The global risk of climate-change-charged wildfires is manifest. What’s the outlook for Australia, and how can our experience – millennia-deep through Indigenous knowledge – help the world cope?
Our connection to fire runs soul deep. We’ve carried it with us wherever we have roamed across the globe; it’s been instrumental in our evolution.
But according to a report released by the United Nations Environment Program and environmental not-for-profit organisation GRID-Arendal, this relationship is set to be challenged.
As climate change continues to destablise global weather patterns, the report says, we can expect up to 50% more wildfires by the turn of the century.
Our alteration of the natural landscape having set a highly flammable scene, the changing climate looks ready to light the spark. We face a future in which massively destructive blazes will be terrifyingly commonplace.
The UN report provides a dire global outlook. Will Australia be spared by the capacity we’ve built through our extensive fire history? Or will we find ourselves more vulnerable than ever in the new global fire regime?
The future of fire in Australia
Australia’s already a parched, fire-prone nation, and its outlook as climate shifts is grim.
We’ve already had tasters of what’s likely in coming decades through the ferocious Black Summer fires of 2019–20. In total, an area approximately the size of the UK went up in flames.
Modelling suggests that, in line with the UN report, wildfires of this ilk will ignite with increasing frequency as climate change unfolds. Many researchers believe we’re already seeing the shift.
“In Victoria, since the year 2000, there’s been over six million hectares of forest that has burned – between 1950 and 2000, around four million hectares burned,” says Tom Fairman, Future Fire Risk analyst at the University of Melbourne.
“That probably gives a good insight into how much fire we have had in a short 20-year window.”
This is a vast area of land – and we don’t have a boundless landscape. In the end, the result of increasing fire frequency and intensity is that many areas are now subject to repeat burns in ways they’ve never been in the past.
“Between 2000 and 2020, one million hectares of forest was burned by at least two bushfires, and a quarter of this area experienced multiple, severe fires,” says Fairman.
Our ecosystems’ unique adaptations begin to fall apart under such relentlessly stressful conditions.
“Many of our native plants have incredible adaptations which allow them to co-exist with wildfire – like our eucalypt forests’ capacity to robustly resprout from their stems and canopies when burned by even the most severe fire,” explains Fairman. “But of course, as fire regimes begin to change, these adaptations may begin to be tested.
“The classic example is alpine ash forests, which have evolved to burn severely but at long intervals – say, 75 to 100 years. When they do eventually burn, they recover via intense seedling regeneration, but these seedlings have no capacity to regenerate for the first 20 years of their life.
“When fires start burning severely at short intervals, these forest types are lost from the landscape – and this has already happened a few times this century. If fire becomes more frequent in the future, we can expect that this type of ash forest will probably start to reduce in extent, unless we are proactive about recovering them and actively maintaining them in the landscape.”
Then there’s the human element. The obvious human impacts of increasing wildfires are the most immediate – loss of lives and properties. But the costs of fire extend well beyond this.
“There’s been a lot of work now around the effect of smoke and the impact on human health,” says Trent Penman, a bushfire risk modeller at the University of Melbourne.
“One paper estimated the Black Summer fires caused around 417 additional deaths due to the smoke in the air, plus an additional 3000 hospital admissions during that time.”
And the smoke shrouds even hazier problems.
“We know regions that are exposed to fire once have increased incidence of mental health issues, PTSD, suicide, and those issues leading on to things like divorce, community breakdown – and multiple fires then increase the rate that that occurs,” says Penman.
“So we know there’ll be a mental health cost as well.”
Shifting focus from recovery to risk management
A clear recommendation that’s emerged from the UN report is to begin to shift our focus away from reactive firefighting and recovery efforts, and start trying to cut back risk at the source – a move that Australian researchers believe is wise.
“It will be increasingly important to invest in fire preparedness and fire risk research, rather than reactive approaches to single fire events,” says Kate Parkins, bushfire risk analyst at the University of Melbourne.
“Recent wildfire disasters around the world are stark reminders of the urgent need to improve our preparedness for changing fire regimes. Addressing future fire challenges will require broad, transdisciplinary thinking across big temporal and spatial scales.”
University of Wollongong research fellow Hamish Clarke acknowledges that the transition in approach could be difficult.
“We are on the cusp of a revolution in how we think about fire,” he says. “The paradigm of risk now prevails; conceptually simple – a partition of the world into likelihood and consequence – but not always easy to put into practice.
“The cutting edge of research and management today is enunciating the many values – things we care about – that are affected by fire, as well as our efforts to manage fire.”
Quantifying risk is a challenging proposition, and crisply delineating what we value most has direct consequences when fires flare.
“One issue I think is particularly interesting is – as fires become more severe and frequent, we are going to begin to see substantial changes in the composition of our landscapes,” says Fairman.
“Do we have a policy position for those instances? Are we obliged to continue to intervene to restore those landscapes? What are we restoring it to – a state which is resilient to the challenges of future fire and climate change, or the past before anthropogenic climate change? These are questions that the sciences can’t answer alone, because they go to peoples’ values and how they view the world.”
