Managing fire for plant and animal conservation

A recent initiative from the Ecological Society of Australia is the publication of one-page ‘Hot Topics’ that synthesise ideas and issues important to environmental policy.

In 2017 I wrote a Hot Topic on ‘Managing fire for plant and animal conservation‘ with Angie Haslem (La Trobe) and Brett Murphy (Charles Darwin University). It’s just been republished in the journal Austral Ecology – along with five other widely read Hot Topics.

A simple – but often overlooked – point we emphasised is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to fire management. Natural ecosystems contain different species, have different fire regimes and present different fire risks to biodiversity and people. Fire management will be more effective when guided by local knowledge and based on the demonstrated requirements of plants and animals, as well as the habitats they depend on.

Having said that, much of my own research focuses on approaches and tools that can help us make useful generalisations about when and where fire can benefit plants and animals. The key to implementing such approaches is to ensure they are tailored to suit the needs of particular ecosystems and species.

You can read our Hot Topic, and summary of selected papers on pyrodiversity, here.

Kelly Haslem Murphy Managing fire for plant and animal conservation_Page_1

An aerial incendiary line in Kakadu National Park. The creation of fine-grained fire mosaics using prescribed burning is an objective of many fire managers. (Photo: Clay Trauernicht)


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Small mammals, habitat refuges and fire regimes

In February I started new work with PhD student Kate Senior on small mammals, habitat refuges and fire regimes in Murray Sunset National Park, Victoria. In fire-prone ‘mallee’ landscapes of semi-arid Australia, we’re collecting new data on the spatial ecology of small mammals and their predators, combined with manipulative field experiments, to help guide on-ground management of planned burning and fire suppression activities.

During a successful pilot study we captured several native small mammal species (western pygmy-possum, mallee ningaui and Mitchell’s hopping mouse) and tried out new techniques for exploring the movements of small mammals before, after and during fires. Next up Kate will be incorporating movement studies into a planned burn conducted by the Department of Environment, Land and Water, Victoria.

If you’re interested in doing honours or postgraduate studies in 2018-2019 at University of Melbourne on wildlife and bushfires then flick me ( or Kate Senior ( an email. At the following links you can check out some of my previous work on small mammals, fire mosaics, rainfall and life-history.

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Future scenarios of fire and biodiversity

Scenario planning is a powerful way to evaluate management alternatives when contending with uncontrollable and irreducible uncertainty. It’s a particularly useful approach for exploring ecological processes with high levels of uncertainty such as bushfires and climate change.

In November, our team from the Spatial Solutions Fire Ecology Project ran a one-day workshop with 30 fire and biodiversity managers and researchers from Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Our aim was to identify a small set of critical uncertainties that might influence the success of alternative fire management options.

scenario workshop group

Participants in the workshop on fire and biodiversity scenarios held at University of Melbourne, Parkville.  Participating agencies: Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (Vic), Parks Victoria, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and SA Department of Environment. 

Co-designing scenarios with key stakeholders proved a fantastic opportunity to clarify social and conservation objectives, develop novel management alternatives and explore a range of possible futures relating to extreme weather, demographics and public policy.

The next stage of the Spatial Solutions project will be to use a ‘storyline and simulation’ approach to estimate the consequences of alternative management options against the backdrop of critical uncertainties identified in the workshop.

If you’re interested in discussing ideas, tools and methods relating to scenario analysis and fire modelling get in touch with Luke Kelly ( and Kate Giljohann (

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Fire in the foothills

My new piece in Decision Point with Angie Haslem and Steve Leonard is out.

‘Foothill forests’ cover approximately 7.5 million ha in the state of Victoria. They are a priority for fire management, containing significant biodiversity and posing risks of fires to people and property. But how do you manage a major natural disturbance like fire when they are occur across a broad-scale environmental gradient like foothill forests?

You can read the article here and our corresponding research paper in Ecosphere here.

decision point front cover


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Wildfires are raging in the Mediterranean. What can we learn?

I have new piece in The Conversation with Eduard Plana Bach and Marc Font Bernet.

In Italy, firefighters across the country are battling hundreds of wildfires, the flames fanned by a combination of heat and drought.

This is just the latest in a succession of fires in the Mediterranean. In June, forest fires in Portugal killed 64 people in Pedrógão Grande, in the Leira district, and immediately afterwards Spanish forests went up in flames, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,500 people from homes and campsites.

