I have written about bush fires before, most recently here. They are recurring dramas in the lives of Australians, Australian animals and the Australian environment, and they have had that status for many thousands of years. There have been simply dozens of big ones, the same or larger than the present set. Why do we have them, and what can we do about them? A recent ploy has been to blame them on ‘climate change’, but few are doing that this time, perhaps on the ground that the current fires are not yet as disastrous  as those ten years ago.

One reason that they are not, is that we have learned a good deal about how to adapt to bush fires. Yet the visual evidence is always appalling, the danger experienced by the fire-fighters real, their endurance and contribution heroic, and the outcome desperately saddening to so many who lose their homes. The loss of human life is rarely large: the worst in this respect have been the bush fires of 1939 in Victoria, 1967 in Tasmania and 2009 in Victoria, with losses of 71, 62 and 173 respectively.

But destroyed property and ravaged land are much vaster in scale. The first Victorian fire of which we know, that of 1851, burned out 5 million hectares of land and and killed a million sheep and cattle, while the next major Victorian fire consumed 2 million hectares. The Canberra fires of 2003 took out more than 500 homes and that of Black Saturday in Victoria burned more than 2,000 houses as well as taking the lives of 173 people.

The Wikipedia summary gives us a good flavour of the impersonal side of the fire problem:

The natural fire regime in Australia was altered by the arrival of humans. Fires became more frequent, and fire-loving species—notably eucalypts—greatly expanded their range. It is assumed that a good deal of this change came about as the result of deliberate action by early humans, setting fires to clear undergrowth or drive game.

Plants have evolved a variety of strategies to survive (or even require) bushfires, (possessing epicormic shoots or lignotubers that sprout after a fire, or developing fire-resistant or fire-triggered seeds) or even encourage fire (eucalypts contain flammable oils in the leaves) as a way to eliminate competition from less fire-tolerant species. Some native animals are also adept at surviving bushfires.

There is then a natural fire ‘regime’, and plants have evolved to take advantage of it (I rather like the notion of the eucalyptus families doing their best to ‘eliminate competition’). We humans are seen as intruders, who have actually made things worse. What caused the present set of fires? We’ll learn something in due course. But we have had three years of excellent rain, which has added greatly to fuel load. High winds knocked down power poles, and that may have started a fire or two. And idiots must have been responsible for one or two — or more — either by throwing out a cigarette butt, or just lighting a fire to see what would happen. We probably won’t know the origin of many of the blazes.

We are told that we could have more fires later this year. We are presently in a  neutral la Nina regime, which doesn’t suggest we’ll have bountiful rain. On the other hand it doesn’t presage a burning summer either. As always, we’ll hope for the best. But I have a suggestion or two, as part of a long-term approach to adaptation for human survival — if we are going to take adaptation really seriously.

The first is that we abandon the notion that eucalyptus trees are good for us, and that we should value them as a truly Australian Great Thing. Their proper place, given our proper human preference for survival, is in the forest. Let all local government bodies insist that no eucalyptus trees be planted in back or front yards, and not plant them as street trees. Not only do they drop limbs without warning, but in big fires the street trees become powerful lighted torches, as they were in Canberra in 2003.

The second: country towns that are able to do so should plant a belt of deciduous trees outside each town (while they remove all the eucalypts inside), and move to a belt of cleared grassland outside that. Yes, it will cost a lot in water to keep all that alive, but nothing like the value of the houses that are regularly destroyed. Think of it as the town’s first line of defence. Deciduous trees and short-cropped grass will act as a barrier to fire, especially if all fallen timber is removed as it falls. City suburbs could have a go at doing the same.

The third is really a waste of time, but those who insist on building houses in forests, and do not insure their houses (if they can be insured), should sign a statement to the effect that they have done this with full knowledge of the risk involved. There are places where any reasonable person would wonder about the risk of fire, and leave that place houseless. I know that people love forests, and I do myself. But I would never ever build a house in one. Any search of the trees, or of the carbon content of the soil, will be able to tell you approximately  the last time there was a big fire. The next one could be much sooner. It’s only a question of when.

