We joined up with California to talk about ‘On Fire – fire prevention, response and recovery.’

On fire

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) has been a core partner with Science for Wildlife (S4W) in their Blue Mountains Koala Project since it began in 2014. Through this ongoing partnership, Kellie has been invited to be a guest speaker on many occasions to discuss the work Science for Wildlife does for wildlife conservation and especially with a recent focus on the extraordinary work S4W undertook during and after the 2019/20 bushfires.

Which is why, on 24 June 2021, Kellie was invited to join ‘On Fire’ a panel, hosted by TreePeople (California), to discuss the extreme fire seasons that NSW and California recently faced. The panel included Shane Fitzsimmons (Commissioner, Resilience NSW, Australia), Robert Baird (Regional Director of Fire Aviation Management, Pacific Southwest Region, US Forest Service) and, Kim Zargaris (Californian State Fire and Rescue Chief (1987-2019); Wildlife Policy and Technical Advisor, Western Fire Chiefs Association). The panel discussion was moderated by Cindy Montañez, CEO TreePeople with a special introduction from Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis (RET.), Lieutenant of California. 

Here is what Kellie had to say about being invited to join TreePeople: 

“I felt honoured to be the expert asked to speak on behalf of wildlife and wild spaces on an international panel featuring the amazing people who have been on the front lines fighting fires in both Australia and California, including Shane Fitzsimmons AFSM (who we in Australia know so well, as he brought us through the firestorm last year).”

The panel session has now been released online, in case you missed it.

You can watch here.

Below, in a blog written for San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, Kellie shared more about our Blue Mountains Koala Project, the Black Summer bushfires as well as some of the key points that were discussed during the ‘On Fire’ panel and what can be done to help in future bushfires.

From left to right: Bob Baird, Kim Zagaris, Kellie Leigh, Jane Duke, Cindy Montañez and Shane Fitzsimmons.
United over a shared challenge
We have been uncovering populations of koalas across the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area in NSW Australia, which have turned out to be of national significance for the conservation of the species. The area includes koalas with the highest levels of genetic diversity in the country, and koalas living above the modelled climate envelope for koalas at 1000m altitude and some that are also chlamydia free.

This vast wilderness landscape was catastrophically impacted by the 2019/2020 bushfires in Australia, also known as the Black Summer bushfires, even though they started in winter in some areas. The scale and intensity of the fires was unprecedented and through our actions on the fire-grounds and months after, with the support of SDZWA, we learnt just how unprepared everyone was for a wildlife disaster of this scale.
NSW and California are facing very similar threats regarding wildlife. Prior to the live panel, discussions between SDZWA and S4W revealed a lot of common ground, with increasing concerns over managing and conserving wildlife in the face of climate change where fire is a compounding threat on top of the other issues that declining and threatened species face.
The other panellists focussed on sharing the methods they use to prepare and protect human life and property, I focussed on what was needed to conserve wildlife.
The importance of communities was a key point. In Australia the willingness to help wildlife was a silver lining in the firestorms, with many individuals and groups desperate to help as they watched the protected areas that they love, burn. A key lesson was that the increased willingness and people power needs to be better harnessed to be effective. For example, social media proved to be both a boon and a hazard, activating large groups of people but also spreading misinformation that put wildlife and people at risk, including putting out inappropriate food and water resources post-fire in high-risk areas. During the panel discussion we all agreed that information sharing was vital to coordinate and inform people.
The major challenge during and after the fires, which was common across firegrounds in NSW, was the lack of resources for wildlife. Over 100 fires were burning across the state and so all resources had to go to saving human life and property. That meant that during the fires there was no coordination or access to help wildlife, and in NSW no protocols were in place for land managers to follow to facilitate help. Immediately after the fires the situation in NSW was the same, with all the “make safe” teams working around homes, communities, and businesses and so there was no safe access to help starving and dehydrated wildlife that had survived the fire. S4W hired their own hazardous tree assessment team to get early access to deploy food and water resources with support from SDZWA.
All these lessons have been invaluable and during the 12 months since the fires new recommendations have been developed in NSW.  On the wildlife front that includes filling critical information needs around the impact of changing fire regimes on wildlife and protected areas. A major research focus of SDZWA/S4W’s work, and with support under the NSW Koala Strategy, is identifying surviving koalas and understanding what has determined their presence in the landscape, to characterise fire refugia. With fires of increasing scale and extent a major concern is a potential lack of refuge areas that species can recolonise from, and in that regard, management needs to become more active and look at protecting ecological refugia to ensure population recovery is possible. The information from this work will inform ongoing management of koalas and other species inside protected areas under climate change and provide a model that is applicable to protected area networks in California and beyond.
Traditionally, priorities during the fires have been human life, property and then wildlife and this was reiterated during the panel discussion. While nobody would argue that human life and property are not the top priority, in broader terms beyond the bushfires it is that system of listing the environment as a lower priority that has resulted in climate change in the first place, and the bushfires we are all facing. We need to learn from that lesson and change our business as usual. The question is one of committing sufficient resources so that it doesn’t have to be a choice between people and wildlife. Both are linked and, as a species, we need biodiversity and ecosystem processes to survive and thrive. A positive outcome from the bushfires is that community awareness of that need, and our impact on the planet, has grown and through shared experience NSW and California can work together to create change.