research case studies that span a range of scientific approaches. Students could explore:

  • the potential of the research from a land management perspective, including the identification of 'gaps' in the research framework 
  • the strength of the links between research design and research outcomes
  • the extent to which the case studies claim to understand enough of the ecological story in order to inform land management decisions

 Most of these case studies are included in the disussion and tasks that relate to the three learning themes in part 1.  

Adaptive Management - create a strategy

Choose one of the above fire ecology research case studies that has links to a prior fire management plan or strategy. Review this management strategy in light of the new research. Design an adaptive management strategy around this clearly showing how the research might inform management practices. Establish within the adaptive management framework processes for continuing research and monitoring of the ecology of the site, drawing on your knowledge of the range of research that would be most useful.

Resources .... Exemplars of management strategies, or descriptions of what should go in them. (eg. DSE material, Stephen Bresnehen powerpoint - a recipe for a management plan (HCC)) Case study showing how research was applied to management practice. DSE rationale and monitoring protocols.

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