With fires devastating communities and landscapes across much of the country, it has been a sombre start to the year. The focus, of course, must be on stopping the fires, protecting people, animals and landscapes, and initial disaster relief. But we must also have the conversation about why these fires have been so bad, and what we need to do to reduce future fire risk.
All those affected by the bushfire—the firefighters, first responders, community members, and wildlife — are front of mind for us.
A continent that burns.
Of course, fire has a pivotal role in almost all landscapes across Australia, and has had for millions of years. The continent of Australia is a cultural and natural landscape: it has been shaped by First Nations peoples for 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, human safety and economic production.
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.
There is no doubt that climate change is driving intense fires. 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. 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."
For details on the link between climate change and fires, please check here.
Is it ‘the greenies’ fault?
Beyond the question of the role of climate change in making this summer’s fires so intense, the public debate revolves around various other things, including:
- Whether these bad fires are the result of arson
- Whether the fires have been worsened by a lack of hazard reduction burning
- The suggestion that these big fires are ‘natural’ because they have happened in the past.
The arson debate
Arson is a huge problem in Australia. Many fires are started deliberately and the law has penalties for people convicted of arson. Deliberately lit fires put communities, animals, landscapes and firefighters at risk.
However, there is a conspiracy theory doing the rounds which is clearly being promoted by anti environmental people and organisations. The argument goes that it is arson that is the cause of this summer’s terrible fires, not climate change. Clearly both factors are at play, yet this argument tends to push the line that only one of these options is possible.
As reported by The Guardian:
Bot and troll accounts are involved in a “disinformation campaign” exaggerating the role of arson in Australia’s bushfire disaster, social media analysis suggests.
The bushfires burning across the nation have been accompanied by repeated suggestions of an arson epidemic or “arson emergency”.
The false claims are, in some cases, used to undermine the link between the current bushfires and the longer, more intense fire seasons brought about by climate change.
Recent number crunching by the ABC has found that throughout this Summers bushfires, less than 2% of the hectares burnt have been due to arson.
The Guardian reports:
Analysis found there is likely a “current disinformation campaign” on Twitter’s #arsonemergency hashtag due to the “suspiciously high number of bot-like and troll-like accounts”.
It also found a large number of suspicious accounts posting on the #australiafire and #bushfireaustralia hashtags.
There is no dispute that arson is a serious problem in Australia, or that arsonists have not been active in the current bushfire season. NSW police say they have charged 24 people with deliberately lighting bushfires already this season.
This list above is an excerpt from the NSW Bushfire Inquiry of the causes of the major fires.
Sometimes conservative media outlets will also conflate 'human caused' that are accidental fires with fires lit by arsonists. For instance, research from the Country Fire Authority in Victoria notes that 'more than a quarter (27%) of bushfires are caused by escaped private fires' - ie, campfires, inadequately controlled fires on private land, etc. But sometimes this figure is included with fires by arson, which makes it look like there are far more deliberately lit fires than there actually are.
But none of this detracts from the clear scientific evidence showing climate change is making Australia’s bushfire seasons longer and more severe. The Bureau of Meteorology’s clear advice is that climate change is “influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia and other regions of the world, including through influencing temperature, environmental moisture, weather patterns and fuel conditions”.
Some aspects of the arson debate are being driven by far Right fringe dwellers, and being linked to deeper conspiracies based on the belief that climate change has been ‘created’ as a cover for an attempt to enforce a global ‘one world government’ agenda by a shadowy group of ‘globalists’ in league with the United Nations. This is being promoted by people like the US-based conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who says "Evidence is mounting that the megafires in Australia are being orchestrated by multinational forces to clear out key corridors for future development and for light rail going in that's being financed by the communist Chinese". Alex is currently in court in the USA because he claimed the Sandy Hook massacre, where 20 children were murdered, was "completely fake" and a "giant hoax".
Fuel reduction burning
For a wildfire to burn, it needs heat, fuel and oxygen, and a point of ignition. A common - and sensible - argument goes that if we reduce the amount of available fuel, then we will reduce the severity of the resulting fire. However we need to understand that fuel reduction (FR) works differently in different forest types and we need to use the right kind of fire at the right time in each different ecosystem. Some vegetation types, such as rainforests and Gondwanic relict vegetation are fire sensitive and are badly impacted by fuel reduction burns. This can result in the creation of different, more fire prone vegetation types, thereby undermining the value of doing a burn.
Fuel reduction is a tool, not a panacea. However, there are loud voices in the public debate claiming that ‘greenies’ (and/ or the Greens party) are to blame for the intensity of this summers fires because they have blocked FR burns. This argument simply does not stack up.
Firstly, no major environmental group opposes burning, nor do The Greens (check here for their policy).
Secondly, The Greens are not in power. FR burning is largely the responsibility of state governments. The Coalition and ALP are in power, not The Greens. So how can a party that is not in power control what governments do?
As reported in The Guardian:
‘Hazard reduction is carried out by fire authorities, national park staff and individual property owners who can apply for permits to clear areas around their buildings. Coordination of activities happens through local bushfire management committees. There are 120 committees in NSW.
'The claim of a conspiracy by environmentalists to block hazard reduction activities has been roundly rejected by bushfire experts, and experts say it is betrayed by hard data on actual hazard reduction activities in national parks’.
Over the last 4 years, NSW National Parks have undertaken over 75% of all prescribed burning in NSW and 88% of all fires that have started on national park (typically by lightning) have been contained within the park (as of Dec 2019).
Thirdly, it is clear that some organisations, media outlets and political groups are promoting the ‘greenies are to blame’ narrative for their own political purposes, which is then being amplified by people who are simply concerned about the fires.
In many ways, this argument is just another front in the endless Culture Wars being driven by conservative forces in the country.
