UNSW PhD student starts citizen scientist bushfire recovery project after personal loss

22 August 2020

Published by https://www.abc.net.au

AUSTRALIA – In the days after a bushfire tore through her Southern Highlands home, Casey Kirchhoff felt the first green shoots of an idea starting to sprout.

“I was really excited to grab onto any sign of life on my own property and I thought I’d like to start documenting things reshooting,” she said.

“Then it kind of occurred to me that a lot of people are probably feeling the same.”

While still dealing with loss of her five-acre Wingello property, the UNSW PhD candidate started the Environment Recovery Project, which uses members of the public to monitor the regeneration of bushfire-affected areas.

Since January, hundreds of citizen scientists have signed up to the iNaturalist website and uploaded more than 7,400 photographs of fire-affected plants and animals along Australia’s east coast and parts of South Australia.

One of them is Railie Douglas, whose family property in the Mid-North Coast town of Hillville went up in flames in November.

“[The fire] rolled in from the east and rolled on over us and kept on going and then turned around and came back,” she said.

“My husband managed to get out by the skin of his teeth.”

The project has given Ms Douglas an even closer connection to their 330-acre property, which she describes as her “happy place”.

“It’s also something that I can document and I can track and I feel like I can have some input into the regeneration process.”

While the grass has returned and various plants, including Commersonia fraseri and Lomandra, are thriving, the weeds — Stinking Roger, Farmers friend and Lantana — have come back in abundance.

Ms Douglas has been much more pleased to see some animals — including whip birds, wallabies, bandicoots and possums — returning.

Director of the University of NSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, Richard Kingsford, said citizen scientists like Ms Douglas were invaluable in providing data spanning such a large geographical area.

“[It] provides us with much bigger reach and we’re able to think about much bigger questions in terms of the environment and its management,” Professor Kingsford said.

It’s hoped the data collected will show which habitats, animals and insects are being affected more than others and how the recovery is tracking over time to inform further research.

It’s also hoped the data can be used to assist the State Government to understand which species may be in trouble and need extra help to survive.

A woman stands on flattened dirt in front of trees with green shoots and cut stumps.

Casey Kirchhoff says she hopes the project will help others deal with their eco-grief.(ABC News)

Professor Kingsford said he thought Ms Kirchhoff’s initial idea for the project was “wonderful” and “even more poignant” when he heard about her personal loss.

“She was, in her peculiar way, so enthusiastic about the project and less focused on her own challenges, but the opportunity to learn what happens after these incredible fires,” he said.

Ms Kirchhoff admits starting the project was “a bit of a distraction from the massive feeling of loss” she was feeling.

“But for me it’s been really healing because I get a lot of enjoyment from seeing other people uploading their observations, people who obviously care about their patch of nature or the national park that they’re watching come back — or not.

“I would hope that other people kind of felt that this project has been a constructive way of dealing with the eco-grief from the bushfires.”

Key points:

  • The Environment Recovery Project aims to track recovery of bushfire-affected areas
  • It has received more than 7,400 photos and sound recordings from citizen scientists
  • The aim is to discover animals or habitats that may need extra help to regenerate
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