David Bowmen

Panel Member - Fire In The Tas Landscape

Professor of Environmental Change Biology, David Bowman is exploring the relationship between fire, landscapes and humans. He co-authored the textbook 'Fire on Earth – an introduction' and is leading the pack globally in this complex field.

Understanding fire on Earth

Fire is absolutely fundamental to life. There is no known human culture that doesn't use it. Our digestive systems, mouths and teeth are shaped by the fact that our ancestors cooked with fire, and every vegetation type on the planet is exposed to it at some point. But fire comes in many forms. While it is a source of life and regeneration, it can also be a source of devastation.

Fire is the biggest driver of change in the Australian landscape. It has been used as a tool to manage landscapes for 40,000 years, starting when the Indigenous Australians colonised the continent. But the relationship between fire, the landscape and humans is complex. There are trade offs between the needs of culture and society, and ecology and biodiversity. And, as the earth warms, our fire landscape is changing. How do we ensure that we are using fire in a sustainable way? And as wild fire becomes more common, how can we prepare for what is coming?

Professor Bowman is exploring the relationship between fire, landscapes and humans so that he can answer these fundamental questions.

'As a result of human impacts, there are unusual processes now occurring in the landscape. We need to understand the impacts that we are having and the consequences.'

Professor Bowman's research covers a number of fire related topics, including:

  • Fire ecology: plant biology and its relationship with fire
  • Pyrogeography: the impacts, consequences and benefits of human burning
  • Carbon dynamics: fire's relationship with carbon storage and global warming
  • Biomass burning and its impact on human health

'We need to bring all of these elements together in order to intelligently use and manage for fire into the future. It is a big question and we need to throw everything in the toolbox at it.'

The outcomes of Professor Bowman's research are used to inform wildland management, conservation of biodiversity, bushfire mitigation and to better understand the impact of smoke on human health.

'Fire comes in lots of varieties. Some fire in certain landscapes is beneficial for biodiversity, but the same fire in a different landscape could have a negative impact.
'Controlled burning for bushfire mitigation could prevent a devastating bushfire, but the smoke can have negative impacts on our health.
'Fire also releases carbon into the atmosphere, and frequent and widespread fires can compound the problem of climate change and make bushfires occur more often.
'We can't just look at fire from one perspective and we can't afford to put our heads in the sand. Wildfire is going to occur more often.'

Professor Bowman works with others across the globe drawing together teams of people to explore these complex relationships.

'We have to work on a global scale, because this is a globally significant problem. To make a difference we have to be incredibly networked and collaborate widely.'

Despite the global reach, Tasmania is the best place to carry out this research, according to Professor Bowman.

'Tasmania's landscape is so diverse. It has wet areas, dry areas, bogs, trees and everything in between. It is a great place for a fire ecologist to perch.'

Image care of Fire Centre Research Hub