Grasslands and Grassy Woodlands in SE Australia have evolved with fire for at least the last 40,000 years and likely for several million years, both as a result of natural ignition (eg lightning) and through Aboriginal burning practice. But since Europeans came and disrupted that pattern (less fire all ’round), the ecology of fire in native grasslands has changed radically. Add to this that native grasslands have been largely cleared or highly modified (heavily grazed, cultivated, cropped), you get the picture that this formerly extensive ecosystem is now threatened and in serious need of hands-on management if we want to keep the conservation values that are unique to grasslands. A major problem is that few people involved in managing grassland for nature conservation have much experience of using fire as a management tool.
This workshop was organised and run by Trust for Nature‘s Shelagh Curmi, in partnership with local and regional CFA, particularly Phil Hawkey, the CFA’s Regional Vegetation Officer and ecologist Dr. John Morgan, Latrobe University. John gave us a crash-course in grassland ecology, emphasizing that ‘fire ain’t fire’. He stressed that, in Themeda-dominated grasslands, doing something and learning from your actions is far better than doing nothing; doing nothing will likely lead to Themeda crowding-out all other herbs, like lilies, orchids, and daisies.
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About 40 people attended the day including: local landholders, Local Government staff from Mitchell, Hume, Whittlesea and beyond, CFA staff from near and far and members of the local Yarck CFA Brigade (with Tanker!).
After our ecological primer, the CFA talked about their role in assisting communities to re-learn how to introduce fire back into grassland landscapes and the many benefits that can flow from that eg. habitat improvement, fuel reduction, threatened species management, being a good neighbour.
The afternoon brightened up in patches and the sun poked through enough to dry off the grass (a bit). The came the all-important practical exercise. With a CFA tanker and a cube slip-on in attendance, we felt that all contingencies were covered. Russel from CFA Head Office demonstrated how to measure fuel moisture and the importance of understanding how this influences fire intensity. Phil then lit a fire inside a drum to demonstrate a very safe technique of burning small areas when the conditions may require caution. That showed us all that a fire in these conditions would likely only move slowly and be on the cool side. We then inspected some small, patch burns that had been done a few weeks ago in drier conditions.
And now for the the fire, with a little help from a fire-lighter. Even though it had been a damp, cold day, the CFA considered it safest to burn back from the previous patch-burns and into the wind.
Having discussed the principles behind grassland burning, it was fascinating to see that even a damp Kangaroo grassland in May could carry a fire. This fire was of limited management use, but understanding why it was done in such a way, then seeing how it behaved and how was kept in check was most valuable. All ’round a great exercise. Thanks to all involved.
- This project is supported by Trust for Nature, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme.
- This project is supported by the Goulburn Broken CMA through funding from the Australian Government’s Natural Resource Management funding