Bushfire Management Strategies – Lessons From Recent Wildfires in SA’s Rural Areas

With fire a vital component of rural livelihood systems in Botswana’s variable semi-arid climate and with large public communal grazing areas prone to burning, fire suppression has the potential to reduce communities’ ability to generate income. Yet current strategies are skewed toward fire suppression and under-resourced.

A national bushfire policy must include proactive active land management including hazard reduction burning and forest thinning. This will help to ensure balanced outcomes for human life, property and ecological values.

1. Planned Burning

Prescribed burning (also referred to as controlled or planned burns) is one of the most important activities undertaken by bushfire managers. It is used to manage fire on public and private land to reduce the risk of large wildfires, improve landscape resilience and enhance biodiversity. It is a critical part of a comprehensive approach to bushfire management.

The success of a prescribed burn depends on a number of factors including weather conditions, fuel load, slope and the type of vegetation being managed. To achieve the best results, it is essential to have a clear purpose and to develop a prescribed burn plan. The plan will specify the desired outcome of the fire and include a detailed description of the site, its management history and the weather forecast.

Research conducted in the past has indicated that a number of socioeconomic factors increase a community’s vulnerability to wildfire. These include the proportion of the population that is female, low income, has no college education, or lives in a rural area. In particular, rural Census tracts experience higher rates of wildfire burning as a percentage of their total area than urban ones.

It is therefore vital for Government to invest time in building a relationship with the community that can ensure that people understand the importance of fire as part of the natural and cultural process and not just as a hazard. This requires engaging communities to develop with Government a system of open space burning that is safe, ecologically and socially responsible and includes measures for fire first responders.

This will require a significant change in Government strategy away from the current fire suppression oriented approach that sees all fires as a negative and leaves out the majority of communities who derive their livelihoods in communal areas and are major sources of ignitions. This will need to be linked with the development of a criminal investigation capability to determine the causes of fires.

2. Hazard Reduction Burning

Following the devastating bushfires of this season, public and political attention has turned once again to what we can do to limit the size and impact of wildfires. Much of this discussion has revolved around the role of hazard reduction burning, also known as prescribed burning.

A hazard reduction burn is a purposeful, carefully planned and controlled burning of excess ground litter or fuels in an area to reduce the risk of a bushfire. It is generally carried out in winter and outside of the fire season when conditions are more stable.

In Australia, hazard reduction burning is one of many ways we prepare for and protect ourselves from the risk of bushfires. It sits alongside activities like thinning, mowing, mulching, clearing, slashing and fire-resistant garden design and maintenance.

Hazard reduction burning is a tool that can be used for a number of purposes, including environmental, agricultural and cultural values, as well as bushfire risk management. The most common reason for hazard reduction burning is to manage the build-up of flammable materials, such as grasses and shrubs, on public land.

However, it is important to note that the use of hazard reduction burning does not reduce the fire threat from extreme or catastrophic bushfire danger. The window of opportunity for carrying out hazard reduction burning varies greatly from one location to another and is increasingly limited by climate change.

In addition, hazard reduction burning can have a range of other impacts on ecological communities depending on the type and intensity of burn and other factors. While any fire regime will have an effect on biodiversity, the impact of low intensity, moderate frequency hazard reduction burning is less than that of large scale high intensity wildfires.

3. Fire Trails

A fire trail (also known as a fire road in US terminology) is a permanent track cleared through the bush to allow firefighters access for backburning and control operations. Unlike fire breaks or fire control lines, it does not form part of any hazard reduction zone or have the same function as a fire management area.

The prevailing fire management approach in Botswana is inclined towards fire suppression and Government centered leaving communities to play a peripheral role (Dube and Mafoko, 2008). This type of approach is not sustainable and focuses on suppressing what has already happened rather than preventing the occurrence of a fire in the first place. It also has the potential to contribute to the loss of property and life due to uncontrolled fires that burn out of control.

Community engagement and a community driven approach to fire risk management will be the foundation for developing a sustainable fire strategy. This could be achieved by utilising the existing structures of traditional local institutions such as kgotla, ward and village development committees to develop a community based fire management association. These associations would be able to nurture a system of volunteerism for fire suppression expeditions and help develop a holistic fire management plan in the locality.

This is a very important step in moving away from the current fire management approach that is inherently biased towards fire suppression and that has Government playing a central role while leaving communities to play a peripheral role. A shift in this approach will benefit the community as well as the environment and will be more cost effective in the long run. A fire strategy that is geared towards prevention is the way forward and this can only be achieved through engaging communities who are the main sources of ignitions and who bear the brunt of the losses that result from uncontrolled fires in their localities.

4. Fire Management Zones

A key factor to reducing fire disasters is to strongly link fire management and land use practices. This includes linking fuel management and fire suppression to community livelihood systems and local knowledge of the impact of fire on biodiversity. Botswana’s variable semi-arid climate and large open areas set aside for conservation and communal grazing means fire is an integral part of the country’s rural landscape. However, a national system for managing the country’s fire risk is dominated by a purely suppression-orientated approach and lacks resource and coordination. This is highlighted by the reliance on first fire responder teams of 13 people to be deployed in districts across the country during peak fire season (DFRR, 2011).

This can be improved by developing a system that better connects people with their land and its fire risks, which includes engaging community in fuel reduction activities as part of their everyday landscape uses. It also includes building a culture of fire and land use interaction that focuses on learning from the benefits and impacts of fire in the context of ecological outcomes (e.g. carbon sequestration, soil fertility) and the impacts on human communities of drought, hotter conditions and more frequent extreme fire weather.

Creating fire management zones that allow people to understand their own bushfire risk and the impact of their lifestyle choices is an important step towards this. This involves mapping a property’s defensible space to 100 feet and beyond. It also identifies areas that need to be treated to reduce fire hazards.

The ACT’s new Fire Management Zones are a great example of this approach. These zones identify areas that will need to be more intensively treated than others. These are often in bushland at the urban fringe and close to rural assets and complement Asset Protection Zones. They are based on fire hazard, which relates to the probability level of fire behaviour in an area over a 30- to 50-year period. This is similar to flood zone maps that evaluate the likelihood of flooding over a period of 30 to 50 years without considering home hardening or mitigation measures.

5. Fire Suppression

Fire managers must balance the cost of fire suppression with protecting people, property and valued natural and cultural resources and encouraging the fire’s ecological role in many landscapes. In areas that pose no risk to people, homes and other structures, and in landscapes that have been historically burned often enough to have regenerated to a low level of fuel loads, wildfire may be allowed to burn under controlled conditions. This can help to reduce soil erosion, return nutrients to the soil, promote some species germination, and restore the health of the land.

A key to a sustainable fire management strategy is community engagement. Communities have been negatively impacted by years of a fire suppression oriented approach and they are the first to bear the losses that occur from uncontrolled wildland fires. Communities need to be assured that there is a change in focus from fire suppression to fire prevention and that they will be empowered and supported to take up the tasks that are needed to achieve this.

Community members that are expected to assist with fire suppression need to be provided with the necessary support such as remuneration, insurance and equipment. Without these supports they are likely to continue to show reluctance to volunteer in the face of increased risk and loss (DFRR, 2013).

It is essential that a home’s ‘defensible space’ is properly maintained as this will improve its ability to survive a wildfire. The size of this area depends on the type and size of trees, brush, and grass that are present and also the slope of the property. This space is a barrier that slows or stops the spread of fire to a home, and it gives firefighters room to work in and around the home to defend it from burning embers or radiant heat.