The data and information presented here does not include the 2019-20 fire season which burnt an estimated 80,000 hectares (80%) of the Namadgi National Park. The environmental impact of the fire is significant and will affect biodiversity and ecosystem health for decades to come. This website will be updated with data on the 2019-20 fire season, the impacts of the fires, and ecosystem recovery as information is made available.
The ACT has a high risk of bushfires with large areas of forest in the Namadgi National Park, Tidbinbilla Reserve and the Lower Cotter Catchment. This risk extends to the Canberra urban area which is characterised by a mosaic of suburbs and bordering bushland, grassland and forests of the Canberra Nature Park.
Fires are a natural occurrence in the Australian landscape, necessary to maintain the health of many native species and ecosystems. The ACT landscape has evolved with fire and Aboriginal people developed a sophisticated understanding and use of fire to manage land and resources and reduce bushfire risk.Emergency Services Agency, 2019, Strategic Bushfire Management Plan 2019–2024, ACT Government, Canberra. More information on the importance of fire to Aboriginal culture in the ACT, including cultural burning for land, biodiversity and heritage management, can be found in the Ngunnawal Country section.
Bushfires can have devastating impacts on biodiversity, as well as human settlements and the natural resources communities depend on. Such impacts are mainly the result of changes in fire occurrence and severity. Increased human sources of ignition, the suppression of natural fire to protect human life and assets, and prescribed burning practices for the management of fuel loads can change the natural fire regimes required for biodiversity and ecosystem health. In addition, increased periods of drought and higher temperatures have increased the risk of more frequent and severe fires.
Changes to natural fire regimes and the increasing risk of fire occurrence have many potential social, environmental and economic impacts, such as:
- increased occurrence of severe bushfires pose significant risks to human health through death and injury, and smoke pollution.
- increased property and infrastructure loss, both in rural locations and Canberra’s suburbs in bushfire-prone areas.
- changes to ecologically appropriate natural fire regimes can have significant impacts on the composition of vegetation communities and the ecosystems they support.
- post-fire rainfall and runoff can degrade water quality affecting aquatic health and biodiversity.
- degraded water quality in catchments and water storages, leading to increased treatment costs for water supply.
- reduction in streamflow and inflows to water storages due to the increased uptake of water for plant regeneration.
- loss of important heritage, particularly Aboriginal heritage sites, historic sites in rural areas, and damage to landscapes.
- loss of agricultural buildings and infrastructure, crops and animals, and plantation forests, and
- smoke from both bushfires and controlled burns increase air pollution, especially particulate matter and summer smog, which is particularly significant for those with asthma and chronic lung disease.
Increasing bushfire risk in the ACT
Climate change is increasing the risk from bushfires in the ACT. Higher average temperatures, reductions in rainfall, and increased occurrence of severe events such as heatwaves and storms (see Climate change section) have led to more days of elevated fire danger conditions and longer and more severe bushfire seasons in the ACT.
Typically, the ACT bushfire season occurs from the beginning of October until the end of March the following year. However, climate conditions in the ACT are leading to extensions of the fire season. For example, in 2018–19 the bushfire season commenced in September and was extended to the end of April in response to climate conditions, the longest fire season since 2003.
The growth in the ACT’s population and extension of urban areas also increases the risk of fire impacting on people and property. Having more people living close to grassland, nature parks or other areas of vegetation means more houses and people within bushfire-prone areas.Emergency Services Agency, 2019, Strategic Bushfire Management Plan 2019–2024, ACT Government, Canberra.
Prescribed burns are mainly used to reduce fuel loads (surface litter, bark and understorey shrubs). The objective is to reduce the risk of bushfires and potential impacts on people, property, infrastructure, ecosystems and environmental assets such as water catchments. Reduced fuel loads may also improve the effectiveness of fire-suppression activities during bushfire events. Fire-sensitive ecosystems and those still recovering from bushfires are generally excluded from fuel reduction burning.
Ecological burns are undertaken to improve the condition of ecosystems and biodiversity. Ecological burns vary in size, frequency and patchiness to meet biodiversity and ecological outcomes. This is important where species and ecosystems depend on fire for regeneration and regrowth. Some fuel reduction burns can also have ecological outcomes, for example where vegetation communities are not exposed to fire for extended periods and are outside of their ecologically appropriate natural fire regimes.
