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The public role of research after a bushfire: Dispelling myths and backing the science

The public role of research after a bushfire: Dispelling myths and backing the science

The Australian bush regrowing after a fire. Credit: Dr David Blair.

David Lindenmayer. Credit: ANU.
In response to the unprecedented and tragic 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, many researchers have had a significant public role to play in explaining the science behind bushfires, their control and their aftermath. One of these researchers is Professor David Lindenmayer, from The Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society.

Professor David Lindenmayer is one of Australia’s leading ecologists—an expert in landscape ecology, conservation and biodiversity—who has had significant ARC funding support including an Australian Laureate Fellowship in 2012 and as a Chief Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions from 2012-2018. He is currently leading two Linkage Projects grants examining woodland biota and the effects of animals on bushfire risk, building on 37 years of empirical longitudinal research on bushfires in south-eastern Australia.

“What often characterises fire discussions is an absence of science,” says Professor Lindenmayer.

“So in times like this, part of my role becomes one of a public spokesperson, helping to increase the general public understanding of what has happened, and dispelling common myths.

“Since the bushfires this year, I have been getting 3-5 media requests per day, and 300-400 emails. I have talked to the media in Hungary, Poland, France, Canada, to the BBC in the UK, CBS News in the US, to Singapore TV, all of whom want to hear from scientists about the latest fires.”

Professor Lindenmayer has also given more than a dozen public lectures around Australia in recent months, and is keen to bring all kinds of scientists together with key managers of public land and local communities in Australia.

“I have worked on the major bushfire seasons of 1983, 2003, 2009, 2017 and now 2019-20.

“What we saw after previous fire events, is that it takes a couple of months for people to process what has happened. There is a social science to the effects of bushfire—and the impact lasts for decades. There are impacts on houses and infrastructure and impacts on people.”

“But we are also looking at the impacts on industry, particularly the forestry industry in Victoria and NSW.”

Through numerous ARC Linkage Projects, Professor Lindenmayer has built up a close relationship with national, state and regional governments and business, including the Department of Defence, Parks Australia, the Murray and Riverina Local Land Services and the Holbrook Landcare Network, who are providing additional funding support for his research team.

Professor Lindenmayer says that some members of his research team are permanently located in the forest and the woodlands, collecting data all year round. Long-term datasets are of central importance in analysing the effects of bushfire on the landscape over decades and centuries.

Of his former students, many have found careers in local government land services, the agricultural and forestry industries, and in the consulting sector. Other students are building their own research careers, such as Dr Ben Scheele, based at The Australian National University and studying species declines, who is the recent recipient of a 2020 ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA).

Professor Lindenmayer says that the research shows we need to beware of simple solutions to complex problems, especially as human land use and climate change are permanently altering fire regimes.

“There was one recorded ‘mega fire’ (over 1 million hectares) before 2010, and since that date there have been three more in Victoria alone. In a changing climate, there are implications for the timber industry, whose logging practices can actually increase the severity of fires, resulting in less available resource. We need to help these industries to adapt, and to think strategically about our forests, and transition to new industries.”

New industries which promise to rise ‘from the ashes’, include carbon storage using native eucalypt forests, which are some of the most carbon-dense forests on the planet.

“Every fire is different. A fire in a young forest is different to a fire in an old forest,” says Professor Lindenmayer. “But importantly, most Australian forests are not destroyed by fire. A few weeks after a fire passes through, they are growing again, in an amazing array of colours—bronze, green and blue—it is spectacular.”

The Australian bush regrowing after a fire. Credit: Dr David Blair.


Images: (top) Professor David Lindenmayer, credit ANU; (bottom) The Australian bush regrowing after a fire, credit: Dr David Blair.


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