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The impact of fire on carbon projects

Rain, drought, flood and fire. All elements that impact how a property is run and require constant attention and management. And while good rainfall seasons are always welcome, the corresponding build-up of vegetation flows through to the need to manage fire risk as weather conditions turn.

When it comes to carbon projects, fire can reverse abatement and sequestration, posing a primary risk to projects that requires careful consideration, monitoring and evaluation.

GreenCollar has an extensive fire monitoring program in place, which means we are well placed to work with our land manager partners in the event of a potential fire. So how big a risk is fire? And how can the risk be effectively managed? GreenCollar Monitoring Coordinator, Silas Darnell explains: 

Working together

“Fire is one of the most significant risks for any vegetation in Australia,” he said. “When dealing with carbon projects, regardless of approach and methodology, risk management is a shared responsibility between land managers and project managers.”

He said that generally, land managers undertake on-ground management, including preventative measures and firefighting as needed.

“Practical measures that manage fuel loads, such as managed grazing, clearing along fence lines and implementing fire breaks are all things that are part of good land management, so they naturally apply to properties where carbon projects are in place.

“Where we as the project manager get involved is in the monitoring and evaluation aspect. We look at what is happening on the ground and run modelling to determine the impact of a particular fire on the projected outcomes of an individual project.”

Mr Darnell explained GreenCollar has a remote daily hotspot approach in place to monitor fires across Australia.

“Using satellite data through the Digital Earth Australia system run by the Australian government, we can detect fairly well any fire in Australia, with updates every 24 hours.”

“We then download the data and compare it across the boundaries of our projects. Where hotspots are picked up on a project – and a fire might not be one hotspot, but thousands of hotspots – we can then start to assess the seriousness of the fire.”

He said the assessment takes into account some known shortcomings of the system.

“Sometimes there can be false positives with satellite detection, and certain things like huge smoke plumes or clouds might obscure fires, or it’s possible that fires may miss detection. Generally, however, it is fairly accurate and gives us a good starting point.”

Mr Darnell said that the ongoing relationships built between the GreenCollar Project Partnership team and land manager partners were even more important than the detection system.

“Strong working relationships are important because land managers ideally alert us if there is a fire, or notify us if they are going to do any burning. We can then compare our data to what they are seeing on the ground and ensure we have an accurate picture of the severity of the fire.”

In the event of a fire, the team at GreenCollar and the land manager will be in very close contact, but there are also fire prevention measures in place with the team working with land managers to stay informed on fire risk management and look at things like the fuel load and fire break maintenance on a quarterly basis.

Understanding fire risk

Mr Darnell said the Seasonal Fire Risk update published quarterly by the Australian Council for Emergency Services is also used as a resource to share with land managers.

“This report is based on climate data and is compartmentalised into states and areas within states. We look at the seasonal data and weather projections, then get in touch with land managers and talk to them about the likely fire risk in their area. In most cases, land managers already have an eye on the situation, but it is a good way to start the conversation and consider the impact on a particular project.”

While remote sensing data plays an important role in fire risk management, GreenCollar doesn’t just rely on remote monitoring, preferring to have teams in the field year-round collecting data and monitoring fuel loads to assess overall fire risk. This on-ground data feeds back into land and fire risk management decisions.

Mr Darnell said different projects have different rules around approaching fire and using fire as a management tool through prescribed burning (this covers controlled burns undertaken for hazard reduction or ecological reasons).  

“Using fire to reduce the fuel load is permissible within certain projects, but it is up to the land manager to determine if this is appropriate. Burning in this way does negatively impact the abatement and therefore the number of Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) issued to a project, but the land manager may assess a small cut in the number of ACCUs issued is preferable to having a more severe impact in a wildfire.”

“Within all the methodologies, there are ways to account for fire within a project. In methodologies like human-induced regeneration, the fire is added to the model to assess the impact.

“When there is a fire on a project, we will map it using satellite and aerial imagery and maps from the land manager to determine the boundaries and extent of the fire. We can then map the fire area and compare it to the carbon project areas on the property to determine how much of the project is impacted. From there, we determine the severity of the fire, calculate the estimated mortality of trees and update our model inputs from there.”

He said the initial development process for the project would have determined the vegetation types within the project areas – known collectively as the carbon estimation area.

“Once we have all the data on the fire, we go away and look at the literature on how fire impacts those specific vegetation types and then work out the severity of the fire and the predicted impact.”

“In our modelling, we can then work out the change in abatement. For an avoided deforestation project, it could be that a bad burn would take an area out if there was no longer forest. But if the assessment suggests the area still has forest cover after the fire, then it would be able to hold the abatement at the originally projected level.”

“Carbon projects have a minimum life span of 25 years, so the bottom line with fire is that it can almost certainly change the abatement, but it’s not necessarily going to end the project.”

Nationwide variation

In terms of the impact of fires on carbon projects, Mr Darnell said there are a range of differences across the country.

“We have had projects in Western Australia heavily impacted over the last couple of years in the Gascoyne region, while in western New South Wales, it’s typically hard for that country to carry a significant fire because it’s quite arid.

“In Queensland, fire is more used as a management tool, and in a lot of northern Australia, particularly the far north, we can consider fires and the burn frequency in the models. So even at the start of calculating project potential, regular fires can be included in the modelling.”

He said that managed fires and hazard reduction burning typically causes a lot less change in abatement than a big wildfire.

“Some Queensland properties using fire regularly have told us about their burning, but it has been such a cool burn that the hotspot system hasn’t picked it up. This shows how differently a fire will move through the landscape, with moisture levels in vegetation and weather conditions causing a considerable variation in burn severity,” he said.

Long term data analysis

Mr Darnell said it was essential to remember that the whole carbon industry is relatively new, with most projects less than 20 years old.

“For some land managers involved with projects, we are only now seeing the first big wet cycle. The processes in some semi-arid areas move so slowly that they are facing a fire cycle that is less likely to be one or two years and more likely decades.

“With the expansion of carbon projects, we have the advantage of collecting huge datasets that will, over time, assist us in answering questions about how fire impacts the ecology of different areas of Australia.”

Mr Darnell said his role was to work with the GreenCollar Project Partnership team and provide land managers with information that helps them understand and manage fire within their operational structure.

“I think the most useful information we can provide is an explanation of our processes, highlight case studies of how fires might affect abatement and undertake property modelling for individual properties if requested.”

“Once a project is up and running, a lot of work is undertaken to verify and monitor its performance against the methodology being used. Fire is just one aspect that can impact the overall success; however, from a land managers perspective, GreenCollar is there to assist with information to help build some robust risk management processes.”

“There is no silver bullet in building effectiveness against fire, but if you combine our systems, such as hotspot detection and vegetation monitoring, with strong land manager relationships, we are doing all we can to deliver an effective process,” he said.

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