Understanding the effects of the 2019–20 fires

Our scientists are working to provide the best available information and data to understand how the 2019–20 fires are affecting the New South Wales environment and communities.

The 2019–20 bushfires in New South Wales (NSW) have been unprecedented in their extent and intensity. As of 3 February 2020, the fire ground in NSW covers 5.4 million hectares (7% of the state), including 2.7 million hectares in national parks (37% of the NSW park system).

In  May 2020, the NSW Fire and the Environment 2019–20 Summary was published, which details our first assessment of the effects of the fires on NSW biodiversity and landscape values. This report also includes a post-fire analysis of indicators from the Biodiversity Indicator Program, and is a companion document to the first NSW Biodiversity Outlook Report

We will not understand the full impact of the 2019–20 fires until we are able to gather and analyse all the fire-event data, which will not be for some time. We need to wait until it is safe to access burnt areas, as well as waiting to see how the landscape responds to the fires (for example, if regrowth appears) and other time dependent factors.

The period immediately after a fire is critical for the survival of injured animals and for threatened species. 

Our priority is to support those people and organisations involved in the recovery of our injured wildlife and burnt areas.

Our scientists are collecting data on fire extent and severity to build up-to-date maps, ensuring that the best available information is provided to decision makers as quickly as possible.

This information is shared across emergency response agencies like NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and with environmental organisations to support conservation decisions and on-ground actions.

What do we know so far?

As more data comes through about the fire events, the maps are being updated. Check this page regularly for the most current information.

In NSW, the fires have been concentrated along the Great Dividing Range and adjacent tablelands and on coastal environments. 

Post-fire analyses of mapped fire extent and environmental and landscape values were published in the NSW Fire and the Environment 2019–20 Summary. The Summary uses data from 3 February 2020 about the extent of the fire ground (as mapped by the Rural Fire Service) and relative fire severity, to provide a first assessment of how the fires have affected biodiversity and landscape metrics.

Key findings of this first assessment have been used to update this webpage.

Infographic showing the key facts for the effect of the 2019-20 bushfires

A Fire and the Environment 2019–20 Technical Report will be published shortly and will include details of the metrics and data used to compile the information in this Summary. A comprehensive data compendium will be included and made accessible via the Sharing and Enabling Environmental Data (SEED) Portal.

When reporting on the effects of fire in NSW national parks, calculations include gazetted national parks, nature reserves, state conservation areas, Aboriginal areas, historic sites, regional parks and karst reserves (a total of 878 parks). 

Based on the data we currently have which considers the relative severity and extent of fires within the fire ground identified by the RFS:

  • 5.4 million hectares (7%) of NSW has been affected by the fires. The severity of fire within this total area varies.
  • 37% of the national park estate has been affected.
  • More than 81% of the World Heritage listed Greater Blue Mountains Area and 54% of the NSW components of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage property have been affected by fire.
  • The most affected ecosystems are rainforests (37% of their statewide extent), wet sclerophyll forests (50%) and heathlands (52%).

Locations of more than 293 threatened animals have been affected by the fires as of 3 February 2020. Of these animals:

  • 99 animal species have more than 10% of their recorded locations within the fire ground
  • 5 animals have more than 80% of their records within the fire extent.

Many individual national parks have been seriously affected. As of 3 February 2020:

  • 57 parks or reserves have had more than 99% of their area affected by fire (near complete)
  • 73 parks or reserves have 75–99% of their area affected (majority)
  • 31 parks or reserves have 50–74% of their area affected (extensive)
  • of the remaining parks affected by fire, 84 have less than 50% of their area affected (partial).

The NSW Fire and the Environment 2019–20 Summary was released in May 2020.

The Summary captures the effects of the 2019–20 fires on a number of key biodiversity values and reports on changes in indicators from the Biodiversity Indicator Program. It is a companion document for the Biodiversity Outlook Report, also released in May 2020

A technical report will be published shortly detailing the metrics and data used to compile the information in the Summary.

We are starting to understand the impact on threatened animals by identifying their location records within the 2019–20 fire ground.

