Opportunites for Improved Fire Use and Management in California: Lessons from Western Australia

Way back in the spring of 2012 the CFSC hosted Rick Sneeuwjagt, the recently retired State manager of Fire Management Services of the Western Australia Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), on a "fire science and management tour" of California. We went to a fire and smoke workshop in the southern Sierras and a meeting of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, visited field sites, and met with a variety of other managers, administrators, and researchers along the way. 

Rick inspired jealousy among many Californian managers, researchers, and regulators, because the DEC is the land management, research, and regulatory agency that manages and studies fires and smoke throughout the the state of Western Australia. It's the only public land management agency in the state. Compare that to California's multiple state and federal land management agencies and regulatory agencies, which can make a managing fires and smoke (which don't recognize bureaucratic boundaries, as we know) difficult.

A prescribed fire burns in a eucalyptus-riparian area in Western Australia. Image credit: Western Australia DEC / Rick Sneeuwjagt

On top of the bureaucratic advantages of the DEC, that agency has run an impressively large-scale prescribed fire program for 50 years. The program burns an average of 2.5 million hectares each year, which comes out to 6% to 8% of the DEC's forested landscape. Much of this burning is planned to mitigate the risk of wildfires - large burn units averaging over 2000 hectares / 4800 acres (much larger than prescribed burns here in CA) are pre-planned multiple years in advance to maximize fire protection and ecological benefits. 

This DEC map of biomass change post-fire shows the high degree of variability within the prescribed burn unit. The width of the fire shown is roughly 7 kilometers. Image credit: Western Australia DEC

That's a lot of burning by any standards, but just as impressive is the amount of collaboration with researchers. The DEC managers and scientists work closely to study and improve the outcomes of their burns. One example: by burning in such large units, they've found that they not only reduce costs per acre but also create a highly beneficial mosaic of fire severities, fuel ages, and habitat types. The findings of DEC fire research are translated into public announcements to improve the understanding of fire use as well as to help convince politicians of the need for prescribed fires to prevent wildfires in Western Australia's seasonally dry, mediterranean climate.

We learned a lot from Rick's visit, and wrote up a report that's featured in the Forum section of August 2013 issue of Fire Ecology. We tried to focus on making constructive suggestions for fire management and policy in California, based on the successes and challenges seen by the DEC in Western Australia. We looked at six different areas: 1) novel man- agement practices, 2) inter-agency collaboration, 3) regulatory collaboration and policy, 4) research integration, 5) cultural acceptance, and 6) political support of prescribed fire.

Read the comparison here, and let us know if you have any responses through email or Twitter @CaFireScience


Western Australian fire manager Rick Sneeuwjagt meets with USFS Region 5 Regional Forester Randy Moore.