Project 7.1 'Fire and rainforests'

Project 7.1 'Fire and rainforests'

Rainforests are generally thought of as being highly susceptible to damage by fire, and for many Southeast Asian and Amazonian rainforests this is indeed the case. However, Australian rainforests have persisted for millennia in an environment where fire is common, and repeated contractions into refugia and subsequent expansions during glacial cycles (Hilbert et al. 2007) means that extant rainforest taxa have survived frequent exposure to fire. Indeed, 91% of 281 species for which records exist (Metcalfe, unpublished data) survive fire by resprouting, root-suckering or coppicing, and it may be inferred that fire-susceptible species have either already gone extinct after thousands of cyclones, dry seasons and lightning strikes, or are limited to the few parts of the landscape which are predictably wet within and between years.

Six to eight thousand years of Aboriginal habitation in rainforests, and many tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal utilisation of rainforests and associated fire pressures, are also likely to have had significant impacts on rainforest species and their distribution, but beyond work by Hill (2003) we have limited understanding of aboriginal fire regimes and their impacts.

Consequently, fire management protocols in the Wet Tropics rainforests are based on inference and personal experience but limited experimental data; as some fire-affected habitats become increasingly threatened by other processes this lack of hard data becomes critical. Thus, this project seeks to address some key questions in relation to fire and habitat management in a Wet Tropics context, namely the importance of fire in controlling vegetation succession following cyclone impacts, the role that fire has in controlling the margins of rainforest/open woodland, and identification of the criteria that should be used to highlight areas where fire management is of greatest importance both for vegetation and associated faunal communities. In collaboration with other NERP funded projects, and with regionally relevant research conducted by other individuals and agencies, we seek to provide appropriate spatially and temporally relevant data to underpin future management and policy decisions.

Project objectives at a glance

This project aims to answer the following questions:

  • Are rainforest boundaries expanding into surrounding forests and woodlands in the Wet Tropics?  If so, does this constitute a departure from historical variability and is it a threat to biodiversity?  This question is of particular relevance at a time when the entire species range of the endangered mahogany glider has been severely impacted by Tropical Cyclone Yasi, and rainforest invasion of its woodland habitat is considered one of the key threats to its long-term population viability.
  • What are the dynamics at rainforest/open forest edges and how might these be affected by prescribed fire management?  Focal habitats:  EPBC-listed littoral rainforest communities and Mabi rainforest.
  • What are the criteria that need to be developed to identify key areas for fire management and other areas where expansion of rainforest is a desirable, or not-as-natural phenomenon?  What are the drivers of these dynamics?  Should management focus on containing rainforest boundaries and preserving, for example, wet schlerophyll forests using high intensity fires?

Specific objectives and intended outputs of this Project are detailed in the NERP TE Hub Multi-Year Research Plan.

Project Factsheet

Technical Reports

Mapping Littoral Rainforest & Coastal Vine Thickets of Eastern Australia in the Wet Tropics: Mission Beach Pilot Study


Link to the Project 7.1 homepage on e-Atlas


Project Duration: 
1 Jul 2011 to 31 Dec 2014


Project People