The intensity of the fires has varied widely. In this initial assessment, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment developed a new methodology using Google Earth imagery (described further below in the section on Fire mapping and modelling) which enables us to rapidly estimate:

  • where little change has been observed between pre and post fire imagery
  • where there is a green canopy within the fire ground
  • where there is a mix of burnt and unburnt canopy vegetation
  • where the canopy and understorey are most likely burnt. 

Canopy in the Burnt Area Map is the tallest vegetation at any location. For example, for forests and woodlands, this will be trees. In heathland, it will be heath and shrubs. In grassland, it will be grass. 

The Department is currently refining this data for each fire ground. Our scientists compare and combine data gained from aerial imagery with ground-based, post-fire surveys to provide a more detailed understanding of the change. To do this, it needs to be safe to enter a fire ground and we need to ensure that by entering the fire ground the environment is not inadvertently damaged. 

The location records of species used in this analysis are stored in BioNet. When we refer to ‘threatened species’ we mean species that are listed on either the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 or the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Animals

As of 3 February 2020, the fire ground has covered locations that have historic observation records of at least 293 threatened animals. 

There is no firm estimate of the number of animals killed in the 2019–20 fires yet.

As of 3 February 2020, analysis of the threatened animals with historic recorded locations that are within a mapped fire ground show:

  • 99 species have more than 10% of their historically observed locations within the fire extent
  • 5 species have more than 80% of their historically observed locations within the fire extent.

All 413 records (100% as of 3 February 2020) of the yellow-bellied glider endangered population on Bago Plateau are within the fire ground and more than 55% of records are in areas where the canopy has been partially or fully affected.

The records of 1,074 animals were used for this analysis.

As of 3 February 2020, more than 25% of the most suitable koala habitat in eastern NSW was within fire-affected areas. Nearly 2 million hectares of the best koala habitat (i.e. high or very high suitability koala habitat) were affected by fire in eastern NSW. This represents 22% of the best koala habitat in eastern NSW.

Plants

There are 680 threatened plant species with records in the fire ground. 

As of 3 February, an analysis of the records for threatened plant species within the RFS Fire Ground Map shows:

  • 61 species have more than 80% of their records within the fire ground, including 19 with more than 30% of records in areas where the canopy has been fully affected
  • 37 species have 50–80% of records within the fire ground. 

The table below (current as of 3 February 2020) provides an indication of the effects of the fires on major vegetation types.

Vegetation formation Within the fireground (ha) Total in NSW (ha) %

Heathlands

97,642

180,956

53.96

Wet Sclerophyll Forests (Grassy sub-formation)

1,007,191

2,200,968

45.76

Wet Sclerophyll Forests (Shrubby sub-formation)

537,881

1,318,222

40.80

Rainforests

290,880

819,582

35.49

Dry Sclerophyll Forests (Shrub/grass sub-formation)

807,843

2,858,222

28.26

Dry Sclerophyll Forests (Shrubby sub-formation)

1,369,657

5,167,020

26.51

Alpine Complex

16,312

130,780

12.47

On 15 January 2020, the Wollemi pine population was reported safe from the fires in Wollemi National Park.

The populations of the rare nightcap oak and other endangered species were also reported saved on the 5 February 2020.

What are we doing to help?

We are supporting on ground actions to help make them as effective and impactful as possible, providing information on which areas need rapid support and advice what actions will be the most beneficial.

You can read more about on-ground actions, such as the supplementary food drops to support brush-tailed rock-wallabies on our website. 

Understanding effects on animals and plants, soil and water 

As of 3 February 2020, there is no firm estimate of the number of animals killed in the 2019–20 fires. We do know that the fires have had a devastating effect on native animals and have affected the habitat of at least 293 threatened animals and 680 threatened plants (as of 3 February 2020).

Our initial analysis of threatened species in fire-affected areas is based on records of previous sightings. We are carrying out further assessments and surveys to confirm the extent and severity as it becomes safe to do so. This includes assessing other impacts such as fire frequency, pests, weeds, pathogens and ongoing drought. These surveys will provide more details and data about the impact of a fire on animals and plants.

