Australia has a flammable ecosystem. The catastrophic fires we have experienced across the country in recent weeks are the result of the effects of climate change combined with poor land management, the ongoing drought and a lack of government action to prepare adequately.
Bone-dry conditions combined with low humidity, high ambient temperatures and wind have led to this dire situation, which is being called ‘the new normal’.
According to Dr David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at the University of Tasmania, Aboriginal Australians practised skilled burning to reduce the intensity and extent of fires.
However, land clearing and the introduction of non-native plants and animals have radically changed our ecosystems.
This, combined with a rapidly warming world, he says, makes it impractical to return to pre-settlement fire management, though we could adapt the principles of Aboriginal patch burning to today’s environment.
One major challenge is the drought, in part brought about by logging and widespread land clearing, which has disrupted the water cycle. Tree transpiration carries water through the tree from the roots to small pores on the underside of leaves, which then becomes vapour, subsequently released into the atmosphere to aid rain production.
As fires rage, debate rages about who is at fault. Politicians like Barnaby Joyce have blamed “the greenies” – who have never held any significant power at a federal or state government level.
Others blame the government for not having completed their fuel burning targets in time for the bushfire season.
State governments are tasked with selectively burning vegetation or ‘fuel’ in the cooler months to prepare for bushfire season. The problem is, they’ve found it harder and harder to reach their reduction targets as the cool weather window of opportunity has been diminishing each year.
In short, it has been too hot and dry in winter to do the necessary fuel reduction, a fact confirmed by former New South Wales Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins, who wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in April and September. He represented 22 former fire and safety chiefs and demanded a meeting with Mr Morrison to discuss the forthcoming catastrophe – but was ignored.
A complex range of factors have led to our current situation – a situation which climate change scientists have predicted for years. Now the public is putting increasing pressure on governments to take more definitive action on climate change.
Whether you believe humans have caused climate change or whether you believe it’s a natural process, or a combination of both, scientific research proves it is real.
Concerned citizens, such as Maroochydore’s Graham Bates, are taking matters into their own hands. Mr Bates runs a website called The Wildfire Hunter. A radiographer and sonographer, he has a background in research and analysis with the Australian Government Department of Defence and has been independently researching bushfires and developing new strategies and tactics for years.
“I first got involved in this in 2005 when I was working at a hospital in southwest Victoria,” he says.
“One of the nurses at the hospital was a veteran fire fighter, Daryl Rigby. He had lived in southwest Victoria most of his life and had fought the Ash Wednesday fires. I said, ‘did you have a drought before Ash Wednesday?’ He said, ‘absolutely’.
“We wrote a paper that dealt with a new method for fighting fires using a Fire King, a vehicle based on a military vehicle called the Bushmaster. The South Australian forestry department wanted a vehicle that was bomb proof.
“The Fire King is manufactured in Bendigo in Victoria and only 16 were ever made in Australia and they’re all in South Australia. We thought, how come that’s the case when these vehicles provide maximum protection for fire crews? That was in 2006. I sent it to the Army but sadly, the Army must be thinking bushfires aren’t their problem.”
Mr Bates has written a document called Mission: Defend Australia from Drought and Wildfires, which details a plan that could help deal with three major problems at once – fixing the drought, fighting fires and giving military veterans meaningful work.
“They [veterans] experience transition stress – they come back to civic jobs and they don’t feel they’re contributing,” he says.
“When you become a member of the Australian Defence Force and you’re discharged, you leave the tribe. This could solve that problem. The reason I think the Army can get veterans involved is that they are experienced in some of the most dangerous terrain. They’re good at map reading and have been in combat.
“Not all veterans will be wanting to fight fires, but some will be interested in doing fuel reduction in winter.
“We don’t just have them fighting fires, we incorporate land management into the process. It’s a big job and it’s not going to be done overnight.”
One thing is for sure: there’s no quick and easy solution and our governments are going to have to intervene to protect communities from the increasingly flammable future we face. There is much to be done.
Stay up-to-date with fire warnings by listening to your local ABC radio station, follow the QFES Facebook page or visit ruralfire.qld.gov.au.
Last week Higgins Storm Chasing shared this image of Australia. Huge areas of the country were experiencing 35- to 40-degree heat. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Meteorology’s October 2019 report showed that the month was warmer than average across the country as a whole. Australia recorded its second-warmest mean temperature on record for January to October.
how do fires start?
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, the majority of bushfires are started either intentionally or unintentionally by people.
Smoking isn’t a common cause – for a cigarette to ignite it has to be over 27 degrees with low humidity, with the cigarette landing on a loose fuel bed at a specific angle. Burning pieces of carbon from car exhausts are more likely to start fires. People burning off vegetation during fire bans is another cause, which isn’t necessarily intentional.
Railways are also a culprit – brake failures in trains can throw out a wall of sparks and ignite dry vegetation.
Arsonists are behind a large number of bushfires, with around half of all bushfires in Australia known to be deliberately lit or considered suspicious.
Campfires that aren’t properly extinguished, use of equipment like angle grinders outdoors during a fire ban and even lawn mowers are a problem. Several fires on the Sunshine Coast in September were caused by sparks thrown by mowers.
Lighting is the most common ignition source in remote areas.
Is climate change causing the fires?
Last Thursday, as blazes burned across Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison again argued that there was no link between the bushfires and domestic climate change.
Amid the debate, two experts weigh in.
