On Fires in Australia

The fires of Australia in their summer 2019-20 are in the news constantly, partly because the media survive on death and destruction and partly because to date we have never seen a whole continent burn up. It is hardly a ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene”  kind of event to celebrate, and the northern media display the fires as nearly all news of the Southern Hemisphere is treated, something unusual, often bad, but of no general importance to the real world of the Northern Hemisphere.

What do we hear from a cacophony of public opinion?

“Nothing unusual. We have always had fires in the past. Why in 1863…..”
“Nothing to do with climate change. Climate has always been changing….(see point 1)
“Main cause had been Green Policies. If we had more forestry, there would have been many fewer trees to burn….”
“Inadequate controlled burning because of the Greens’ policies….(see point 3)
“Why doesn’t the Government do something about this?”
“Fortunately these fires are a rare event and not likely to occur again…….

In reply an ecologist might offer these facts:

  1. Much research by plant geographers and ecologists have shown how many plant communities are dominated by fire. The boreal forest is one, the chaparral of Southern California is another, the grasslands of Africa and the Great Plains of the USA are yet more.
  2. By preventing fire in these communities over time the fuel load builds up so that, should there be a subsequent fire, the fire severity would be very high.
  3. By building houses, towns, and cities in these plant communities fire danger increases, and an active plan of fire management must be implemented. Most of these plans are effective for normal fires but for extreme conditions no fire management plan is effective.
  4. Climate change is now producing extreme conditions that were once very rare but are now commonly achieved. With no rainfall, high winds, and temperatures over 40-45ºC fires cannot be contained. Severe fires generate their own weather that accelerates fire spread with embers being blown kilometers ahead of the active fire front.
  5. The long-term plan to have controlled patch burns to relieve these fire conditions are impossible to implement because they require no wind, low temperatures, and considerable person-power to prevent controlled burns getting away from containment lines should the weather change.

Since a sizeable fraction of dangerous fires are deliberately set by humans, methods to detect and prevent this behaviour could help in some cases. Infrastructure such as power lines could be upgraded to reduce the likelihood of falling power poles and lines shorting out. All this will cost money, and the less the fire frequency, the fewer the people willing to pay more taxes to reduce public risk. Some serious thinking is needed now because Australia 2020 is just the start of a century of fire, drought, floods, and high winds. We do not need the politicians of 2050 telling us “why didn’t someone warn us?

There is a very large literature on fire in human landscapes (e.g. Gibbons et al. 2012), and I include only a few references here. They illustrate that the landscape effects of fire are multiple and area specific. Much more field research is needed, and landscape ecology has a vital role to play in understanding and managing the interface of humans and fire.

Badia, A. et al. (2019). Wildfires in the wildland-urban interface in Catalonia: Vulnerability analysis based on land use and land cover change. Science of The Total Environment 673, 184-196. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.04.012.

Gibbons, P, et. al. (2012) Land management practices associated with house loss in wildfires. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29212. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0029212

Gustafsson, L. et al. (2019). Rapid ecological response and intensified knowledge accumulation following a north European mega-fire. Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research 34, 234-253. doi: 10.1080/02827581.2019.1603323.

Minor, J. and Boyce, G.A. (2018). Smokey Bear and the pyropolitics of United States forest governance. Political Geography 62, 79-93. doi: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2017.10.005.

Ramage, B.S., O’Hara, K.L., and Caldwell, B.T. (2010). The role of fire in the competitive dynamics of coast redwood forests. Ecosphere 1(6), art20. doi: 10.1890/ES10-00134.1.

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