By Pat Pepper, NCWQ Environmental Adviser
This report covers recommendations from the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements which aimed at increasing national co-ordination to prepare better for natural disasters, responding more rapidly, and ensuring the recovery endeavours make communities more resilient. The status of the flora and fauna and their habitat in the aftermath of the fires is also considered
Follow up on 2019-2020 Black Summer Bushfires:
Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements: The devastating effect of the 2019-2020 bushfires with the possible causes and potential remedies were reported in my NCWQ Environment Report April 2020. While the catalyst for the Commission was the 2019-2020 Black Summer fires, the inquiry investigated Australia’s readiness for and response to all natural disasters. Recommendations include
- New federal powers to enact a national state of emergency to allow the Federal Government to deploy troops and its full resources in exceptional circumstances without a request from the States or Territories. State and Territory Governments would continue to be responsible for disaster management with the creation of a new authoritative disaster advisory body to improve the co-ordination between governments.
- A nationally consistent guide on air quality to monitor smoke pollution and be updated in real-time since more than 450 people have died as a result of the toxic smoke during the Black Summer fires.
- A national data system where information, analysis and knowledge on climate change can be shared easily.
- Downscaled climate projections (i.e. projections on very coarse resolution made locally relevant down to a local scale by adding resolutions spatially and temporally) be produced by the Australian, State and Territory Governments to help assess future natural disaster risk and plan responses. These projections to be underpinned by an agreed common core set of climate trajectories and timelines, and subject to regular review.
- A new national fire danger rating system and once released, a nationwide education program to improve fire warning literacy.
- Review of vegetation management and of the assessment and approval processes for hazard reductions, whether prescribed burns, or mechanical slashing to clear land, by all levels of government. Fuel load management strategies to be more transparent.
- Development of a national aerial fire fighting capability which includes a very large or large air tanker, helicopter capability, and extra pilots and support staff.
- A national app for all natural disasters so information on the warning system could be readily available. Inconsistencies and differences between state and territory apps caused issues for border communities and tourists.
- Update of the current strategies of states and territories or development of a new strategy with technology that allows communication across jurisdictions. And a national register showing the number of emergency services personnel, equipment and aerial assets that can be drawn on or moved around if needed.
- A single national scheme for the regulation of charitable fundraising
- Development of a national mechanism to communicate risk of hazard prone areas to households and prospective buyers and clear guidance on the risk mitigation by insurance companies and actions that will be recognised when insurance premiums are set.
- Greater consistency and collaboration between governments on the collation of data related to Australian flora and fauna.
Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements – Report
Loss to Australia’s biodiversity and Responses:
Threatened ecological communities (TECs): Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) has listed 37 TECs as having some of their estimated distribution in areas affected by bushfires in southern and eastern Australia between 1 July 2019 and 11 February 2020 and identified 25 of the 37 as a priority for management intervention in at least one fire-affected Natural Resource Management region. The Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel (the Expert Panel) identified 19 of the 37 TECs as priority matters for funding in Tranche 1 of the Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Program. At the request of the Expert Panel and DAWE, Professor David Keith, the Centre for Ecosystem Science, University of NSW, in collaboration with other ecological community experts, assessed the threats, impacts and priorities for responses to the bushfires and compiled a table of fire-related threats and recommended candidate management actions for fire-affected Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) listed ecological communities and a table of the state/territory recognised ecological communities that are likely to have been most affected. Candidate management actions for the latter table are to be released when available.
Keith DA, Auld TD, Barrett S, English V, Gallagher R, Gray R, van Leeuwen S, McIlwee A, Mitchell D, Tozer MG, Williams RJ, Yates CJ, Neldner J, Buchan A, White MD, Rogers D, West A, Seddon J, Simpson CC (in prep) Terrestrial Ecological Communities in Australia: initial assessment and management after the 2019-20 bushfires. Report to the Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Expert Panel and the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. Centre for Ecosystem Science, University of NSW, Sydney.
Plant Species: Many plant species were at risk from the cumulative impact of the 2019-2020 fires and other stressors like high fire frequency or severity, drought, herbivory, or disease. Of the 26,062 species impacted, 486 were prioritised as requiring immediate action to assess impacts and support recovery. Species with more than 80% of their range burnt, or were already listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered under the EPBC 1999 Act or state/territory listings, or were identified as at high risk under two or more prioritisation criteria requiring unique management actions were listed as priority species. The list included rainforest trees and shrubs like Monga Waratah (Telopea mongaensis) and plants from subalpine vegetation like critically endangered Bredbo Gentiana (Gentiana bredboensis). Some species considered threatened before the fires, like the Forrester’s Bottlebrush (Callistemon forresterae), Betka Bottlebrush (Callistemon kenmorrisonii), and Grey Deua Pomaderris (Pomaderris gilmourii var. cana) have increased risk of extinction.
Gallagher RV. 2020. National prioritisation of Australian plants affected by the 2019-2020 bushfire season – Report to the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment.
Animal Species: A provisional list of 119 animal species [92 vertebrates (17 bird, 20 mammal, 23 reptile, 16 frog, 16 fish species) 22 crayfish, 5 other invertebrate] have been identified as requiring urgent management intervention, based on the extent to which their range has potentially been burnt, how imperilled they were before the fires (e.g. already listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered), and the physical, behavioural and ecological traits which influence their vulnerability to fire. At imminent risk of extinction because most of their range was burnt or they were already highly threatened are the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, Pugh’s Frog and the Blue Mountains Water Skink. Having potentially lost a substantial portion of their range, other species like the Smoky Mouse, Koala and Giant Burrowing Frog require emergency intervention and strategic response to support their recovery. https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/bushfire-recovery/priority-animals
Many of approximately 320,000 invertebrate species in Australia have very localised ranges. Assessing the impacts of fires is challenging because of limited information on distribution and susceptibility to fire, and few monitoring programs. But 191 invertebrate species were known or presumed to have been severely impacted by the 2019-20 bushfires with a further 147 species prioritised for further assessment. Forty-nine species considered threatened on the list before the fires included freshwater mussels, shrimps, burrowing crayfish, land snails, spiders, millipedes, bees, dragonflies, bugs and butterflies.
Two broad management actions to assist in recovery were recommended (1) rapid on-ground surveys to establish the extent of population loss and provide a baseline for ongoing monitoring; and (2) protecting unburnt areas (within or adjacent to recently burnt ground, or in suitable habitat away from the burnt areas) that provide refuge.
The Australian Government is providing up to $10 million funding through competitive grant programs as part of its $200 million investment for the recovery of wildlife and habitat affected by the 2019–20 bushfires. Projects could include:
- provision of supplementary shelter, nest boxes and artificial hollows
- controlling pest animals
- controlling of invasive weeds (including through Indigenous fire management practices)
- seed collection and propagation of native plants for use in revegetation
- revegetation of burnt areas using native plants
- regenerating or protecting sensitive areas, including waterways