Dr Helen Fairweather – Disciple Leader Engineering, Senior Lecturer Environmental Engineering, and Program Coordinator Master of Climate Change Adaptation by Research, University of the Sunshine Coast:
“The changes we’ve seen have been quite clearly attributed to the greenhouse gas emissions we’ve put into the atmosphere. We’re experiencing conditions in places you would never have experienced them before, like the coastal areas of Queensland, which traditionally has summer-dominated rainfall.
“I’ve lived on the Sunshine Coast for 10 years and I’ve never experienced the dryness we’ve been experiencing these last couple of weeks. It’s actually not the new normal. The new normal is only going to be here for a short time. There’s going to be another new normal – it’s accelerating. That acceleration is of heavy, grave concern.
“The government don’t think it’s in their interest. There are individuals in the world who … make their money out of fossil fuels. I’m an engineer, so I know digging coal out of the ground and burning it to generate electricity is actually a simple thing to do.
“The government makes money by selling that coal. If you transition to an economy powered by renewables, you don’t have that commodity to sell. That’s the problem for the government – where do we get our income stream? That requires intellectual grunt to work through. I’m really quite devastated that my profession and the economists of the world haven’t put their collective grunt to solving that problem.”
Dr Sanjeev Kumar Srivastava – Senior Lecturer in Geospatial Analysis with a special interest in fire management, University of the Sunshine Coast:
“This is a natural process that has been happening for thousands of years in Australia. People have been burning the forest for 40,000 years. The ecosystem has been shaped in a way that it has to burn. Things have gone so bad mainly because of weather conditions and if you’re looking for an ideal way of managing the fuel, that is mainly achieved by prescribed burning.
“Usually most of the government organisations plan to do five per cent of burning of all the forest areas, and they keep doing it from time to time, on a routine basis, mostly during non-fire season, which keeps varying from location to location.
“In Queensland we get the fire season from September to December. It’s normally not so bad with respect to fire because most of the time we get storms. This time it has been quite dry and windy so that has aggravated the situation.
“You can say it is the effects of climate change. We have been experiencing a lot of dry spells and that is the reason for the situation now. The government departments have been burning five per cent of the flammable land, which is in their fuel reduction plans, but given the vastness of Australian land resources, they can’t do all of it. It is too much area. Australian vegetation has to burn because it has to meet its ecological requirements. What we try to minimise is the fire with a large geographical extent and with large intensity.
“We have to prepare for climate change because we will be getting more severe weather – fires, floods, storms.”
Fighting the fires: a first-hand account
Auxiliary Captain Kerry Eleison, Tewantin Fire and Rescue Station fought the recent Teewah, Cooroibah and Noosa North Shore fires.
Can you describe the experience of a fire up close? Every fire is different depending on the conditions. Some we know we can offensively attack and extinguish as soon as possible.
Have you ever feared for your life? I have been in life-threatening situations, but I’ve never feared for my life. One is the confidence in the equipment and resources provided to us and secondly, confidence in the crews you work with. We develop a special relationship as fire fighters with crews. We have a lot of trust and respect among each other.
What are some of the dangers you face that most people don’t know about? Every job possesses its own dangers. For us, we’re prepared and we’re provided with as much information as we can possibly have from fire communications and other crews, but you never know exactly what you’re responding to till you’re on scene.
Have you had adequate resources to fight the fires? On the Coast we’re really well resourced with permanent and auxiliary fire fighters throughout the region. We also have crews that can be brought in from Brisbane and surrounding areas. We had Rockhampton crews here for the Tewantin fires. At the height of the Peregian fires we had over 100 fire appliances in attendance. Without that type of resourcing the outcome of the Peregian fires might have been very different.
You’ve been a fire fighter for close to two decades. What has changed in that time? Air operations have continued to be utilised and have increased use from year to year. Whether that’s in the use of water bombing choppers or fixed-wing aircraft or fire spotting helicopters, they’re of great benefit.
How many hours at a time are you on the ground during a fire and how do you avoid exhaustion? As fire fighters we want to be on the fire ground and want to help our community as much as possible. Sometimes crews have to be held back to ensure they look after themselves. Recently we did in excess of 60 hours on the fire ground. When we had the flare-up at Cooroibah, we were called at just after 1pm in the afternoon and worked through till midnight until we could get a crew swap over. We continued to work that entire time.
Have conditions worsened over the past two decades in your opinion? Some years we have fires and some years we have floods. For many years we’ve had a severe fire season predicted and then it would turn around and we’d be going from fires one day and the next week we’d be going to floods. It’s not something you can predict but something we need to work with. This year we’re enduring a severe fire season and all QFES are working hard to contain that. One of the things this year is it has impacted on a lot of the area of the Sunshine Coast that people didn’t think would be affected. While I don’t have an opinion on how things are progressing from year to year in terms of climate change, this year has taught us all that the residents of the Sunshine Coast need to be prepared.
6 things to know
The Salvation Army has launched a disaster appeal to support communities affected by the bushfires. Go to salvationarmy.org.au, call 13 SALVOS or donate at Woolworths.
The Queensland Government has partnered with fundraising platform GIVIT and is encouraging people to donate funds or items. Visit givit.worldsecuresystems.com.
The Australian Red Cross is supporting communities affected by fires. Visit redcross.org.au/campaigns/disaster-relief-and-recovery-bushfires.
The St Vincent De Paul Society is running a bushfire appeal. Visit vinnies.org.au.
To help Wildlife Rescue, visit wires.org.au/donate/ways-to-help.
For advice on how to prepare for an emergency visit the Sunshine Coast Council’s website: disaster.sunshinecoast.qld.gov.au.