School of Civil Engineering

UQ researchers share their expertise during an unprecedented bushfire season.

Bushfires that have devastated communities and ecosystems across large tracts of Australia have filled all of us – across Australia and much further afield – with great sadness and dismay.

University of Queensland academics have discussed a number of issues that have emerged during the bushfire incidents.

Rebuilding

Dr Felix Wiesner – School of Civil Engineering

'With the increased risk of bushfires it is paramount that their impact on structures is adequately considered in both design and the selection of materials. Timber is a sustainable building material and the development of treatment methods and the investigation of species more resistant to bushfires will ensure the continuous use of local timber in Australia. We are collaborating with the National Centre for Timber Durability on research projects to ensure that we understand the impact of bushfire intensity and to enable utilisation of timber with reduced flammability.

We are also conducting multi-scale experiments to investigate the role of moisture content on the flammability of vegetation fuel, and wind tunnel research to better understand  physical processes that drive the propagation of bushfires.'

Contact: f.wiesner@uq.edu.au; +61 416 653 786.

Call to action for flora and fauna

Dr Christine Hosking – Honorary Research Fellow

'The current bushfires are catastrophic for Australia’s unique flora and fauna. Like koalas, many other unique marsupials that have evolved in Australia over tens of millions of years, are now at even greater risk of significant population declines, or even extinctions. These species have been diminishing due to land-clearing and urbanisation since European settlement, but climate change is now threatening to eclipse even those threats.

So what next?

It is now time to urgently consider the bigger picture and how to assist decision-makers in understanding the importance of biodiversity, not just for its intrinsic value, but for human well-being and its role in climate change mitigation.

We need an integrated, national workforce that transcends artificial borders and political agendas and is dedicated to the environment. This will be separate to protecting human life and property. This workforce will facilitate the protection and rehabilitation of our natural biodiversity assets (including Australia’s unique native animals) during and after climate change disasters such as the current bushfires, while helping to mitigate Australia’s own substantial contribution to global warming.'

Contact: c.hosking@uq.edu.au; +61 410 685 382.

Fire management

Dr Phillip Stewart – School of Earth and Environmental Sciences

'There is a greater need to proactively manage fuel loads that have been allowed to build up over the years. The landscape and vegetation structure has changed through changes to fire management and burn frequencies, which has allowed the fuel loads to increase.

This, combined with climate change that has exacerbated the drought and increased atmospheric temperatures (leading to extreme weather conditions), has increased the energy available to drive the wildfires (climate is a major driver of wildfires/bushfires).

A major paradigm shift is needed in Australian fire management if one wants to reduce or avoid future extreme fire behaviour. Most importantly, traditional fire stick practices must be included, including providing funding for specialised agencies and resources.'

Contact: p.stewart3@uq.edu.au; +61 418 116 854.

Resilient communities

Professor Alex Haslam – School of Psychology

'The sense of shared identity that emerges in the context of events like these is a key resource that helps people manage the process effectively and that is a source of resilience down the track. It is also the case though that it is important not to squander this — as it is something that we will need to draw on in the future as a source of resilience and to make the changes to reduce the likely impact of future events.

Evidence from other disasters around the world (e.g. the UK, New Zealand) suggests that where leaders help to lock in this sense of ‘us-ness’, this helps communities recover and also consolidates their leadership. If they don’t though, this can be very problematic down the line.'

Contact: a.haslam@uq.edu.au; +61 468 547 291.

Kids in crisis

Professor Justin Kenardy – School of Psychology

'At times of crisis, families are the key to resilience in children. Families provide the supportive structure for children to cope with significant challenges.

The emotional impact of disaster and trauma on very young children is sometimes overlooked. Very young children are vulnerable to the emotional impact of disaster, trauma and loss. Children under six rely heavily on adults to support them through these events.

Adolescents often need to be included in responses to disaster as it will be psychologically beneficial for them to feel useful and part of something positive.

Children (and adults) need to hear positive stories of recovery as a balance to the doom and gloom of the disaster. Focusing on the media coverage of the negative outcomes is not good for children especially, and adults need to be careful to monitor and manage the exposure of children to these types of stories.

It’s not how objectively bad a traumatic experience might be, it is how it is experienced that predicts whether it leads to post-traumatic stress. For example, a small child might experience something as much more frightening than an adult because they don’t fully comprehend it.

Reinstatement of some form of routine is an important part of recovery for children. Schools are a key to this and become central to recovery in children. We have developed resources for schools after recent disasters.'

Contact: j.kenardy@uq.edu.au; +61 413 807 163.

Resilient rainforests

Associate Professor Rod Fensham – School of Biological Science

'There are some important lessons to be learnt from the recent fires and South East Queensland is a very important field of learning. There were reports of rainforest burning after fires in Queensland in September. My inspection of rainforest boundaries in South East Queensland revealed that intact rainforest is remarkably fire retardant.

 The capacity of rainforest, and in particular the drier forms of rainforest, to retard fire may well be a vital clue to adapting our built environments to deal with a greater fire risk under a changing climate.'

Contact: r.fensham@uq.edu.au; +61 447 907 535.

Tourism recovery

Associate Professor Gabby Walters – School of Business

'Natural disasters don’t affect people’s long-term love of a destination. After Black Saturday in Victoria, visitor numbers returned to normal levels from 12 to 24 months, and within six months regular visitors were returning.

After the 2011 Queensland floods, tourists who were most likely to return were motivated by wanting to help the industry recover. That is the motivation that bushfire-affected destinations will need to tap into once they are ready and willing to receive visitors.

Celebrities giving visibility to the bushfires are a double-edged sword; they help much needed fundraising, but can affect our recovery efforts. All the images shared right now paint a picture of doomsday – they show red skies, smoke and heart-breaking images with the depiction that the entirety of Australia is ‘on fire’ and unsafe. It is vital that celebrities encourage their fans via social media to visit affected areas after the disaster to help recover our image and support communities and businesses reliant on tourism.'

Contact: g.walters@uq.edu.au; +61 402 085 497.

Professor Judith Mair – School of Business

'In the longer-term, Australian tourism will be affected by the bushfires, because people choose holidays based on the image of a destination, and Australia’s is being badly affected right now with an outpouring of images showing despair and danger. While these images are important for raising necessary funds for immediate relief, influencers, media and the government need to give consideration to post-disaster messaging to help support and rebuild the people and businesses that rely on tourism to survive.

Kangaroo Island has already stressed the importance of tourism to support the island and is actively encouraging people to help the rebuild efforts by planning a trip to the island’s unaffected areas – this needs to be supported by positive imagery that shows the beauty of island and appeals to altruistic nature of people to help.'

Contact: j.mair@business.uq.edu.au; +61 412 057 758.

Over the coming weeks, The University of Queensland will continue to offer our research expertise – alongside other universities – to assist with fire and emergency management and recovery, and to support affected communities.

Media: communications@uq.edu.au; +61 429 056 139.