Cultural burns are also undertaken in the ACT. The need for cultural burns is determined by Traditional Custodians and Murumbung Rangers to meet cultural objectives for specific locations. The burns are conducted in consultation with Traditional Custodians.
It is important that fuel reduction burns consider ecosystem and biodiversity requirements to ensure ecologically appropriate burning is undertaken. However, this can be difficult where property and asset protection is the main purpose of fuel reduction.
The delivery of the prescribed burn program in the ACT is always limited by seasonal and climatic conditions. Increased temperatures and reduced rainfall in the ACT are making it more difficult to undertake burning activities, particularly in late autumn and spring. The current climate has not only reduced the period suitable for prescribed burns, but has also increased the likelihood of unpredictable weather occurring that may impact prescribed burns already underway.
In addition to prescribed burning, the ACT Government undertakes a range of fuel reduction activities including slashing and mowing, grazing and the physical removal of fuels.
That the ACT Government:
increase ecological burning to improve the health and biodiversity of native vegetation communities, particularly for grasslands which require more frequent fire.
increase cultural burning opportunities in partnership with Traditional Custodians and Murumbung Rangers.
ensure ecosystem and biodiversity outcomes are considered before conducting fuel reduction burns so that ecologically appropriate burning is undertaken.
in response to increasing fire danger in the ACT, ensure adequate resources are available to reduce the risk of fire impacting on bushfire-prone areas, environmental assets and sensitive ecosystems, and to improve suppression opportunities and effectiveness should a fire occur.
Since 2003, there have been no large bushfires in the ACT. The area of prescribed burns far exceeds that of bushfires, accounting for 94% of the total hectares burnt between 2004 to April 2019, and 96% between 2015 to 2019. Prescribed burns are dominated by fuel reduction activities, with ecological and cultural burns responsible for only 2% of all burning activity between 2015 and April 2019. However, there is a growing recognition of the importance of fire for vegetation, biodiversity and cultural management in the ACT. Arson remains an issue for fire occurrence in the ACT, responsible for 45% of ignitions between 2004 and April 2019, compared to 16% for lightning and 10% for accidents.
Between 2014–15 and 2018–19, climate conditions led to an increase in the average and maximum Fire Danger Index (FDI). There was also an increase in the number of days with a very high Fire Danger Rating (FDR) from 11 days in 2014– 15 to 44 in 2018–2019. The 2018–19 fire season had the highest fire danger, with the greatest number of very high and high FDR days, and the highest maximum FDI. Climate change is expected to increase both average and severe FDI in the future.
Indicator assessment legend
Environmental condition is healthy across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have negligible impact on environmental condition/human health.
Environmental condition is neither positive or negative and may be variable across the ACT, OR pressure likely to have limited impact on environmental condition/human health.
Environmental condition is under significant stress, OR pressure likely to have significant impact on environmental condition/ human health.
Data is insufficient to make an assessment of status and trends.
Adequate high-quality evidence and high level of consensus
Limited evidence or limited consensus
Evidence and consensus too low to make an assessment
Assessments of status, trends and data quality are not appropriate for the indicator
Area burnt long-term findings
Since the 2003 bushfires, which burnt an area of 164,000 hectares, there have been no large bushfires in the ACT.
Area burnt over the reported period (2015 to 2019)
Over 13,000 hectares were burnt with prescribed burns responsible for 96% (12,540 hectares) of the total area burnt.
Fire ignition causes
Most fires in the ACT are deliberately lit. Between 2004 and April 2019, arson accounted for 45% of all non-prescribed burn ignitions in the ACT, compared to 16% for lightning and 10% associated with accidents.
Since 2009, fuel reduction burns accounted for 99% (around 31,500 hectares) of all prescribed burns in the ACT.
The period 2015 to April 2019 saw a large increase in ecological burning with 270 hectares treated. In addition, 10 hectares were burnt for both cultural and ecological reasons (multiple purpose) and one hectare for cultural purposes only. However, ecological and cultural burns only accounted for 2% of all prescribed burns over the period.
Fire risk 2014–15 to 2018–19
The reporting period saw an increase in the average and maximum Fire Danger Index (FDI), showing a growing trend in potentially more severe fires if they were
to occur. Increased FDI also indicates an increasing potential difficulty in fire suppression in the ACT.
Climate change is expected to increase both average and severe FDI in the future.