Wildfires Are Obliterating Australia’s Iconic Ecosystems

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For animals that seek shelter in burrows during a typical wildfire, suffocation is a big risk as these super-fires suck the oxygen out of every crevice. Birds can become disoriented by smoke and extreme winds. These gusts are also pushing bushfires forward with unreal speed, blowing embers perhaps miles ahead of the fire front, setting new fires, a phenomenon known as spotting.

“The animals that are running forward then run into another front,” says Andrew. “So that’s really unprecedented in terms of the ferocity of these fire fronts.” Normally animals like kangaroos might dart into the safety of a lush rainforest, yet the bushfire tears right through what used to be a refuge. The landscape is so parched, lightning strikes seem to be starting fires even within rainforests.

Keep in mind that no single species lives in isolation—it feeds on other organisms, and other organisms feed on it. Losing one species in an ecosystem can have devastating ripple effects up and down the food chain. And losing an entire habitat to wildfire will have a downright apocalyptic effect on an ecosystem. “It’s really difficult to know what will be able to bounce back from this,” says Andrew. “And what does bounce back could be a very different type of flora, and also from that, different fauna.”

The question now is: How can Australia’s conservationists save species from this new age of supercharged fires?

It’d be impossible for humans to rebuild an ecosystem from scratch at these scales. But in the aftermath of a fire, conservationists can help key species. One group of researchers has been experimenting with placing tunnels made of wire in burned environments. “Small animals can get inside, where they’ll be protected from all the different predators that take advantage of the open country that the fire produces,” says Don Driscoll, director of Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology. “We know that foxes and cats, which are introduced here, they will travel long distances to get to these fire regions, because it’s easy pickings for them.”

Conservationists can also focus their efforts on the pockets where fire-threatened animals have managed to survive. “As ecologists, we’ve now got to not only understand what the climatologists predict will be the future, but also work out how do we actually protect what refugia we’ve got left in these landscapes,” says Michael Clarke, an ecologist at La Trobe University.

To do that, Australia might conduct controlled burns around critical habitats, creating a sort of barrier to stop approaching wildfires. “As an ecologist, that goes against my grain to be more interventionist, but I don’t know what the alternative is,” says Clarke. “Do you stand by and say, sorry, they’re gone, and there will be no sources in the future. That doesn’t sit well with me.”

Elsewhere in Australia, conservation groups are finding success with controlled burns. The organization Bush Heritage, for example, manages fuel loads on its lands by burning vegetation during cool months, when the controlled blazes won’t get out of hand. It’s too early in the fire season to say how well the strategy has worked, but they’ve had a number of lightning strikes on their lands, and no rampant bushfires. “I think the fact that none of those fires has taken off and turned into an uncontrollable blaze is due to that preparation, is due to that really hard work,” says Rebecca Spindler, the group’s head of science and conservation.

Controlled burns can be a tool, but they’re not a panacea. “The capacity for a fire to burn through an area becomes less dependent on the amount of fuel the more extreme the weather is,” says Driscoll. “So if it’s really hot, it’s really dry, and there’s strong wind, then a fire requires very little fuel to burn right across it.” To keep those conditions from getting even worse, there’s only one solution: Stop climate change.

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