The efficacy of fuel treatment in mitigating property loss during wildfires: insights from analysis of the severity of the catastrophic fires in 2009 in Victoria, Australia
Treatment of fuel (e.g. prescribed fire, logging) in fire-prone ecosystems is done to reduce risks to people and their property but effects require quantification, particularly under severe weather conditions when the destructive potential of fires on human infrastructure is maximised. We analysed the relative effects of fuel age (i.e. indicative of the effectiveness of prescribed fire) and logging on remotely sensed (SPOT imagery) severity of fires which occurred in eucalypt forests in Victoria, Australia in 2009. These fires burned under the most severe weather conditions recorded in Australia and caused large losses of life and property. Statistical models of the probability of contrasting extremes of severity (crown fire versus fire confined to the understorey) were developed based on effects of fuel age, logging, weather, topography and forest type. Weather was the primary influence on severity, though it was reduced at low fuel ages in Moderate but not Catastrophic, Very High or Low fire-weather conditions. Probability of crown fires was higher in recently logged areas than in areas logged decades before, indicating likely ineffectiveness as a fuel treatment. The results suggest that recently burnt areas (up to 5-10 years) may reduce the intensity of the fire but not sufficiently to increase the chance of effective suppression under severe weather conditions. Since house loss was most likely under these conditions (67%), effects of prescribed burning across landscapes on house loss are likely to be small when weather conditions are severe. Fuel treatments need to be located close to houses in order to effectively mitigate risk of loss.