An image of a road between mountains of burnt out bushland.

The Big Question


After Australia's devastating bushfires over the 2019–2020 summer, Contact asked UQ experts: what are the first steps needed for the nation to recover from the bushfire crisis, and how do we best prepare ourselves for future natural disasters?

An image of a baby koala rescued from bushfires.

A baby koala recovers after being rescued from a bushfire in Port Macquarie in November 2019. Image: Nathan Edwards/Getty Images

A baby koala recovers after being rescued from a bushfire in Port Macquarie in November 2019. Image: Nathan Edwards/Getty Images

Threatened species, habitat, environment


Professor Martine Maron

School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Faculty of Science

Species conservation and climate management
"The impact of the bushfires on hundreds of already-threatened species only makes it even more challenging for those species to recover. Emergency responses are underway to assess the damage and conserve remaining populations – from protecting refuge habitats that escaped the fires, to bringing individual animals into captivity if the remaining habitat cannot support them. Encouraging habitat restoration and stepping up management of feral predators and weeds – both of which are advantaged by fire – will be crucial. But, in the long term, we need a different relationship with our environment. We need to manage landscapes to retain water and reduce flammability. Most of all, we need urgent emissions cuts to limit the severity of climate change. What we are living through – the worsening of fire weather conditions – was predicted and, although it seems unimaginable, it will become worse still if we do not act."

Dr April Reside (Research Fellow)

School of Biological Sciences
Faculty of Science

Assessing impact to set conservation priorities and manage pests
"The impact of the recent bushfires across Australia on biodiversity was particularly severe, in part because of the sheer scale of the affected area, and because many species were already suffering from drought conditions. Understanding the full extent of the impact is a substantial task, exacerbated by the remoteness of much of the burned areas, and the paucity of knowledge we have about different species’ responses to fire. Identifying the species most affected will allow for prioritisation of the emergency conservation response, a task being undertaken by state governments and non-government organisations. Controlling other threats is an important step to supporting species recovery from the fires. Feral herbivores (rabbits, deer and horses) restrict regeneration of native plants and reduce food availability for native animals. Feral predators, such as cats, are advantaged by open habitats after fire, and native animals suffer greater predation rates in burnt areas. All recovery actions will require effective coordination and sufficient resourcing, and monitoring species responses will help us understand their effectiveness."

Michelle Ward (PhD Candidate)
Professor Hugh Possingham

School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Faculty of Science

Building a new landscape for fire resilience
"Degrading the forest estate through increased clearing, ad hoc town planning, mismanagement of water, and anthropogenic climate change ensured that the recent Australian fires became uncontrollable. One way to ameliorate the next fire season is to reconsider the way we manage our landscapes, control our emissions, and restore habitats. Perhaps it's time to move away from trying to recreate what we think the landscape looked like in 1750 and move more towards building landscapes that are resilient to climate change and richer in biodiversity. This might mean increasing the fraction of wet forest and rainforest in the landscape above 1750 levels. It might mean removing drainage infrastructure to stop moisture from leaving the system. When vegetation contains more than 30 per cent moisture by weight, it is impossible to ignite. We can use this simple logic to provide protection. While short-term responses, such as supplementary feeding, are important, long-term re-engineering of ecosystems delivers better outcomes for people and nature."

An image of smoke looking over the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains.

Smoke haze on the horizon from the popular Three Sisters tourist destination in Katoomba in December 2019. Image: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Smoke haze on the horizon from the popular Three Sisters tourist destination in Katoomba in December 2019. Image: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Tourism


Associate Professor Gabby Walters

School of Business
Faculty of Business, Economics and Law

"Australia’s tourism industry has been front and centre of the recent 2019–2020 bushfires, with some of the nations most prized tourist destinations being affected during the peak holiday season. Media coverage of the fires has drawn necessary, yet detrimental, attention to these destinations. Critical to the recovery process is the management of the resulting image and reputation issues. Domestically, tourism operators affected by the bushfires need to reach out to their loyal and frequent visitor segments, who are likely to be more responsive to messages calling for visitation. Internationally, Australia’s tourism industry needs to mitigate the mass confusion among visitor segments, who – as a result of the global attention to this crisis – may well believe that the entire country is a ‘no-go zone’. Looking to the future, the tourism sector must work closely with emergency services to ensure disaster management plans incorporate the safety of tourists. The media also needs to be educated in terms of the damage their reporting can cause to the tourism-reliant economies of disaster-affected destinations."

An image of horses grazing after bushfires burnt farmland near the small town of Glenreagh, north of Sydney, in 2019.

Horses graze after bushfires burnt farmland near the small town of Glenreagh, north of Sydney, in 2019. Image: William West/Getty Images

Horses graze after bushfires burnt farmland near the small town of Glenreagh, north of Sydney, in 2019. Image: William West/Getty Images

Farming


Professor Kristen Lyons

School of Social Science
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences

"The impacts of Australia’s 2019–2020 fire season have devastated ecologies and communities. Around 7.7 million hectares have been burnt, and the lives of an estimated 1 billion creatures have been lost. Australia’s summer bushfires have been fuelled by the hottest and driest conditions ever recorded. With climate change intensifying extreme bushfire events, the current fire season provides a window into our future. Australia’s food and agricultural industries, in particular, have been devastated by the loss of farms, crops and farm animals. They have also been affected by damage to critical farming infrastructure, such as roads and storage facilities. Affected communities bear the burden of trauma alongside such losses, with Indigenous communities profoundly affected by the destruction of places central to cultural and belonging. Rebuilding resilient and sustainable food systems after Australia’s summer bushfires requires re-imagining the future in an era of climate chaos. Such re-imagining should include policy and planning supports for expanding agri-food systems – particularly those that centre on ecological diversity and low carbon emissions, including agro-ecological and organic farming systems. It also requires support for simpler – and less vulnerable – supply chain distribution models that connect producers and consumers, as well as models where the true cost of food is realised. Local communities should also be supported to play a key role in driving climate adaptation responses.

An image of the remains The remains of burnt out buildings in the New South Wales town of Cobargo in December 2019.

The remains of burnt out buildings in the New South Wales town of Cobargo in December 2019. Image: Sean Davey/Getty Images

The remains of burnt out buildings in the New South Wales town of Cobargo in December 2019. Image: Sean Davey/Getty Images

Psychology, community and trauma


Professor Justin Kenardy

School of Psychology
Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences

"A key factor that will help with psychological recovery is community and social connectedness. So, reach out to connect with family, friends, neighbours and councils – as well as local social, sports and business groups. The people will be there, even if buildings are not. We also need to consider that support may be available to address the immediate impacts, but those impacts may well have knock-on effects. These effects might not be as traumatic, but can influence mental health for the weeks, months and years afterwards. Finally, helping others is good, but don’t neglect yourself and those close to you."

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