Tenacity, teamwork and love of the bush drive research success
Much like the carbon in charcoal that he’s studied, Robert Sawyer’s PhD journey has been a testament to a spirit that can’t be broken down.
On January 9 1983, Robert Sawyer was a 20-year old Deputy Captain with the Heathcote Rural Fire Brigade.
His crew and neighbouring brigades had been called out to fight fires burning in a pocket of the Royal National Park between Loftus and Grays Point on Sydney’s southern fringe.
By late afternoon, a series of events had placed him and his crew between the main fire front heading toward them and a second front that had cut off their exit route.
In a few frantic minutes, fire overran the crew, claiming the lives of three firefighters and leaving another six seriously burned, including Robert.
While the events of that day in 1983 left him legally blind and with physical limitations, he went on to complete his undergraduate degree and this week, (31 October 2018), the-now-Dr Robert Sawyer is celebrating his graduation and completing his PhD, which examined the impact of fire on carbon stocks in forest soils.
Also in cap and gown was his wife, Carol Swayer. She celebrated graduating a Master of Education, making it her second masters degree.
It’s an important contribution into the relationship between fire, climate change and carbon sequestration.
Working under Professor Ross Bradstock, Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, Dr Sawyer was keen to look at the popular idea of using fire to improve carbon sequestration.
Through the complex carbon cycle, a popular theory was that the impact of burning would be offset by the combination of regrowth of aboveground vegetation and an increasing pool of hard-to-break-down carbon (pyrogenic carbon) stored in the charcoal.
Carbon not broken down isn’t consumed by vegetation and re-released in the air.
So not only could burning regularly protect life and property, it might be a useful tool to slow carbon release and ultimate, climate change.
Dr Sawyer studied prescribed burning, wildfire and the effect of fire over time, not just single events, to understand the varying impacts on carbon.
He found the fraction of pyrogenic carbon remains relatively constant.
“There's very little scope for manipulating fire regime with a view to improving carbon sequestration outcomes,” he said.
On top of the finding that fire can’t be used to harvest the benefits of the carbon cycle as a climate change mitigation tool, Dr Sawyer says there’s a negative feedback loop between rising temperatures and increasing aridity, which will reduce the overall ability of the ecosystem to hold carbon.
“We’re talking about big shifts in carbon storage pools related to fairly small shifts in temperature and very negligible shifts by anything you can do with the fire regime. It all comes back to controlling human carbon emissions.”
Professor Bradstock said Dr Sawyer’s journey was a “phenomenal personal achievement” that also had important effects on a wide range of people who have pitched in to help in the field and laboratory.
“Robert’s graduation is not only a tribute to his own tenacity and intellectual achievements but also a celebration for the wide range of people who have been warmed by the light of his generous personality and his unique life story.”
While Dr Sawyer freely ventures the retelling of the events of that day in 1983 doesn’t get any easier with time, he says it’s important in understanding how things can go wrong in large organisations.
Remarkably, he’s not bitter.
“For me it's always been a planning issue about preparedness of people, properties and assets in the fire interface. I suppose that's what's always drawn me back in via research.
“I could sit in the corner and do nothing. Or I can use my brain to do what I can to improve the state of knowledge in fields that I’m interested in or passionate about.
“And I chose the latter.”
- Read the full story at The Stand: stand.uow.edu.au/a-career-forged-by-fire