Fire management – when stakeholders involvement allows for better adaptive management approach

During this week 6 course we heard from Dr Milton Lewis about the beauty of traditional burning. How it not only allows for the proper maintenance of biodiversity but also serves as a powerful social binding tool for aboriginal communities.

What Dr Lewis found is that to apprehend fully the complexity of ecosystems and their interaction with fire is almost impossible as parameters vary constantly with different environments and their numbers are too broad to fully grasp. Therefore waiting until a full knowledge of this relationship is acquired before starting to act is foolish as it would only delay any action and such paralysis would in fact be a decision in itself and most likely a bad one.

Instead Dr Lewis recommends having an adaptive management approach by trying to re-learn the way aboriginal people used to burn in our country. Basically use what is left of the traditional knowledge of burning from elders in Northern Territories or Top North Queensland and apply it in NSW with adequate learning methodology so that eventually the right approach is used.

Unfortunately in order to do that Dr Lewis needed to obtain authorisation from the fire management authorities, i.e. Rural Fire Services (RFS). Unfortunately RFS makes decision according to rules and guidelines established within the Bush Fire Management Plans of each district and the policies and legislations edicted at state level. And those guidelines, policies and legislations do not leave much leeway for experimental-style adaptive management, especially if this comes from non-scientific background such as traditional knowledge.

But as Dr Lewis said from a biodiversity perspective traditional burning is the only way to really promote the generation of a native landscape. In fact hazard reduction fire can be terrible for biodiversity.

One of the problems lies in the fact that in defining the Bush Fire Management Plans stakeholders are too much biased toward protection of life and property and do not leave enough input for biodiversity conservation supporters.

In one of my first research project at the MEM I studied fire management within the  Greater Blue Mountain World Heritage area and tried to understand how this imbalance of power happened.

I first investigated who the stakeholders or participants in fire management were. You can see this in the below picture.


I then differentiated according to the values they were representing between biodiversity conservation and life and property protection. The second picture illustrates this- you can see some participants share both values.


From there I looked how each of the participants was able to influence on the design of the Bush Fire Management Plan, the next picture shows those relationships.


From this last diagram it was then easy to realise why the Bush Fire Management Plan could not be balanced and was almost one-sided toward life and property protection values.


From this study and the insights of Dr Lewis it seems apparent to me that maintaining unbalance in stakeholder involvement is not helping in establishing the right guidelines and policies that will facilitate the implementation of adaptive management strategies. This is not only true for the development of traditional burning as a recognised fire management practice but also in other areas of environmental management where adaptability is required.


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