Prof Ross Bradstock, the director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, has previously told Guardian Australia: “These are very tired and very old conspiracy theories that get a run after most major fires. They’ve been extensively dealt with in many inquiries.”
Does fuel reduction work?
Yes. However in the real world, its application needs to be nuanced and appropriate, and will be affected by other land management decisions and the climate.
The report The efficacy of fuel treatment in mitigating property loss during wildfires: Insights from analysis of the severity of the catastrophic fires in 2009 in Victoria, Australia
Is very clear on the limited time that fuel reduction has value as a tool to reduce flammability of vegetation:
The ‘Probability of crown fires was higher in recently logged areas than in areas logged decades before, indicating likely ineffectiveness as a fuel treatment. The results suggest that recently burnt areas (up to 5–10 years) may reduce the intensity of the fire but not sufficiently to increase the chance of effective suppression under severe weather conditions. Since house loss was most likely under these conditions (67%), effects of prescribed burning across landscapes on house loss are likely to be small when weather conditions are severe. Fuel treatments need to be located close to houses in order to effectively mitigate risk of loss.
More hazard reduction is not the answer, experts warn
Associate Professor Philip Zylstra, from Wollongong University's Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions, said fuel loads in forests, and state government management, were not responsible for the catastrophic fire season.
"I think that for the federal government to say there needs to be a focus on hazard-reduction burning at this stage appears to be passing the buck to the states," he said.
"The reality is we are at a peak of prescribed burning by state agencies. More has been done in the past decade than in many, many decades."
Professor Zylstra said a vast increase to the current hazard reduction effort would blanket cities and towns with smoke over winter and create "huge risks" of accidental property damage and even death.
Why wasn’t there more prescribed burning, and would it have helped?
Conservatives routinely blame the Greens political party, environmentalists in general, or simply green-tinged state laws for preventing government agencies and private landholders from carrying out prescribed burns.
However, bushfire experts roundly reject this argument. Mr Bradstock (Professor Ross Bradstock, the director of Wollongong University's Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires) described it as a "tired and old conspiracy theory" while Greg Mullins (former NSW fire and rescue commissioner) said ex-fire chiefs were annoyed that the fires were being used as a political attack.
"That the Greens are stopping burning - it's actually not true," he said.
"This is the blame game. We'll blame arsonists, we'll blame greenies.”
RMIT ABC Fact Check
- Hazard reduction burns are highly dependent on weather conditions — some areas go from wet to dry too rapidly to safely conduct burns.
- Research has shown that during catastrophic fire conditions, hazard reduction burns do little to mitigate the intensity and spread of a fire.
Explainer: how effective is bushfire hazard reduction on Australia's fires?
A former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, Greg Mullins, has written that the hotter and drier conditions, and the higher fire danger ratings, were preventing agencies from carrying out prescribed burning.
But as well as climate change narrowing the window to carry out prescribed burning, Mullins said some fires have become so intense they have burned through areas that had been subject to hazard reduction.
He said: “There has been lots of hazard reductions done over the years – more by national parks than previous years – but the fires have burned through those hazard reduction areas.”
Mullins dismissed suggestions that the bushfires were down to “greenies” preventing hazard reduction activities.
Hazard reduction is not a 'panacea' for bushfire risk, RFS boss says
The boss of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service says hazard reduction is important but not a panacea for bushfire risk and has “very little effect at all” on the spread of fire in severe or extreme weather.
“Hazard reduction is absolutely an important factor when it comes to fire management and managing fire in the landscape but it is not the panacea,”
Should we increase logging to reduce bushfire risk?
Another angle in the public debate has come from the timber industry and the CFMEU (the union which represents many workers in the sector). 'The forest industry and the CFMEU have called for fuel loads in national parks to be aggressively managed through hazard reduction burning and selective logging.’
However, logging can contribute to the severity of bushfires in wet forests. This was shown in research carried out after the 2009 Black Saturday fires. Data from areas that burned on Black Saturday clearly shows how extensive logging can increase the severity of bushfires in mountain ash forests. We found that the risk of “crown” fires, which burn severely and spread rapidly through the forest canopy, is greatest in mountain ash forests that have been regrowing for about 15 years. Before the 2009 fires, these young trees were established following clearfell logging.
There is a danger associated with fuel reduction burning
As we noted above, fuel reduction is not a panacea:
Prescribed burn-offs have little impact on reducing the extent and intensity of bushfires, a study in Tasmania has found. Researchers from the University of Tasmania’s school of biological sciences simulated more than 11,000 fires on a typically dangerous fire-weather day.
They found that firefighters would need to carry out prescribed burn-offs across 31% of Tasmania in order to have a significant impact on reducing the threat from wildfires.
More realistic smaller-scale burn-offs, however, had almost no effect on the extent and intensity of a wildfire.
Professor David Bowman, who helped lead the study, said the findings suggested that planned burn-offs were still necessary but not sufficient.
He said governments and fire authorities needed to consider taking a more local approach, and introduce on the outskirts of towns and cities clever landscape designs that included irrigation and green fire breaks in the form of parklands, that could work in conjunction with burn-offs to help mitigate bushfire risks.
Frequent fire makes the bush more likely to burn
And research from the University of Wollongong has revealed that, in the study area of the Australian Alps, fire has made the bush more likely to burn.
Dr Zylstra’s research measured 36 million locations over 1.5 million hectares from 58 years of mapped fires in 12 national parks.
It found that the different types of forest in the alps did have a low flammability after fire in the very short term, because there was nothing left but bare ground.
However, in the short to medium term – ranging anywhere between two years to 25 years depending on the type of forest – the bush was much more flammable if it had been burnt.
Mature forest – aged from about 20 years old – was much more fire resistant, and in some cases was eight times less likely to burn than bush which had been exposed to frequent fire.
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