All the TV this week has been about danger and heroism. When will we have a some discussion about common sense? Yes, I know it doesn’t give dramatic footage. Or are we going to continue to be stoic and heroic, at the cost of fire-fighters’ lives and great destruction of property?

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    You’re absolutely right about fuel loads. I live near Kur-ring-gai Chase National Park and have walked off-track into the bush there. Even as long ago as 2009 I could see then that whenever the next “dry” eventuated the whole park would go up in one big “whoosh”. I forecast that it won’t be long now.

    Arsonists are only incidental to bushfires. The major Canberra bushfires over a decade ago were started by multiple lightning strikes. It’s dry fuel, wind and high temperatures (in that order) that are the danger. Introduced flame is just the last step of many.

    The aborigines own Kakadu. If you drive through it in the “dry” you’ll see patterned “cool fires” happening every day. I bet it’s a long time since it saw a “hot fire” like we’re currently seeing in the Blue Mountains. Add the “greenies” to my list of dangers above.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Over the years I’ve served in four different rural fire brigades, and fought in three big fires lasting days and nights. The radiant heat and fire-driven erratic winds were my earliest major impressions. I’ve never faced the exploding balls of gas, but well remember the graphic accounts of these by a farming family I knew who survived around Tharwa in 2003.

    I’ve found that most people I have spoken with over the years think that fire travels by flame contact, because that’s their primary experience with fire, such as where it is controlled in their bush barbecues. They don’t understand the unseen gas given off by ti-tree and eucalypt – although on a really hot bushwalking day, you can smell and almost see it simmering above the treetops. They don’t understand the intensity of the radiated heat, or the wind-driven spotting that travels hundreds of metres, embers landing on dry leaves, and away it leaps again, ready to cheat once more, throwing the baton far ahead to start another spot.

    The 2003 fires in Canberra have led to a very significant change in local efforts of hazard reduction. It seems that ecological myopia has been replaced at the public level by greater realism, as many have recognised that the 2003 wipe-out of so much flora and fauna in the mountainous country west of Canberra far exceeded what a series of cool burns would have inflicted.

    One of the idiocies I have seen argued is that hazard reduction doesn’t stop fires, and therefore it is pointless. Of course it doesn’t stop fires; I remember a well-grazed 400 acre paddock at the front of a farmhouse in the February 1979 fires that raged through and past what is now Gungahlin – it was all burnt, of course it was. But the flames weren’t fifteen or more feet high, as they would have been if the pasture had been thick and knee-deep. So the fire is not nearly as hot, not nearly as dangerous, and you’ve got some chance to fight and protect while the firefront moves on. Hazard reduction doesn’t stop fires, but it reduces their intensity markedly, giving a much better chance of slowing the fire and steadily controlling it, with greater opportunity for property and stock protection as well as personal survival.

    The Adam Bandts of this world would find it educational to join a bushfire brigade, and fight even a few small fires.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    The three suggestions you make for adapting to long term survival make obvious sense. The embers, smouldering beneath your article, in the immediate context of NSW fires, is whether there is an increasing frequency and intensity in their occurrence as some are suggesting; and whether in fact, there is a connection with climate change.

    On Q&A this week, Tony Burke made a clear point that there is poor methodology in linking a specific case study – in this case the fires in NSW – with broader patterns of climate change. Even if there are similar patterns occurring in the US and Europe, there is nothing conclusive about this.

    Increasingly erratic weather patterns, severe floods and droughts, are however an integral part of climate change but those who study these phenomena indicate that they have always been with us.

    The point is that if climate change is an increasing reality, then the present fires in NSW are a very minor manifestation of what it will be like. The costs, destruction and catastrophic effects will be enormous.

    And for those who study climate change the complexities are subtle and wide-ranging. There is the published research and scientific reports but there are also the intuitions and observations of people who have lived in fire zones for more than half a century. And it is this empirical intimacy, those who go to the ice caps, those who live in such harsh, remote spots around the world taking measurements etc: their impressions do not surface in the literature because they can’t be quantified but they must count for something.

  • PeterE says:

    All sound good sense. Today’s Margaret Throsby ABC FM interview was with Phil Cheney the fire expert and he spoke from a fount of knowledge much along the lines above.

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