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GRASSROOTS INPUT TO ENVIRONMENTAL DEBATES

By Chris Henggeler, Kachana Pastoral Company, www.kachana.com

Fire fig. 1

 

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire…”
Where there’s fire, there’s talk about fire…
Where there’s the right sort of talk about fire, there’s sure to be research money…

The aim of this paper is to provoke serious thought about redirecting public funds towards achieving better results in our landscapes rather than accumulating more information and focussing on single issues lacking context.

Repeatedly we hear the argument that “not much scientific study exists about the impact of fire in the Kimberley”. While this may be true, how much more publicly funded research do we actually need? We argue that for those who know what to look out for, there is ample evidence of what fire does…

What is "Fire"?

Fire fig 2

From the dawn of time to the present day ‘fire’ has always been able to fascinate…
Fire has been a shaping force for life on the Australian continent.
There is a strong belief that fire is necessary in our landscapes.
To those of us who know fire, there is also a romantic side.

fire fig 3

“The red steer”…
Cavorting across a savannah-scape, being blown here or there by temperamental winds…
Reaching a slope or an uneven patch of ground, perhaps even a plentiful supply of fodder; enough to generate wind that would propel it forward with replenished energy…
Gallop in new directions leaving dazed and maimed plants and small organisms in its path…
For larger animals this sort of passing simply means “change”: perhaps good, perhaps bad, often a bit of both…
Night falls; hungry flames stay behind lapping up dead-wood, stumps and animal dung; short-circuiting nature’s complex recycling process…
A cold wind-still night and in the early hours of the morning the raging steer has slowed down to peacefully “graze” along a hillside…
Even falling asleep at times only to be stirred awake by gentle breezes and a warming sun…
A new day, a new place, new circumstance, new possibilities…

“The bush-man’s TV”…
The end of a long day, a simple but well earned meal…
Glowing embers of a campfire…
To those that know… What more is there to say?
To those who do not… What is there to say?

The practical facet: Fire is one of the oldest tools used by humans.
We use fire for warmth, for cooking, for light, to clear ground, for working timber and to harden wood, for hunting, for attracting attention, to repel insects, to bake clay, to remove unwanted organic material, to sterilize, to gain some minerals, to initiate/speed up chemical reactions, to split rocks, …
As a ‘weapon’, fire can be used for protection, defence, distraction, attack, ...
Fire can be used to fight and to deal with fire.
Fire is a most versatile and useful tool.
Those skilled in the use of fire often discover more uses as their skills improve.

In the bush we grow up and live with fire.

fire fig 4

“Fire in the Kimberley” is a prime target for publicly funded debate.
“It’s natural.”
“It’s traditional.”
“Some plants require fire.”

Fire remains a physical force that acts but that does not argue…
At the end of the day it will always be up to the beholder to determine the individual relationship.
For the academic ‘fire’ can be like ‘poetry’…
For the politician ‘fire’ can be a ‘weapon of mass distraction’…
For the scientist ‘fire’ can be the lever it takes to get a ‘pay-cheque’…
For the vandal ‘fire’ is an effective form of ‘bio-terror’…

Fire in each situation is unique in the context of intensity, place, time and beholder(s). In each instance there is literally no limit to possible impressions and interpretations…
There are simply no limits to the type of research that could be conducted while we manage to access funds.
To legislate the use of fire at regional, state or national levels becomes a complex and highly questionable process…

Yet from an ecological perspective ‘fire’ is profoundly simple:
Fire in our landscape is simply a ‘natural disturbance’.

Abiotic disturbances abound in our landscapes. Fire as an abiotic disturbance has always been present in our landscapes. Ignitions would have occurred through lightning, spontaneous combustion or volcanoes. Nature has her own ways of selecting place, time and frequency. Climate, weather, location and the amount of readily combustible materials determine the intensity…

Human lit fires: ‘Fire’ as a biotic disturbance is a relatively new phenomenon in landscapes. Apart from humans, no other species on the planet will consciously light a fire. It can therefore be argued that human lit fires are a social issue:

The social view:  (History helps us out.)
From danger to deity, from element to tool, fire has always had well recognised positions in all human economies…
In sustainable societies religion, philosophy, science and commerce dictated economic activity that was held in check by Nature’s cyclical checks and balances…
As communities began to develop arguably more sophisticated and more efficient ways to manage their economies, ‘sustainability’ was often the trade-off.. 
(See: A Savory, T Flannery, J Diamond).

