New Shoots: Bushfire Recovery, One Year on

This time last year millions of hectares of land on Australia’s east coast – from northern NSW to south east Victoria – was either smouldering, blackened or still burning. The worst bushfire season in living memory. Billions of trees, animals, lives lost. A summer that left scars – some obvious, some hidden. My stomach still twists in on itself when I think about that time. And, of course, I got off easy. Our home still stands, we did not need to flee the flames. For others it was a nightmare.

Earlier this week I spoke with Brett Summerell, Director of Research and Chief Botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, as part of Janet Laurence’s Requiem at Sydney Festival, about the fires, plants and the work that’s been happening over the past year. We discussed resilience, plant insurance policies and the future of forest management.

NEW SHOOTS

I have a friend who got really upset when seeing the response of people to images of forests re-sprouting. She called me one day, saying, ‘People keep saying the forests will bounce back, that everything is fine but it’s not! This is not over!’ Regrowth is, of course (please excuse my friend’s rather grim outlook), reason for positivity. It is evidence of incredible lifeforce of plants, and the and highly adapted nature of Australian flora.

My friend is also not wrong. It is not over, the bush will not miraculously return to its pre-fire state (which is no surprise because nothing goes back, only forwards). “It’s wonderful to see the green growth back in the forests,” says ANU Professor David Lindenmayer in the Sydney Morning Herald. “But there are some underlying issues that are creating real problems and I have massive concerns about what we will see there in 20 years time.”

Lindenmayer points to logging of old growth forests, trees already incredibly stressed due to previous years of drought, and increased fire regularity and intensity as issues compromising the recovery of forests. Brett, too, points to frequency – plants may be evolved to withstand one extreme fire event every 75 years or so, but not every 10 years. And some species, like many rainforest trees, are not adapted to fire at all.

Flannel flowers (Actinotus helianthii) after fire. Photo: Jardine Hansen

SAVING SEEDS

Despite its horrific beginning, 2020 was a good year for many plant species on the east coast of Australia. After years of drought, La Niña arrived, and so did the rain. The RBG Sydney teams are recording and collecting seed from many species they haven’t seen for years. Fire ephemerals, Brett calls them. Species like pink flannel flower (Actinotus forsythii), a small daisy-like plant endemic to the Blue Mountains, that seems to appear only in the year following a fire and then disappears again.

Plantbank, at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan, stores seeds of around 65% of NSW’s threatened plant species. At times like this, Brett tells me, the importance of seed banking is highlighted – not only because the botanic gardens team are able to add significantly to the seedbank due to the flush of species stimulated by the fires, but because it acts as an insurance policy in the case of future fire events.

Pink flannel flower (Actinotus forsythii) near Lithgow. Photo: Jardine Hansen

Bushfire regrowth near Lithgow. Photo: Jardine Hansen

COLLABORATION AND COUNTRY

How do we manage our forests into the future? This is, perhaps, the biggest question arising from the Black Summer bushfires. It is also the most complex. Protecting people, protecting Country, protecting biodiversity, protecting property. Who, what, how and in what order? Answering these questions requires a book, not a short article. Perhaps the answer begins with care for Country. Not ‘asset protection’ or ‘hazard reduction’, but care. As First Nations fire practitioner Victor Steffensen said in 2016, “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing. We can’t sit back and watch hundreds of kilometres of land be annihilated and yet sit down and just think about ourselves. In due respect, we need to be looking after our residents and our houses – but what’s the point in doing that if we’re not looking after our land?”

RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING

Citizen Science Bushfire Projects Finder

Bushfire Recovery Project

Interactive Fire Intensity Map

Firesticks Alliance

‘Massive concern’ for forests’ long-term recovery after Black Summer – via Sydney Morning Herald

Subalpine regions struggle to recover after 2019-20 bushfires as eucalypt forests fare better – via The Guardian

Pink flannel flower (Actinotus forsythii) near Lithgow. Photo: Jardine Hansen