Bushfire impacts to estuaries on the NSW coast: A timely lesson on adaptive management to climate change

Ms Michelle Fletcher1

1Nsw Department Of Planning, Industry And Environment, Newcastle , Australia


The 2019 / 2020 bushfire season decimated coastal catchments, particularly on the south coast of NSW, to an unprecedented scale. The potential for bushfire events to degrade water quality and alter the dynamics of streams and coastal ecosystems, is well established.  Most critical effects occur if there is heavy rain soon after fire, with impacts on aquatic ecology, drinking water quality and local industries such as aquaculture.  Despite the extensive work that had been undertaken in NSW to identify statewide and site-specific risks to coast, estuary and marine values, the threat of bushfire, at this scale, had not been identified or planned for. Associated water quality impacts, had similarly, not been anticipated in Emergency Management Planning.  This resulted in the need for an immediate and adaptive management response.

Several factors combined to increase the severity of the impacts to estuaries this fire season.  Firstly, firegrounds of this scale have not been previously recorded. Secondly, the geomorphology of the south coast of NSW is characterised by many estuaries with entrance channels that periodically close to the sea with the build-up of marine sand and reopen in response to heavy catchment rainfall.  Their terminal location at the bottom of catchments and propensity to closure, make these estuaries particularly vulnerable to catchment inputs. The occurrence of the 2019/2020 fires, following a period of drought, meant most of the estuaries were already stressed. This presentation will discuss preparedness, impacts and the immediate and ongoing response to bushfire impacts on coastal waterways in NSW.


I am a coastal environmental scientist with more than 20 years experience in coastal managment acorss the public and private sector.  I am currently employed with the NSW government where I have been coordinating the implementation of the new Coastal Management Act.