If you were in Victoria on February 7, 2009 you probably have a memory of that day. The air was like a blast furnace, so oppressive it was hard to be outdoors for even a few minutes. Coming at the end of the Millennium Drought – often seen as the worst drought recorded since European occupation - the land was parched and dry, and the 7th saw extreme bushfire weather conditions.
Although many firefighting personnel had been deployed across the state the night before in anticipation of the expected extreme conditions, once the fires started on the 7th there was no stopping them. Around midday, as wind speeds were reaching their peak, a mains power cable was pulled down at Kilmore East, which sparked a fire that became the deadliest and most intense firestorm ever recorded in Australia. Multiple fires started that day, with some burning well into March. In all 450,000 hectares were burnt, 173 people lost their lives, and 400 were injured. Entire towns including Kinglake and Marysville were devastated. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed, and millions of animals perished. Two firefighters died during the fires.
Fifteen years on, the scars can still be seen in the landscape and many towns are very different places. The pain and impact of Black Saturday is etched into the memories of survivors and the very fabric of some communities.
Since then there have been countless other fires, and some, like the Black Summer of 2019/20, have become famous for their scale or ferocity. A decade and a half on, it is important to remember the horror and loss of that day.
Each year, firefighters reflect on the tragic loss of five firefighters in the Linton blaze on 2 December 1998. It is worth recalling that the loss of those men from Geelong marked the beginning of a new era for firefighter safety at the CFA. In a similar way, Black Saturday influenced how and where we built back after fire. We keep learning from the disasters that befall us.
However, the world has also continued to change. And as a whole, humanity has failed to act on what the science has been telling us. In the 15 years since Black Saturday, unchecked global warming has taken us into a new era: the pyrocene.
In the short time of the 21st century, Australia has suffered more frequent and more severe bushfires compared with the 20th century. Research shows almost everywhere in Australia is now in a different fire climate than it was just 20 years ago, with falling relative humidity a key factor. Previous research has also identified these sudden jumps in fire danger.
What caused fire climates to shift so rapidly? Conventional scientific wisdom assumes that the climate’s response to increasing emissions will be gradual and linear. However, the data shows a shift from one stable fire climate regime to another. The main driver was relative humidity in combination with higher daily temperatures during the fire season. This has led to an expansion in the length of the average fire season in Australia since 2002.
In Victoria, the regime shift happened in 1996–1997. So Black Saturday, seen at that point as the worst fire in living memory, became a harbinger of future summers. Greg Mullins, former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue New South Wales, says that this regime shift is “utterly consistent with what firefighters are experiencing worldwide: more frequent, intense, and damaging bushfires that sometimes are impossible to control”.
These longer seasons are leading to ever more ‘mega fires’ which, in turn generate massive volumes of greenhouse pollution and hence help make climate change worse – helping to trap us in what sometimes seems like an endless cycle of doom.
Fifteen years on, we find ourselves facing two unavoidable truths.
The first is the fact that we still have time to avert the worst of future climate change – including longer and more intense fire seasons – if we act now to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a local, national and global scale.
The second is that, no matter what, we will need to continue to build the resilience of landscapes to be able to cope with worse fire conditions, and dramatically increase our capacity to stop small fires before they turn into major blazes we cannot control.
Are we willing to honour the losses of the past by building our resolve now to solve these great dilemmas of our time?
More reading on how we should respond to future fires.
A new fire fighting team for Victoria
Fire ready policies.
By National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) - Cropped image of - Australia6 Subset - Aqua 250m True Color image for 2009/038 (02/07/09)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5886232
Further information on Black Saturday fires.