This post is written by our Associate Editor, Peter Bridgewater at the Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.

The media puts out horrific images every day, and few around the world will have not seen these.”

I’m writing this at my desk in Canberra, the Australian national capital, whose air quality has beaten the worst in the world by 4 or 5 times in recent days, and even today is far from flash (hazardous).  True, we don’t have actual fire right now, but the scale of the fires around us means smoke envelopes us.  The media puts out horrific images every day, and few around the world will have not seen these.   Tales of tragic loss for people and nature are heard every day.  The political establishment in Australia, especially at national level, has been slow to respond, with the response often poorly framed and managed – although in fairness that seems to be changing quickly. 

So, what does this environmental mess have to do with the Journal?  I think – a lot!  Academic discourse in the face of such projected tragedy might seem Neroism[1] on a grand scale, yet we need reflection, hard thinking – and productive dialogues; and that is where the journal has a key role.  Of course, a big argument is around climate change – “this is the major cause of these fires” say one group; “no, it’s not, it’s poor park management “, say another.  This is not the dialogue to which I refer!  Climate change alone is not the cause of the fires, any more than it’s the cause of coral reef decline, but it is a key energising factor that allows other stressors to do their worst.  We need, therefore, careful, calculated thinking for the future.  Because these fires will come again, next time we must be better prepared.

So, what haven’t we learnt in recent decades in Australia that allowed this “fire emergency” to happen?  There are many factors, but key are assumptions that more protected areas will in fact protect nature, that focussing on threatened species is the best direction for conservation and that knowledge accumulated by Aboriginal inhabitants, or people from families long-connected to the land,  is irrelevant to managing the crisis. There is a major discussion around so-called hazard reduction burning has not been well-researched, but one source suggests it is far from simple, and that long-unburnt areas are actually better able to resist fire than frequently burnt sites.  The authors of that study note “Frequent burning can maintain forest understorey in an early successional ‘shrubby’ state, leading to higher overall fuel hazard than forests where a lack of fire is associated with the senescence of shrubs.” 

In other words, hazard reduction, poorly handled can become hazard promoting.  While we know more about patterns of burning by Aboriginal people in Northern and Central Australia because of the close cultural connection of people with land, there are also indications that cultural burning practices in south-eastern Australia were well defined, and in many areas promoted a range of vegetation types and patchiness, which non-Aboriginal management  practices have turned to more homogenous, easy-ignition, shrub layers in highly fire-prone forest.  How this was achieved, and the messages for the future, are the conversations we need to have, before the last remnants of cultural knowledge slip away.  Access to that knowledge, used alongside modern technology, can help all of us understand how people and nature can mingle in a continent known to be fire-prone even at the best of times. 

We are far the only place on the planet where this is true – UNEP is developing a World Environment Situation Room to help understand the global situation.  The analogy to a war situation may not please some; yet it probably is a good analogy of just where we are.  But use of big data, in real-time, is critical and a situation room reliant on past data sets is just a recording device, not a tool for action.  A recent personal communication from UNESCO to me noted that “We also realized that World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves in the Amazon were not affected by the heavy forest fires. This may provide some ideas of the real usefulness of these sites.”  A very interesting observation that suggests if the rather neglected Coajingalong and Kosciusko Biosphere Reserves in Australia had been better developed and managed as such, they may not have been the focus of some of the fiercest fires.  We will never know.  But these concepts are worth careful examination by all levels of Government in Australia (and globally). Using Biosphere Reserve principles could be a very useful road map to recovery.

We still have time to learn the lessons and get this right, but many strongly held beliefs (yes they are beliefs, not science) have to go out of the window, and we need much more science focus on this issue, rather than the ever burgeoning clamour for “saving” threatened species, which takes oxygen and energy for the real questions that need answers at landscape scale.  People and Nature is an ideal place for these discussions.  Don’t follow Nero (who may or may not have fiddled, but everybody says he did, so there!), think about research along these lines and reflect on local experiences.  Then, in the coming months give us your research submissions or perspective pieces.  If I can eventually get to breathe properly again, I might even write one myself! 

Oh, and a Happy New Year!

[1] Fiddling while the forest burns