Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub (ESBS) is an Endangered Ecological Community that only exists in the eastern part of the Greater Sydney area – between North Head and La Perouse. From an original estimated area of 5300 hectares there’s only 146 hectares of this community left. From the 3% that’s actually left only 18% of that ESBS is on managed lands. A lot of it is in areas like golf courses, people’s backyards along coastal parts in the Sydney eastern suburbs and small pockets on Council reserves, most locations of it are quite sparse in area, with the North Head community being the largest portion in total area remaining.
In 2004, the key stakeholders developed a recovery plan for ESBS, with National Parks working with other land management agencies to try and protect and manage this community. One of the recommendations from the plan was high intensity burn at an 8-15 year rotation.
Fire and Rescue New South Wales (NSW) are re-introducing fire as a tool to restore ESBS at three sites: broad area burning at North Head, some windrow burning at La Perouse on the site of the NSW Golf Course and pile burning at Centennial Park in the Moore Park area. This involved three types of burns: an area burn, windrows and burn piles.
1. North Head
A burn was conducted at North Head, Sydney Harbour in early September 2012. This was done in collaboration with National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and also the North Head Sanctuary Foundation. Interestingly, the location of the fire is very close to the location Dr Geoff Lambert has identified as the site European people in Australia first recorded their observations of fire being used by Indigenous people on the 28th May 1788.
Methods and risk management. At North Head, three relatively small burns were conducted: third quarantine cemetery (0.8 ha), North Fort (1.5 ha0 and Blue Fish Drive (1.8 ha). These involved very high levels of operational logistics and operational planning, prior to waiting for the appropriate burn conditions.
(a) Public safety. Because of a history of fires getting out of control at North Head, precautions involved restricting public access to the headland, which meant confining all three burns to 1 day to minimise disruption. There was an overall incident controller, Superintendent Kel McNamara for the North Head complex, plus divisional commanders in charge of each of the burns. The divisional commanders essentially were running their individual burns managing their operations officers and resources required. From this we ended up with 10 firefighting appliances (trucks) and (including the incident management and logistical appliance) we had a total of 36 resources contributed by three agencies: Fire and Rescue NSW, National Parks and Wildlife Service and Rural Fire Service Pittwater-Warringah. With all of that we had 121 fire fighters for our very small sites. State Emergency Service assisted us with closing down walking trails and making sure people weren’t actually coming onto the headland. We had a fire truck (Flying Pumper) sitting there as if it was in a fire station, so if any spot fires occurred they could go and deal with the fire and we could still carry on with our prescribed burning that we were undertaking.
(b) On the day of the burns there were 400 kids on the headland, which was worrying. I tried to encourage them to go into Manly for the day but they wanted to stay on the headland for their planned activities at the Quarantine Station. Because of that I then had to go through steps in the local emergency management plan and arrange with Sydney Ferries to make sure there was a ferry ready and available in case we needed to evacuate the headland as we could only evacuate by water. Also we had to speak with Harbour Control in case the fire got away and we had to shut down the shipping channels coming into Sydney Harbour.
(c) Heritage protection. We obtained mitigation funding through the NDRP National Disaster Resilience Funds to do some mitigation work around North Head’s historical stone walls criss-crossing the headland. This involved some clearing along those walls to protect the historical significance of them and this clearing doubled to create a strategic fire advantage zone over the headland.
(d) Miscellaneous risks. Among the other things I had to deal with was underground ventilation. There’s historical war tunnels through North Head with ventilation intakes that I had to make sure were covered and insulated so we weren’t dragging smoke into the underground tunnels, increasing the carbon monoxide load down there. This was so if people walked in there after the burns they weren’t going to asphyxiate themselves. The bonus carry over from Defence was possible unexploded ordinance out on the headland. Furthermore, the Sydney Water treatment plant opposite the blue fish drive burn involves an above-ground storage tank of highly explosive biogas.
(e) We could only burn in certain seasons. The breeding seasons of the Endangered population of Long-nosed Bandicoot (Perameles nasuta) and also the penguins had to be considered. This also involved working in with studies of these that were being done by the University of New South Wales, researching the bandicoot’s pre and post-fire introduction. Then we had to put in a notification strategy. The weather window, given all the other constraints, was very narrow. We put out an email notification system where we were literally going to give people anything from 24 hours notice up to 48 hours notice to actually go ahead with the burn.
This high level of risk meant that I had to win the confidence of senior management of Fire and Rescue NSW to support the burn. We did get that support as well as support from all the other land managers, which was fantastic.
Burns themselves. In terms of the burns themselves, once the fire got into the burn area it developed to very good intensity. It was a very high fuel load situation and one interesting challenge was to try and stop the fire fighters from putting the fires out. The buildings were quite close and they were very small parcels of burns.
Ecological context. The burns that we did on North Head involved a range of experimental treatments that included burning, controlled thinning and untreated controls; with some sites fenced from rabbits, a study conducted by Dr Judy Lambert.
We burnt on a small scale to start with to see what type of regeneration we were going to get from broad area burning out on the headland. The regeneration that we’re getting out at North Head is outstanding. But the biggest problem that we have is the newly sprouted post fire vegetation degradation from rabbits and the bandicoots. So we suggest for any burning in ESBS, the advice is that it needs to be fenced post-burn to encourage the regeneration to thrive.
2. La Perouse
At the New South Wales golf course at La Perouse the dominant species, Coastal Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) was cut and dropped on the ground. They let it cure and then they come in and burn it in isolated pockets. Burning on the golf course is a lot easier than North Head because there are far fewer risks to plan for and manage, and the eastern boundary is the Pacific Ocean. With this type of environment and preparation we can get extremely high intensity burns which are required for the ESBS. Once again the land managers fence the area to stop exposure to rabbits. At the La Perouse golf course site, we had arson this fire season so we had an additional 21 hectares of wildfire. We’ve put measures in place to monitor what introduced fire has done compared with what wildfire has done in the same vegetative area along Henry Head.
3. Centennial Park
Centennial Park, in the middle of Sydney, has an area of ESBS which is not even a hectare. The Park’s owners, the Centennial Park Trust, have been manually clearing weed from the ESBS, piling it and then conducting pile burns on the area, spreading the ash from that. Once again some really good regeneration has occurred there and the burn area is also fenced off to stop rabbits.
That’s our story of how Fire and Rescue NSW has been involved in broad area burning, windrow burning and pile burning, working with land managers for the recovery of Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub.
Acknowledgements: Fire and Rescue NSW acknowledge this project could not have happed without the collaboration of National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, North Head Sanctuary Foundation, Rural Fire Service Pittwater Warringah, Road and Maritime Services, NSW Police, Manly Council, Sydney Water, Sydney Ports, Sydney Ferries, Harbor Control, Department of Defence and many others.
Contact: Robert Strauch, Bushfire Officer – Metro East Command, Fire and Rescue NSW (Operational Capability, Specialised Operations, Bushfire Section – Level 1, 55 Dickson Avenue, Artarmon, NSW 2064. Tel: +61 2 9901 2445, +61 448 597 547; Email: E Robert.Strauch@fire.nsw.gov.au)
[This project summary is a precis of a talk presented to the Nature Conservation Council of NSW’s 10th Biennial Bushfire Conference, ‘Fire and Restoration: Working with Fire for Healthy Lands’ 26-27 May 2015. For full paper see: http://www.nature.org.au/healthy-ecosystems/bushfire-program/conferences/%5D