Fires are expected in the summer, but they don’t usually have such severe consequences. These incidents highlight the need to rethink how landscapes can be managed to protect people and sustain ecosystems when the region’s climate and population are rapidly changing.

Read the full article here.


Forest fires are an important part of Mediterranean ecoystems. Here, a pine seedling emerges shortly after a wildfire in Tunisia. Photo: Eduard Plana.

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Using fire to promote biodiversity

I’m very excited to have a new article with Lluis Brotons in Science!

Fire profoundly influences people, climate, and ecosystems. The impacts of this interaction are likely to grow, with climate models forecasting widespread increases in fire frequency and intensity because of rising global temperatures. However, the relationship between fire and biodiversity is complex. Many plants and animals require fire for their survival, yet even in fire-prone ecosystems, some species and communities are highly sensitive to fire. Recent studies are helping to define fire regimes that support the conservation of species with different requirements in a rapidly changing world.

You can email me ( for a copy or download the full article for free at the following link:


From Kelly, L.T. & Brotons, L. (2017) Using fire to promote biodiversity. Science, 355, 1264-1265. Reprinted with permission from AAAS.

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The Spatial Solutions Fire Ecology Project

Our new fire ecology project is underway!

Now that we’ve assembled our exciting team – including new recruits Dr Kate Giljohann (Research Fellow), Fred Rainsford (PhD student) and Kate Senior (PhD student) – it’s a perfect time to introduce the project.

The Team: Luke Kelly (UoM), Andrew Bennett (La Trobe/ARI), Andrew Blackett (DELWP), Michael Clarke (La Trobe), Kate Giljohann (UoM/La Trobe), Michael McCarthy (UoM), Fred Rainsford (La Trobe), Kate Senior (UoM).

What are we going to do?

The Spatial Solutions Fire Ecology Project is a collaboration between The University of Melbourne, La Trobe University and the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. It’s funded by the ARC Linkage Projects scheme. The primary aim of this project is to develop a suite of spatially explicit models and tools that will enhance our capacity to design fire management strategies for biodiversity in real-world landscapes.

This project will use two ecosystems from south-eastern Australia as case studies: ‘mallee’ woodlands and shrublands and ‘foothill’ forests. These extensive eucalypt-dominated ecosystems make up ≈104 000 km2 and ≈75 000 km2 of south-eastern Australia, respectively. Fire is a major driver of the structure and function of mallee and foothills ecosystems and the strong history of fire research in each region provides a wealth of data on the plants, birds, reptiles and mammals.


Foothill forests are characterised by rough-barked eucalypts including messmate, brown stringybark, narrow- and broad-leaved peppermint.

Specifically, we will build spatially explicit models of bird, mammal, plant and reptile responses to fire regimes in mallee and foothills landscapes. We’ll predict how biodiversity will change under different scenarios of prescribed burning and wildfire, while taking into account uncertainty relating to climate and other factors. This will involve linking ecological models, biodiversity indices, fire simulations and decision tools for better fire management.

The approach we develop, and the predictive models and decision tools, will enable land managers to link spatial fire data with distributional knowledge of plant and animal species to answer questions such as “what will the immediate effects on biodiversity be if a 100,000 ha bushfire occurs in a National Park?” and “how much and where should planned burning be done to maximise biodiversity in flammable landscapes?”.

Some of our recent work on linking species distribution models, biodiversity indices and decision-making tools provides the basis for this approach (McCarthy et al. 2014; Giljohann et al. 2015; Kelly et al. 2015). In collaboration with DELWP, we will extend this approach so that it can be applied to complex, real-world landscapes.


A post-fire landscape in mallee woodlands and shrublands, northern Victoria.

How can you get involved?

In 2017, we’ll be on the lookout for volunteers to help us with new field studies of birds, mammals and plants in these fire-prone ecosystems.

In 2017 and 2018, we’ll be running workshops with land managers to develop and model scenarios of how planned and unplanned fires influence plants and animals.

For more information contact me at

 Some of our recent papers on fire and biodiversity indices

Giljohann, KM., et al. (2015) Choice of biodiversity index drives optimal fire management decisions Ecological Applications. 25: 264-277.

Kelly, LT., et al. (2015) Optimal fire histories for biodiversity conservation Conservation Biology. 29: 473-481.

McCarthy, MA et al. (2014) Linking indices for biodiversity monitoring to extinction risk theory Conservation Biology 28: 1575-1583.

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