Logging likely increased the risk and severity of the recent Australian bushfires, according to a new study from the University of Queensland. The catastrophic wildfires were the worst in Australia’s recorded history.
The research is part of an international collaboration to investigate land use changes across Australia.
James Watson is a UQ professor of Conservation Science and the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Science and Research Initiative. Professor Watson said logging regimes have made many forests more prone to fire for a host of reasons.
“Logging causes a rise in fuel loads, increases potential drying of wet forests and causes a decrease in forest height,” said Professor Watson. “It can leave up to 450 tons of combustible fuel per hectare close to the ground – by any measure, that’s an incredibly dangerous level of combustible material in seasonally dry landscapes.”
“By allowing these practices to increase fire severity and flammability, we undermine the safety of some of our rural communities.”
Professor Watson added that logging negatively impacts forest wildlife by creating habitat loss, fragmentation, and disturbance for many species.
Study lead author Dr. David Lindenmayer is a professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University. Dr. Lindenmayer said there are land management actions that must be taken to stop these fires from occurring in the future.
“The first is to prevent logging of moist forests, particularly those close to urban areas. We must also reduce forest fragmentation by proactively restoring some previously logged forests,” explained Dr. Lindenmayer.
“In the event of wildfires, land managers must avoid practices such as ‘salvage’ logging – or logging of burnt forests – which severely reduces recovery of a forest.”
The Australian government has launched a royal commission to find ways to improve the country’s level of preparedness, resilience, and response to natural disasters.
Michelle Ward, a researcher in the UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said it is time for the government to act.
“We urge policy makers to recognize and account for the critical values of intact, undisturbed native forests, not only for the protection of biodiversity, but for human safety,” said Ward.
“Let’s act strongly and swiftly for the sake of our communities, the species they house, our climate and Australia’s wild heritage.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.