Pockets of unburnt or slightly burnt canopy provide safety for several species during fire events. The long-term survival of animals after a fire, however, is more complex. It depends on factors such as access to food, water and habitat recovery, which are all dependent on fire severity and future weather conditions. Plant recovery depends on drought, fire frequency and severity, and impacts from feral grazers, weeds and pathogens (disease) on plant regrowth. We are currently planning for the longer-term restoration and recovery of native animals, plants and landscapes across NSW. More information about how we will do this will be made available once it is confirmed.

More information about the impact of fire on animals and plants can be found in our Impact of the 2019-2020 fires on plants and animals fact sheet.

Fire changes the physical and chemical composition of soil and how it functions. After a fire, there is a higher risk of large-scale erosion events because of reduced ground cover, increased runoff and flood events. Erosion events are a widespread natural hazard, but the frequency and severity of erosion after a fire can cause excessive effects on the quality of land and water.

Building on research and outputs from the Warrumbungle soil and water recovery project, we’ve developed a hillslope sheet erosion modelling tool to help understand the potential for erosion events and what the impact of these events will be after a fire has been in the area. 

More information about hillslope sheet erosion modelling can be found in our Soil hillslope erosion modelling factsheet and data is accessible through the Sharing and Enabling Environmental Data (SEED) portal.

We also refer to our Soil and Land Information System (SALIS) which contains descriptions of soils, landscapes and other geographic features. This gives information about what soils were like before fire, so we can understand how they have changed after fire. This information helps inform conservation and remediation decision making. Data from SALIS is accessible online through eSPADE, which provides soil information for all of NSW. 

eSPADE is accessible online through the Sharing and Enabling Environmental Data (SEED) portal.

NSW streams and coastal waterways have evolved in a landscape characterised by a regime of relatively low-intensity, mosaic fires which may periodically modify the delivery of sediments, carbon types and nutrients during runoff events.

The scale and intensity of the 2019–20 fires are unprecedented, giving rise to concerns about potential changes to hydrology and pollutant generation from fire grounds and the downstream effects on receiving waters that are outside the expected natural variation. Loss of vegetation near waterways, soil erosion, falling ash and changes to the water flows can all have an impact.

One of the biggest concerns for water quality after a fire is heavy rain. After a fire, it is likely that there will be increased water runoff which can lead to erosion and flooding. The runoff carries soil, leaves, ash and other burnt organic debris with it into waterways, and this has an immediate effect on water quality.

It may be many months or even up to a year before we can fully understand the impacts on water quality. Burnt leaves and branches that wash into waterways break down over time, using up oxygen from the water column which supports fish, oysters and other aquatic species.

To help measure these changes, we've added more monitoring indicators to the statewide water quality monitoring program to further understand the effects on water quality and ecological health. Where it is safe to do so, our scientists are surveying areas to collect samples and assess the impact.

As of 6 February 2020, we are monitoring 7 catchments that are at very high risk for water quality impacts. These catchments are:

  • Wonboyn River
  • Khappinghat Creek
  • Tuross River 
  • Conjola Lake 
  • Durras Lake 
  • Termeil Lake 
  • Meroo Lake.

Following the heavy rainfall event that happened New South Wales between 8 and 12 February 2020, our scientists together with NSW EPA, Department of Planning, Industry and Environment's South East Regional Water Floodplains and Coastal Team, NSW Department of Primary Industries Marine Parks officers and local government conducted monitoring to assess water quality effects across 18 waterways along the NSW south coast. These waterways were selected as bushfire affected catchments that have been affected by recent flooding.

Water quality was monitored in the field for salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. Water samples were also collected for further analysis at our environmental forensics laboratory. These samples are being tested for nutrients, total suspended solids, trace metals and organic pollutants. The data from this monitoring is available on SEED.

An interim dataset of water quality following the heavy rainfall in these 18 south coast waterways is available on SEED. As more data becomes available, and following a comprehensive laboratory analysis, this dataset will be updated.

