High fire frequency and the impact of the 2019–2020 megafires on Australian plant diversity

Rachael V. Gallagher*, Stuart Allen, Berin D. E. Mackenzie, Colin J. Yates, Carl R. Gosper, David A. Keith, Cory Merow, Matthew D. White, Elizabeth Wenk, Brian S. Maitner, Kang He, Vanessa M. Adams, Tony D. Auld

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aim: To quantify the impact of the 2019–2020 megafires on Australian plant diversity by assessing burnt area across 26,062 species ranges and the effects of fire history on recovery potential. Further, to exemplify a strategic approach to prioritizing plant species affected by fire for recovery actions and conservation planning at a national scale. Location: Australia. Methods: We combine data on geographic range, fire extent, response traits and fire history to assess the proportion of species ranges burnt in both the 2019–2020 fires and the past. Results: Across Australia, suitable habitat for 69% of all plant species was burnt (17,197 species) by the 2019–2020 fires and herbarium specimens confirm the presence of 9,092 of these species across the fire extent since 1950. Burnt ranges include those of 587 plants listed as threatened under national legislation (44% of Australia's threatened plants). A total of 3,998 of the 17,197 fire-affected species are known to resprout after fire, but at least 2,928 must complete their entire life cycle—from germinant to reproducing adult—prior to subsequent fires, as they are killed by fire. Data on previous fires show that, for 257 species, the historical intervals between fire events across their range are likely too short to allow regeneration. For a further 411 species, future fires during recovery will increase extinction risk as current populations are dominated by immature individuals. Main conclusion: Many Australian plant species have strategies to persist under certain fire regimes, and will recover given time, suitable conditions and low exposure to threats. However, short fire intervals both before and after the 2019–2020 fire season pose a serious risk to the recovery of at least 595 species. Persistent knowledge gaps about species fire response and post-fire population persistence threaten the effective long-term management of Australian vegetation in an increasingly pyric world.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
JournalDiversity and Distributions
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 19 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment in response to the 2019‐2020 bushfires. The authors thank the Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel and the Threatened Species Commissioner for their expertise and feedback on the work presented. We are grateful to all staff from Australian State and Commonwealth environmental agencies and herbaria who gave their expertise and provided access to data, and to AusTraits data contributors and Daniel Falster (curator). CM acknowledges funding from the National Science Foundation Grants DBI 1565046 and HDR 1934712.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Diversity and Distributions published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • biodiversity assessment
  • bushfires
  • conservation biogeography
  • conservation planning
  • extreme events
  • fire ecology
  • megafires
  • plant conservation
  • plant diversity
  • rapid assessment

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