Understanding the impact 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 impacting 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 28 January 2020, the fires in NSW had burnt 5.3 million hectares (6.7% of the State), including 2.7 million hectares in national parks (37% of the State’s national park estate).

Some fires remain active across NSW (as of 28 January 2020). We will not understand the full impact of the 2019-20 fires until we get all the fire-event data, which will not be for some time.

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

Our priority is to support those 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 in the Great Dividing Range and adjacent tablelands, and on coastal environments.

Area affected by fires in New South Wales

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

  • 5.3 million hectares (6.7%) of NSW has been affected by the wildfires. The severity of fire within this total area varies.
  • More than 37% of the national park estate has been impacted. In key bioregions, the figure is well over 40%.
  • More than 80% 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 (35% of their statewide extent), wet sclerophyll forests (41%) and heathlands (53%).
  • More than 60 threatened fauna species have been affected by the fires, including 32 species for which 30% or more of all recorded locations occur in the burn areas. 

Many individual national parks have been seriously impacted:

  • 55 parks or reserves have had more than 99% of their area affected by fire 
  • 70 parks or reserves have 75-99% of their area affected 
  • 29 parks or reserves have 50-74% of their area affected. 

Impact on New South Wales biodiversity

As of 10 January 2020, the bushfires had impacted on the habitat of at least 60 threatened species listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

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 below) which enables us to rapidly estimate:

  • where fire skipped over an area within the fire ground, leaving it little affected
  • where it burned the understorey and some of the canopy
  • where it burned the canopy only
  • where it appears to have burned all vegetation.

The Department is carefully preparing a more refined version of this data for each fire ground, which utilises reference data gained from aerial imagery and ground-based post-fire surveys to provide a more detailed understanding of this variation, once it is safe to do so and ensuring that the environment is not damaged inadvertently. The 'area affected by fire' includes this full range of fire intensity.

We are starting to understand the potential impact on threatened animals. We have compared the records of 300 threatened fauna with bushland affected by the ongoing 2019-20 fires.

As of 10 January 2020, fires impacted:

  • 6 threatened species at more than 70% of their historically observed locations. These include the long-footed potoroo, Philoria pughi (a frog), Hastings River mouse and brush-tailed rock-wallaby
  • 32 threatened species at more than 30% of their historically observed locations
  • 114 threatened species at more than 5% of their historically observed locations.

As of 6 January 2020, more than 24% of all koala habitat in eastern NSW was within fire-affected areas. The total area of high or very high suitability koala habitat affected by fire in eastern NSW was more than 19%.

An initial analysis has identified that more than 95% of recorded locations for threatened plants has been impacted. The table below (current as of 06 January 2020) provides an indication of the impact of the fires on major habitat types.

Vegetation formation Affected by fire (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 impacts of fires in Wollemi National Park.

The populations of the rare Nightcap Oak and other endangered species were also reported saved on the 05 February 2020.

What are we doing to help?

Understanding impacts on animals and plants, soil and water 

As of 06 February 2020, there is no firm estimate of the number of animals killed in the 2019–2020 fires. We do know that the fires have had a devastating impact on native animals and have impacted the habitat of at least 84 of our most vulnerable animals (as of 28 January 2020).

Our initial analysis of threatened species in fire-affected areas are 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.

The data included in the recently published Wildlife and Conservation Bushfire Recovery: Immediate Response document uses the best available data. 

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 dependant 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 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 impacts 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.

Water quality can change significantly after a fire. 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 run-off which can lead to erosion and flooding. The run-off carries soil and other debris with it into waterways, impacting water quality.

We’ve added additional monitoring indicators to our existing statewide water quality monitoring program to further understand the impacts to 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 06 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.

We are working closely with local councils and other water management authorities to assist the recovery of these catchments, and providing advice, expertise and information on management strategies.

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 Google Earth Engine Burnt Area Map (Burnt Area Map, also known as GEEBAM) predicts how severely the tree 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 all of New South Wales 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 impact of fires across all of New South Wales.

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 factsheet.

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 helps 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