Ecological consequences of fire
Like all disturbances in our landscapes, fire will influence eco-system function:
Energy-Flow: Captured energy is released; it heats and dries out its immediate surroundings. This in turn will impact new energy-capture through photosynthesis, triggering other biotic responses (see Community Dynamics). Our Sun is the driver of climate on this planet; on land sunshine will generally hit either bare or covered ground.
Rocks and bare ground heat up and cool down faster than water, dead organic materials or living green plants. They radiate back more heat, which then heats up the surrounding air. As ground is exposed and protective shade and litter is lost (during or after a fire event) microclimate will change and increasingly become more erratic. Wilder fluctuations of daily temperatures at and immediately below the soil surface can be measured.
Water-Cycle: the drying out of living cells, organic matter and soil will have immediate effect in the biological facet of the water-cycle. Traumatised plans will shut down photosynthesis to conserve water; often they shed their leaves. Ground that is laid bare will more rapidly lose moisture through soil-surface evaporation. Heavy rain will seal the surface and the ground becomes prone to flooding; water rushes downstream and little is retained for plant-growth and for the replenishment of soaks and springs.
Mineral-Cycle: rapid oxidation of nutrients and minerals occurs. Carbon and gases are exhausted into the atmosphere instead of being cycled through a variety of life-forms.

fire fig 5

Community-Dynamics: biotic responses are diverse and will vary with the number, type and health of organisms affected. Each reaction will induce chain-reactions and flow-on effects too complex to all be accounted for. Reactions of living organisms will vary in relation to how the disturbance event impacts on: air-supply, moisture & nutrition requirements and comfort-zones of every affected organism…
Some organisms will respond with metabolic shut-down…
Some organisms will be displaced…
Other organisms will react to new opportunities…

fire fig 6


 Each situation is unique…Plants may need to compete less for limited nutrients, but may end up being more exposed and vulnerable to other disturbances…
Others again may learn from the experience and modify their behaviour. Birds, animals and humans belong to this category.

From being an occasional abiotic disturbance in some landscapes fire has become a significant biotic disturbance in many arid landscapes. Each such disturbance alone triggers incalculable biotic responses.
If the decision to light fire is a biotic social factor that has modified our landscapes, we may similarly categorise the decision and actions of humans to “protect” our landscapes from being burned…
Within a few millennia humans as a single species have taken it upon themselves to modify the manner in which carbon is both stored and cycled on this planet; by doing so they have profoundly impacted and disrupted the very symbiotic processes that built and maintained our soils and the diversity of life supported on their surface.

No region in the world sees more smoke per capita belched out into the atmosphere than the Kimberley of Australia’s North-West…

So where is the science? Where is the context?
As organisms that on average, at best have the ability to consciously take stock of our surroundings for only a little over 50 years of our lives, we humans tend to readily accept what we see around us with little questioning. This tendency seems to be accentuated by itinerary populations (even many community leaders may only spend a few years in one location). Add air-conditioned living and working environments, artificial supply-chains of food and materials, annual leave and high-speed travel in enclosed vehicles, and a mix of challenges related to financial survival and social obligations… the portion of our lives actually spent out-doors to study long-term trends in our landscapes can easily leave us with a very blurry picture.

Photos sometimes say more than words.
For those interested in what is happening in our upper-river rainfall-catchment areas and why May-aerial burning is now failing in many of these areas, the Kachana 2004 Fire Experiment may help shed some light:
http://www.kachana.com/projects_research/or_fire_experiment.php
(Note the last photo on the page taken one year later... we have since had our best wet season in twenty years and now two years later the ground on site-B is still bare...)

fire fig 7

Conclusion:
Many of us at the cutting edge are well aware that primarily ‘social issues’ contribute to the root cause of current environmental debates in the Kimberly; ‘financial issues’ are then most often the reason why individuals cannot justify effective responses.

At social and at political levels two good reasons remain for not addressing the ‘biotic social factor (fire)’ with more effective responses:

  1. ‘Business as usual’ tends to be more focused and profitable if people do not attempt to prepare for too many contingencies. Without political support or guidance it is commercially unwise to venture into ‘uncharted’ territory.
  2. Political processes (once funding has been secured) tend to run their course. Therefore the debate goes on in much the same way as before: focusing on environmental issues or on the factors seemingly contributing to these issues.

Meanwhile there exists a short-term opportunity for the mining industry to conduct more thorough exploration without the hindrance of excessive vegetation and issues related to biodiversity.

We wish to end this paper on a more positive note:
Where there’s smoke; there’s potential for carbon credits…
There is no quicker way to sequester carbon than to manage for healthy savannahs.
Once whole communities begin to shift beyond the paradigm of extractive economics we predict exciting new industries with ample meaningful employment.

The Kachana Pastoral Company stance on “Fire in the Kimberley” has been tabled on the web: http://www.kachana.com/environmental_management/gi_fire_in_kimberley_2005.php

 

Other related links and web-sites:

Soil food-web structure and function in a sub-catchment typical for northern Australian rangelands.

Beyond Conventional Pastoralism

Erosion: why it happens and what to do about it

Allan Savory’s Africa Report Mid 2006

There is no quicker way to sequester carbon than to manage for healthy savannahs

www.wentworthgroup.org

www.soilfoodweb.com

www.managingwholes.com

http://www.soildynamics.com/living.htm

http://www.soildynamics.com/erosion.htm

Flash animation of the water cycle (850 K).