Australia's horrific fires were made worse by logging

Logged trees in a stack
© The University of Queensland

Researchers are urging policy makers to recognize the critical values of intact, undisturbed native forests.

Remember the horror that was the Australian wildfires? While they feel like ages ago, they were at their peak just in January, not that long ago at all – apparently, pandemic time is like dog years.

Between September 2019 and January 2020, 5.8 million hectares (14,332,112 acres) of Australia burned, destroying thousands of buildings and killing more than 34 people. And it was devastating for wildlife, killing more than 800 million animals and affecting one billion animals in all.

"Over the past several decades, as the world has increasingly warmed, so has its potential to burn," writes Ellen Gray at NASA. She explains that since the 1980s, wildfire season has lengthened across a quarter of the world's vegetated surface, "and in some places like California," she adds, "fire has become nearly a year-round risk."

In the United States, the president has suggested that "raking" the forest will help prevent fires. And on December 21, 2018 he signed an executive order that calls for, among other things, "Reducing vegetation giving rise to wildfire conditions ... by increasing health treatments as part of USDA’s offering for sale at least 3.8 billion board feet of timber from USDA FS [Forest Service] lands."

But in Australia, it's a different story, according to researchers from The University of Queensland (UQ). Rather than the dystopian euphemistic "forest health treatment" of cutting down trees to enrich the lumber industry, the researchers conclude that the logging of native forest increases the risk and severity of fire. And in the case of the devastating 2019-20 fire season, logging likely had a profound effect.

The authors write, "It is clear that discussions about links between climate change and fire are warranted and should galvanize action to halt climate change. However, the contribution of land management, and especially forestry practices, to wildfires has often been neglected in these discussions."

wildfire© The University of Queensland

UQ Professor and Wildlife Conservation Society Director James Watson explained that logging practices have made many forests more vulnerable to fire for a number of reasons.

"Logging causes a rise in fuel loads, increases potential drying of wet forests and causes a decrease in forest height," Watson says. "It can leave up to 450 tonnes 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," he adds. "It affects wildlife too by creating habitat loss, fragmentation and disturbance for many species, with major negative effects on forest wildlife."

The study's lead author David Lindenmayer, a professor from Australian National University, said there are land management actions that can help prevent such catastrophic fires in the future.

"The first is to prevent logging of moist forests, particularly those close to urban areas," Lindenmayer says. "We must also reduce forest fragmentation by proactively restoring some previously logged forests. 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."

Michelle Ward, a researcher from UQ's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, stresses that government needs to be proactive in creating policy to help prevent future devastation.

"We urge policy makers to recognise and account for the critical values of intact, undisturbed native forests, not only for the protection of biodiversity, but for human safety," she says. "Let's act strongly and swiftly for the sake of our communities, the species they house, our climate and Australia's wild heritage."

The research was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Australia's horrific fires were made worse by logging
Researchers are urging policy makers to recognize the critical values of intact, undisturbed native forests.

Related Content on Treehugger.com