Fire has played a pivotal role in almost all landscapes across Australia for millions of years. The continent of Australia is a cultural and natural landscape: it has been shaped by First Nations peoples for many hundreds of generations. Colonisation disrupted this long management and now settler society is trying to understand how fire should be used in the landscape to manage it for biodiversity, asset protection, and human safety.
One key tool used to manage fire risk is fuel reduction (or hazard reduction) burning. While often presented as a panacea for fires, it requires a complex and nuanced application to be safe and effective. But many vocal proponents of fuel reduction burning see it as a blunt instrument that can - and should be - applied across all forested landscapes frequently. As we know, the natural world is a complex place. When using a tool with such large implications as fire, we need an equally complex approach rather than a blanket ‘we must burn the bush’ mantra.
These posts will explore some of the issues at play as we, as a society, grapple with how to respond to and manage fire in a time of climate change.
Context to fire seasons
There is no doubt that climate change is driving more intense fire seasons. The world has warmed as a result of human activity and now all fire events occur in a warmer environment. This is well documented, and climate change is leading to longer fire seasons, with more frequent dry lightning storms in some areas. We have known this for years. Back in 2008 the Garnaut Climate Change Review's final report, said that predictions "suggest that fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense” and that "this effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020."
More recently, the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action noted that:
‘Australia’s Black Summer fires over 2019 and 2020 were unprecedented in scale and levels of destruction. Fuelled by climate change, the hottest and driest year ever recorded resulted in fires that burned through land two-and-a-half times the size of Tasmania (more than 17 million hectares), killed more than a billion animals, and affected nearly 80 percent of Australians. This included the tragic loss of over 450 lives from the fires and smoke, more than 3,000 homes were destroyed, and thousands of other buildings. While unprecedented, this tragedy was not unforeseen, nor unexpected.’
The influence of climate change has also been acknowledged in recent investigations into last summer’s fires. For instance:
The Bushfire Royal Commission was explicitly asked to look at mitigation options, but not drivers of global heating. In spite of this, it found that further warming of the Australian climate over the next 20 years “appears to be inevitable,” it said, meaning that catastrophic bushfire conditions will become more common and traditional bushfire protection models and firefighting techniques will be “less effective”.
The NSW Bushfire Inquiry found that “climate change as a result of increased greenhouse gas emissions clearly played a role in the conditions that led up to the fires and in the unrelenting conditions that supported the fires to spread” and “The season showed us what damage megafires can do and how dangerous they can be for communities and firefighters. And it is clear that we should expect fire seasons like 2019-20, or potentially worse, to happen again.
And in Victoria, the Inspector-General for Emergency Management was charged with investigating Victoria’s preparedness for the fire season, and response to fires clearly identified climate change as being an issue of significance. The IGEM report noted that:
'The past is no longer a reliable guide to the influence of climate and weather upon bushfires into the future. Climate change is influencing the patterns of natural hazards globally. In Australia, increases in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns are contributing to an increase in extreme fire weather across much of the country. In south-east Australia there have been long-term decreases in rainfall. The bushfire season in the 21st century begins earlier and ends later.'
So why is this fact ignored by so many media outlets and commentators? Because of politics and the Culture War. Climate deniers are unable to accept this particular reality, and are trying to deflect the public debate into a ‘blame’ frame which lets the fossil fuel companies and their backers in government off the hook. It also plays on people’s natural fear of wildfire to try and wedge the community away from environmental voices into a right wing world view that sees the solution to bad fires being fuel reduction burning.
Bushfires and the culture wars
Once bushfires are raging, the ‘it’s the greenies’ fault because they stopped us from doing fuel reduction burns’ line will be wheeled out by many voices and amplified on social media and the Murdoch press.
Another favourite angle pushed by conservative media is that the fires are the fault of arsonists. While arson is a serious problem, it is only responsible for a tiny proportion of wild fires. Focusing on the threat of arson leads to break down of community cohesion and so is inherently destructive. It is also patently untrue to claim that arson is a major cause of fires in Australia.
Others will claim we should increase logging of native forests or allow cattle grazing on public lands. These demands usually come from people or organisations with a vested interest in seeing such an outcome, and don't stand up to scrutiny.
It’s worth preparing yourself for these arguments. Here is our perspective on fires, arson and fuel reduction.
Bushfires and climate change
Check here for some notes and links about the connection between climate change and fire risk.
How will climate change impact on emergencies in Victoria? This is a summary of climate change impacts from the 2020 report Review of 10 years of reform in Victoria's emergency management sector.
What should we do?
How do we respond to longer, more intense fire seasons?
Of course, we need to act decisively to reduce Australia’s contribution to climate change. Without co-ordinated global action to radically reduce emissions, we will face ever worse fire seasons.
But even with meaningful climate action, we are locked into many decades of climate change. It is clear that we need additional resources to fight the fires that will come in future seasons. Here are some of our ideas:
Here is a list of proposals from Friends of the Earth Melbourne. These are specific proposals for Victoria.
Victoria needs a new volunteer remote area fire fighting team, as NSW and Tasmania already have.
We should be opening up volunteer opportunities for people based in large cities to get involved in firefighting efforts.
We need additional aerial support – more planes and helicopters. Details here.
The federal government should establish a national remote area firefighting force which can be deployed as needed across Tasmania and mainland states when World Heritage and National Parks are at risk. This was recommended by a Senate inquiry after the devastating fires in Tasmania of 2016.
Over June and July 2020, Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) hosted Australia’s first virtual bushfire and climate change summit to coordinate a national response to the Australian climate and bushfire crises. The 2020 National Bushfire and Climate Summit brought together hundreds of participants from across the country, and the world, to share their experiences, and to formulate recommendations to address the worsening risk of devastating bushfires fuelled by climate change. The Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan is the culmination of that effort.
The Australian Bushfire and Climate Plan provides a broad plan and practical ideas for governments, fire and land management agencies and communities to help us mitigate and adapt to worsening fire conditions.
The plan’s 165 recommendations include many measures that can be implemented right now, to ensure communities are better protected. They cover response to fire, readiness for fire, and recovery and resilience.
We will be sharing a series of stories through summer, looking at land management, firefighting, community resilience, and much more.
A continent that burns. And a world that’s getting hotter. Welcome to the Pyrocene. Arena magazine, OCT 2020. (Link).
Fire season outlook, 2020/21
The following map comes from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. This is from the September - December outlook.
'The 2020/21 fire season will be driven by vastly different climate drivers than the previous two fire seasons. With a La Niña ALERT now active, large areas of eastern and northern Australia are expecting wetter than average conditions through spring. Despite the wetter climate signals, parts of Queensland face above normal fire potential in the south east and central coast, extending to the north.
While these wetter conditions in eastern Australia will help in the short-term, they may lead to an increase in the risk of fast running fires in grasslands and cropping areas over summer. These conditions will be monitored closely over the coming months.
In contrast to the wetter conditions for the east, dry conditions persist in Western Australia, with above normal fire potential continuing to be expected in parts of the north.
Fire is a regular occurrence across Australia, and it is important to remember that areas designated as normal fire potential will still see fires. Normal bushfire risk does not mean there is no risk'.