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Prescribed burns ‘not one size fits all’

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Prescribed burning to prevent bushfire losses must be tailored to fit its objective, because a broad approach does not work, a new academic study shows.

Any prescribed burn should be structured to either protect property or adopt an environmental approach, and should also be tailored for vegetation type, the University of Melbourne and University of Wollongong research concludes.

Trent Penman, a research leader with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre and lecturer in bushfire management at the University of Melbourne, said: “The best solution, or the most cost-effective solution, varies depending on the landscape.

“The way in which you would best prescribe planned burning depends on how the houses are laid out relative to the forest areas.”

In the Blue Mountains, researchers found a combination of burning forested blocks near houses as well as some more distant blocks is best, whereas in Hobart, distant blocks do not have as much impact on the likelihood of houses or lives being lost, so the best solution is to focus burning in interface zones.

“We’re looking at differences in the way prescribed burning can be applied to reduce risk to people and property, but also to environmental value in the landscape, such as biodiversity,” Dr Penman told

The most cost-effective outcomes depend on the landscape. In areas with lower population density, such as north-coast NSW, prescribed burning may not be a priority when focusing on house costs, though it can protect critical infrastructure, forest used in timber production and water supplies.

“Focusing on houses doesn’t tell us everything about the answer to how we can best implement prescribed burning,” Dr Penman said. He recommends a holistic approach, with nothing viewed in isolation and plans to best manage a suite of different management strategies.

“Prescribed burning should never be seen as the only answer. It is part of a whole tool set that agencies and fire managers have. Engaging with communities and engaging with homeowners to ensure they’re prepared as individuals, but also as a collective, has a massive impact on the likelihood of loss.”

The team has found property construction and homeowners’ preparedness consistently appear as major factors in the likelihood of houses being lost.

“Ensuring that individuals understand the exposure they have and working with them to ensure they understand what risk they are at – but also what they can do to reduce that risk – is a key thing,” Dr Penman says.

Dr Penman spoke to after presenting his findings, based on studies across Australia, at the Fire Behaviour & Fuels Conference in Sydney, hosted by the International Association of Wildland Fire.