Logging of intact, native forests increases the risk and severity of fire, and likely had a profound effect on the recent, catastrophic Australian bushfires, according to new research published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution by a team from the University of Queensland, ANU, Macquarie University, and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

The study says said logging regimes have made many forests more fire prone for a host of reasons including a rise in fuel loads, increase of potential drying of wet forests, and a decrease in forest height. Logging can leave up to 450 metric tons of combustible fuel per hectare close to the ground – an incredibly dangerous level of combustible material in seasonally dry landscapes say the authors.

The authors note that intact forests are critical not just in terms of fire resilience, but also in their role in mitigating climate change, maintaining hydrological cycles and other key ecosystem processes, and providing habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna. Forests not degraded by logging, together with the biota they support, are more resilient than degraded forests to pre-fire conditions such as higher temperatures and short-term climatic anomalies.

Lead author, Australian National University’s Dr. David Lindenmayer, said there are land management actions that can be taken to stop these fires from occurring in the future.

Said Dr. Lindenmayer: “The first step is to prevent logging of moist forests, particularly those close to urban areas. We must also reduce forest fragmentation by proactively restoring some previously logged forests.”

The most intact forests—those large, unbroken swaths of primary forests that are free of significant anthropogenic damage—represent less than a quarter of Earth’s remaining forest cover, and are disappearing at twice the rate of forests overall. There are currently no global targets, strategies, or dedicated finance that provide incentives to preserve intact forests.

Said senior author Dr. James Watson of WCS and University of Queensland: “Now is the time for policy makers to recognize and account for the critical values of intact native forests because they are where fire severity is lowest, species persistence during fires is greatest, and rates of recovery after fires are highest.”

The authors say there are solutions to reduce the risks of further catastrophic fire seasons in the future. First is the removal of logging from areas where it adds considerably to fuel loads and creates forest structures that increase fire severity and risks to human safety. In particular, logging of moist forests must not occur near human settlements.

Second, it is essential that landscape-scale impacts of forest fragmentation are reduced; this demands proactive restoration of some previously logged forests to build resilience to future fire events. In the event of wildfires, land managers must avoid practices such as post-fire (‘salvage’) logging that can impair recovery and make regenerating forests more prone to further fires.

Finally, there is a need to restructure forest industries so that in some countries, including Australia, wood production is focused on exotic tree plantations that do not compromise native forests. This is important to maintain employment in the forestry sector and at the same time, limit impacts on the native forest estate, including through a reduction in logging-generated fire proneness in forest ecosystems.