After the fire: recovering, redesigning and rebuilding

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Fire is a fast-moving disaster, unlike the slow burn of drought it can catch us off guard and can destroy what you have taken years, if not a lifetime, to create in just minutes.  With fires burning in so many parts of our planet this year the challenge of regenerating ecosystem and soil health after hot fires is becoming common. This week we have seen some vivid examples with California declared a State of Emergency and 200,000 people evacuated.

Unfortunately, fire came too close to home for us in February 2019.   Our property in NSW, Australia, was impacted by the Tingha Plateau fire which burnt through 23,400ha destroying 13 houses and 44 outbuildings.  Miraculously there was no loss of human life.  All of our pastures, which had been destocked of our remaining sheep due to drought a week prior to conserve ground cover were lost, as well as our fences, yards, shelter belts, orchard, gardens and a shed.  Our house was one of a further 6 houses that sustained damages in the fire so we had a very close call!  Eight months along and we are still witnessing large areas of eastern Australia being impacted by devastating fires.

For those of us practicing regenerative agriculture wildfire is one of our greatest risks.  Adaptive grazing management or no-till practices that preserve ground cover effectively reduce our drought risk.  Unfortunately, such practices can lead to an increased fire risk due to the fuel volume when fire strikes.

The immediate impact of fire on our landscape brings trauma and extreme stress to the people who inhabit the landscape.  The first morning we awoke to our newly burnt landscape we felt as though our home had been transported to an unfamiliar black, charred landscape.  Nothing was recognisable.  The constant sound of helicopters and fire trucks monitoring the fire, and news reporters in our driveway (we had the blackest paddocks around thanks to our grazing management), only reinforced our feelings of disorientation.

As we discovered in February, the main priorities as the fire passes are the urgent ones: dealing with livestock welfare and immediate water repairs to restore essential supplies.  Before we moved on to assessing damages and sorting out insurance claims.  This is an ongoing process as we continued to find damages months later that were not initially obvious.  Seemingly simple tasks such as dealing with wandering stock from other properties, or moving your own stock can be hindered when the stock yards are one of the many things that have been destroyed.

In this exhausting space there is little time or energy for anything else. Yet at the same time we were overwhelmed with non-stop phone calls, messages and emails, as family and friends checked in to see how we were, and what they could do to help.  We became the recipient of some amazing generosity, which added to the rollercoaster of emotions, as we were suddenly faced with learning to receive; a position many of us are not comfortable with!

Emotionally this period of time felt to me like being on a pendulum, swinging between devastation for what had been lost, and gratitude for what we still had.  We still had our house, each other, and our treasured highland cow, Bonnie.  Coming home and finding her with singed hair but otherwise ok was a huge relief. Hearing stories that she had been seen sheltering her young calf (who was completely unscathed) from the flames in a corner of the paddock was remarkable and we felt terrible that we had not been able to spare them from this ordeal.

It is well known that chronic stress results in memory loss and difficulty in concentrating.  This is not a time for making major decisions and even focusing on work can be difficult.  It took me around 2 weeks before I felt like my mind unscrambled enough to focus for any length of time. During this initial period, we noticed that we both became forgetful which is certainly not something we were accustomed to!

Fire recovery is a long-term process, and it presents you with a unique opportunity to redesign your property.  Do not feel pressured to have everything back together quickly, potentially missing an opportunity for making the most of the blank canvas a fire leaves behind. It amazes me how quickly many people who have not been through a fire expect you will recover.  I have been lost for words when people ask optimistically if we are all recovered from the fire yet.  It was only 8 months ago and we are still in the midst of a record-breaking drought!

Whilst the infrastructure damage can be easily repaired if you have good insurance, fire recovery in the landscape takes years, and without rain there can be no recovery in the landscape!  So whilst we are still in the midst of drought and far from making a recovery following February’s fire, this experience has taught us much. Our learnings include the importance of de-stocking and resting our land following fire, and creating a plan to nurture our soil back to health when it does rain.

If you run livestock, destocking after fire is the first priority, as it is in a drought.  Stock left on burnt land only increases the degradation to your soil and landscape.  They also take up precious time through the need to hand feed them.  Removing livestock also frees you up to concentrate your effort on redesigning and rebuilding at the same time as allowing ground cover to re-establish.

If you want the grass to grow, you need to let the grass grow!  Destocking meant our place gained about 30% ground cover after a small amount of rain landed in the months following the fire.  This encouraged our underground soil workforce to stabilise our burnt soil and work to bind it back together. These microbes include fungi which release sticky proteins and chitin to help bind soils together. We have noticed that our place is one of the only properties around us where topsoil has not been blowing off in windy weather. These dust storms are not a natural phenomenon; they are in direct response to poor land management.

Our next priority is to be prepared to rebuild our soils when it rains, through kick starting biological processes.  Fire damages microbial populations, particularly fungi. Depending on the intensity of the fire, it can create bacterially dominant soils and may destroy organic matter. In some places our topsoil has been burnt down to underlying sand some 2” lower. Low successional weedy plants colonise the bare soil and soils may even become water repellent.

Soil amendments such as lime, contain calcium that can help to disrupt waxy water-repellent coatings.  To speed up recovery it is essential to combine calcium with fish hydrolysate and molasses to feed a wide range of soil organisms.  Vermicast extracts are also a vital fire recovery tool, as they contain biology and signalling proteins to catalyse the soil building processes. Vermicast also contains microbes which eat waxy coatings and the bacteria which produce them.  We are ready to apply a broadacre application of bio-stimulants when there is a good chance of rain.

Establishing a diverse mix of plants when the rains come will also kickstart the soil building process and help maximise water infiltration.  Coating seeds with bio-stimulants, such as vermicast or compost extracts, sets them up for success as their microbial partners will be reduced in the burnt soil.  Such coatings are scientifically proven to increase germination, plant nutrition and increase resilience to stress.[i],[ii], [iii]

Life is change, growth is optional.  We can choose to see the challenges life presents us as a disaster, or as an opportunity to learn and grow.  Acceptance of what is allows you regroup and move forward more effectively than being stuck in resistance to what is.  Fire destroyed 15 years of infrastructure development and the results of our landscape remediation. It also left us with a blank canvas to be transformed again based on 15 years more experience.  Nature is resilient, and so are we.

Written by Kim Deans.

Kim is available for coaching to empower you to create a thriving, profitable and regenerative farm business.  Email Ph +61 0455 596 464


[i] Bidabadi, S. S., & Mehralian, M. (2019). Seed Bio-priming to Improve Germination, Seedling Growth and Essential Oil Yield of Dracocephalum Kotschyi Boiss, an Endangered Medicinal Plant in Iran. Gesunde Pflanzen, 1-11.

[ii] El-Mohamedy, R. S. R., Abd Alla, M. A., & Badiaa, R. I. (2006). Soil amendment and seed bio-priming treatments as alternative fungicides for controlling root rot diseases on cowpea plants in Nobaria Province. Research Journal of Agriculture and Biological Science2(6), 391-398.

[iii] Srivastava, R., Khalid, A., Singh, U. S., & Sharma, A. K. (2010). Evaluation of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus, fluorescent Pseudomonas and Trichoderma harzianum formulation against Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. lycopersici for the management of tomato wilt. Biological control53(1), 24-31.