Unmasking the nature of fire

Professor David Bowman’s seminal 2009 paper on the role of fire in shaping Earth’s ecology has been cited well over 800 times, but as he straps his bikes on the car, preparing for another brief soiree into the Tasmanian bush, the world expert on fire ecology has no time for self-congratulation.

Instead, Professor Bowman explains his international reputation as an expert in fire ecology as an evolution of the inspiration and foundational thinking of a little known lecturer, Bill Jackson, who had taught him as an undergraduate biology student at the University of Tasmania in the 1970s.

It is one of those strange untold Tasmanian stories,of a man who has had a profound impact on international understanding, but who remains largely unrecognised, Professor Bowman said.

“He wrote an amazing paper on fire ecology that contained all these ideas on the relationships between fire, humans and the landscape and taught it to every third year at the University of Tasmania – but published the paper with just four references in an obscure journal in 1968, a year after fire devastated Hobart.”

In 1967, bushfires had raged across Tasmania, the worst of which encroached on Hobart, killing 62 people and leaving 7000 people homeless – raising widespread public concerns about ways to prevent similar events in the future. Jackson’s 1968 paper, Fire, air, water and earth – an elemental ecology of Tasmania was largely ignored by the wider scientific community, but had a profound effect on fire ecologists like Professor Bowman, who expanded the ideas into an analysis of the impact of fire on landscapes across the world.

He had a love of natural landscapes and was a bushwalker and the simple question he sought to answer was why South West Tasmania was largely treeless, Professor Bowman said.

“He realised that this apparent wilderness had in fact been managed by Aboriginal people for 40,000 years through fire and may have influenced the evolution of fire-dependent plant species.

The wilderness was in fact a man-made landscape. It was a genius idea and his theory anticipated a lot of big ideas in fire ecology.

Almost five decades later, Professor Bowman’s application of these ideas to landscapes across the world have given rise to a wealth of papers on fire ecology.

As a result, Professor Bowman has been headhunted to key research roles around the world, but has now chosen to return to the University of Tasmania to continue researching the state’s unique ecosystems.

Most people don’t realise that Tasmanians have played a central role in global understanding of the emerging field of fire ecology, Professor Bowman said.

“Professor Jackson had a genius idea, but never really did anything with it. I don’t think I could have ever had that brilliant, insightful idea, but I have been able to develop it and apply it to help grow awareness and understanding of fire ecology. It’s a nice relationship.”

Categories: Fire Ecology, News

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