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What are we learning from the Australian fires?

Lessons on Indigenous knowledge, relocation and government aid

Bushfires in early January saw thousands evacuated from East Gippsland in southeastern Australia. Darrian Traynor, Getty Images
6 February 2020

“If anyone tells you, ‘This is part of a normal cycle,’ or, ‘We’ve had fires like this before,’ smile politely and walk away, because they don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Greg Mullins, who has fought Australian fires for 47 years as a fire chief and former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW (New South Wales). “Climate change is super-charging our natural disaster risks. I wish we were wrong, but we’re not.”

The smoke hasn’t cleared, and the dust hasn’t settled; but as bushfires continue to blaze in Australia, scientists, policymakers and citizens across the globe are trying hard to make sense of what has happened and determine where to go from here.

As of the end of January, the fires had burned more than 11 million hectares [27.2 million acres] – an area larger than Portugal. Thirty-three people and a billion–plus animals have died, including large numbers of threatened species, some of which might now be extinct. While the country has experienced large bushfires before, “this is the first time we’ve dealt with fires of such a large scale that also impact so many people – around 30,000 living within burnt areas – and we have to deal with both the environmental and human disaster on a large scale at the same time,” says Rachel Whitsed, a spatial scientist at Charles Sturt University.

In the last 15 years, the country experienced eight of its 10 warmest years on record, and southern and inland parts of Australia are becoming drier. While some politicians and media have tried to portray the fires as ‘normal,’ most scientists agree that the fires “are unprecedented in Australian history, and the reasons have all the hallmarks of climate change,” says Paul Read, who co-directs the National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson. “This is uncharted territory. They began earlier than ever before, with a size and ferocity historically constrained to the first week of February. They promise to out-burn the largest fires of Australian history.”

Internationally, the crisis illustrates the increased risk of wildfires as a result of climate change, from the Amazon to Siberia. Globally, ‘fire seasons’ (the portion of the year in which wildfires are likely) have lengthened by a mean of 20 percent from pre-industrial levels. “This is a global catastrophe that has now hit Australia hard,” says Bob Hill, who directs the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide. “There is no reason to believe that this is an isolated event.”

Fire risk, then, is here to stay and projected to worsen. What should governments and citizens in fire-prone areas do about it?

Drawing on Indigenous knowledge and restoring the rights of Indigenous peoples to manage land, is one piece of the puzzle. Before white settlers colonized Australia, Indigenous peoples lowered bushfire risk by regularly setting small fires in different places to burn off fuel loads, creating a mosaic-style landscape of different kinds of vegetation as the burned areas regenerated. Now, initiatives like the Indigenous peoples–led Firesticks Alliance aim to revive cultural burning, and researchers at the University of Tasmania are working alongside landowners and local tribes to create contemporary fire-management solutions that are informed by these traditions and knowledge.

The crisis also begs the uncomfortable but necessary question: should people be living in areas that are very prone to fire? Many new urban developments in Australia back directly into bush areas, which makes them difficult to defend. In some cases, it should be considered whether towns should be relocated into less fire-prone areas. Protecting water supplies will also be important for fire-prone regions, as fires can change aquatic systems and wetland sediments. Soil that has been exposed to fire is more vulnerable to erosion, which can pose risks such as contaminating drinking water catchments.

As for governments, Dale Dominey-Howes, who researchers natural hazards and disaster risk at the University of Sydney, governments of at-risk areas must set up and fund “professional paid workforce[s], capable of ‘round-the-clock, ‘round-the-year and ‘round-the-country deployment, and capable of responding to multiple disaster types.”

“We also need new ways to fund this standing ‘disaster force,’ and numerous mechanisms, from different taxes and government investment to private-public partnerships, are required to fund this,” she says.


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