This monitoring is helping provide vital information to determine how the combination of a bushfire-affected landscape and heavy rainfall, effects the community and environmental values of estuaries. These values include recreational use, visual amenity, health of aquatic ecosystems, fishing activities and aquaculture.

We are working with local councils and other water management authorities to assist the recovery of these catchments, and providing advice, expertise and information on management strategies. Our existing statewide water quality monitoring program as part of the NSW Marine Estate Management Strategy will continue to assist in tracking the condition of waterways and the effects of bushfire and other pressures on water quality across New South Wales.

More information about what our scientists are doing to address water quality concerns can be found in our Water Quality science in response to the NSW Bushfire Emergency fact sheet.  

Fire mapping and modelling

The Burnt Area Map (based on Google Earth satellite imagery) predicts how severely the canopy has burnt by measuring the change in the colour of vegetation after a fire. It is an important tool to support on-ground conservation decision making and actions.

The Burnt Area Map is accessible through the Sharing and Enabling Environmental Data (SEED) portal . You can view it on computers and mobile devices using the SEED map viewer.

Download a data package for offline use.

The Burnt Area Map covers the RFS fire ground (as of 3 February 2020), but as the fires are still active, the effect of the fires in the south of the State are not yet fully reflected. As we gather information, we will update the Burnt Area Map regularly and provide more details about the effect of fires across all of NSW.

Scientists from our Remote Sensing and Landscape Science Branch worked with the University of New South Wales to develop the Burnt Area Map. More information can be found in our Burnt Area Map fact sheet.

Information about the severity of a fire on a landscape is critical to understanding the relationship between fuels, fire behaviour and landscapes. Our scientists have been working with the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) since 2018 to develop fire extent and severity maps, and the data and maps for the recent 2019-20 fires have just been released on the Sharing and Enabling Environmental Data (SEED)

The fire extent and severity maps give an understanding of how a fire has changed the landscape at a detailed level. It provides information about the damage fires have caused to tree canopy and understory, and how far each fire spreads.

Fire extent and severity map is a mapping system that uses satellite imagery and machine learning to deliver timely maps. This then enables areas to be classified into standard ‘fire severity’ classes to help researchers understand how the fires have affected the landscape and inform on-ground conservation actions.

It is a semi-standardised, automated remote sensing approach that can support fire management planning. Scientists from our Remote Sensing and Landscape Science Branch worked with the NSW Rural Fire Service and other organisations in the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub to develop the maps.

The burnt area maps can be produced faster than fire extent and severity maps, though fire extent and severity maps provides greater accuracy by using a combination of field data and satellite imagery.

More information can be found in our Supporting fire management with the Fire Extent and Severity Maps fact sheet, and you can download a data package for offline use.

 

Air quality

The loss of ground cover and vegetation combined with the effects of drought increases the likelihood of dust storms. These affect the health of NSW communities and pose significant challenges for natural resource management.

We work with volunteers across NSW and other states to run the Rural Air Quality Monitoring Network (RAQMN). There are 35 volunteer-operated sites within NSW, supported by 6 sites outside of NSW to give early warning for when dust events are moving into the State. The data from these sites contribute to the DustWatch program.

Find out more on our Community DustWatch webpage.

More information about how we monitor for dust can be found in our Monitoring for dust events fact sheet

Air pollution has a significant impact on human health and the economy. We operate the most comprehensive air quality monitoring network in Australia, providing information on air quality in near real-time across the State. The network is continually reviewed and assessed.

Air quality in NSW is usually very good by international standards. We have created the Air Quality Index (AQI) rating scale to help us understand how clean or polluted the air is across NSW, and how current air quality might affect your health. This enables you to protect your health during poor air quality events. The AQI is updated hourly, and you can view this on the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s Air Quality Index (AQI) data - updated hourly webpage.

To find more information about the AQI, visit the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment’s Understanding air quality data webpage

The frequency and severity of poor air quality events increases during fires because of smoke, ash and other airborne particles.

Since the fires started in late 2019, 9 bushfire emergency monitoring stations have been set up to ensure that we can give accurate and timely advice during poor air quality events. 

More information about this monitoring can be found in our Emergency incident air quality monitoring fact sheet