Embracing a new relationship with fire, and with the landscapes we tread
This growing recognition of the influence of human values on our approach to ecosystem management is echoed in the research of Michael-Shawn Fletcher, an associate professor in geography at the University of Melbourne.
Fletcher knows just how much the relationship we cultivate with the land can inform our ability to mitigate risk – in fact, it fundamentally shapes our preparedness in the face of climate change.
When European settlement forcibly removed Indigenous peoples from their lands, tens of thousands of years of landscape management were swept away without acknowledgement. In the absence of intricately planned cultural burning practices, highly combustible eucalypts and shrubs took root, drastically changing the flammability of the landscape.
The critical point, stresses Fletcher, is that these changes were set in motion long before climate change – essentially pre-loading the landscape – and that they are fundamentally tied to active human management.
“It’s not just climate change – climate change is a compounding effect of negligence of our forest systems,” he says.
He believes that a return to actively managed landscapes, drawing on the deep-rooted knowledge of Indigenous communities, could drastically reduce our fire risk – a sentiment mirrored in the UN report.
“If you think about the principles for which people manage landscapes, [they are] to create a safe, predictable and resource-rich environment – and that’s a ubiquitous human trait.”
This, he argues, is exactly what Indigenous people did successfully for tens of thousands of years prior to white settlement, and their wealth of knowledge could help to shape our response to our increasing fire risk.
But while Indigenous fire practices are gaining widespread acknowledgement, it’s not enough to tack them on to existing management practices as an addendum – we need to rethink our whole approach, says Fletcher.
“The policy settings need to change. Cultural burning happened all throughout the year, concentrated in various times depending on what parts of the country needed what, and required intimacy – people actually there on the ground. Not just planning blocks on a map, having a five year rotation and getting out to these areas when you can.
“There’s a whole socio-political lens here that needs to change if we’re to effectively manage this country the way it needs to be, the way it has been for the last 60,000 years. And that’s working with fire to create a safe and predictable environment to live in.”
This interventionist approach contrasts starkly with our modern notion of environmental protection, that tends to exclude human activity, and Fletcher foresees resistance.
“A lot of this is just built out of the quasi-religious notion that humans are separate from the world around them. It’s the wilderness myth.
“But if you think about the biodiversity we’re losing, it was created and maintained under Aboriginal management – so it’s not anathema to have high biodiversity and active management of country in Australia. We’re dominated by this wilderness mindset, this abstraction of people from the world around them. And we abscond our responsibilities.”
The aim is not to wind the clock back to some imagined past. Instead, it’s to incorporate the wisdom cultivated through thousands of years into modern practices.
“One of the greatest things about humans is that we develop and we adopt new technologies. It’s not the technology that underscores the culture, it’s the way that technology is used. It doesn’t matter whether you’re burning with a drip torch, a fire stick, or some other kind of technology, it’s the way that you’re doing it, which is the culture, not the tool that you’re using.
“So we can adapt, and we will adapt.”
The elephant in the room
“The ability of management to alter these shifting fire patterns appears at this stage to be fairly limited,” Penman says.
“The existing management approaches we take in terms of fuel management, fire suppression, these sorts of things, look likely to not have a huge effect, because a lot of the fires in the future are going to be driven by these extreme weather events where we know fuel suppression play a smaller part. They’re really driven by weather.”
There are some broad-scale, practical solutions we could adopt, he says, but they’re not likely to be met with much enthusiasm.
“We’ve dug ourselves into a hole. We’ve designed landscapes where we have a lot of people living in flammable situations. We have houses all through the forest, in these complex places where we just can’t deal with fire coming through safely for our firefighters as well as protecting the property.”
We might try to coax people away from the bush and into the safety of towns – but the romance of the tree-studded landscape is mighty seductive, and shifting our perceptions of what makes a desirable home to ones that centre around safety won’t happen quickly.
Changing the conditions we build into the landscape will undoubtedly be crucial to reducing our risk, but Penman argues that the increasingly punishing conditions looming with climate change will render our efforts meaningless unless we take drastic action.
An alternative could be to ask people to shoulder a greater portion of the risk burden themselves, preparing themselves and their properties more comprehensively for fires, but Penman isn’t optimistic about this option either.
“Historically that hasn’t been very successful. It’s relatively expensive to prepare your property for fire. Some work we did a few years ago estimated the cost at somewhere around $30,000 to shift an average property towards a fire-ready property.”
We can’t afford to tinker around the edges of this looming crisis, he says. We need to address the most glaring issue.
“I think realistically, the way that we have to deal with this is by addressing climate change head on. And that’s not a fire management issue. That’s a whole-of-society issue. It’s not very exciting because reducing emissions and changing practices don’t come with fire trucks with flashing lights or firefighting helicopters. There’s no smoke in the air or anything like that. It’s not exciting. But honestly, if we want to try and mitigate some of these changes, it’s our only option.”
Lessons from a burnt landscape
Beyond painting a grim picture of a future world in flames, the UN report is something of a call to arms. Parts of the world that are entirely naïve to the grim reality of wildfire look set to experience their first uncontrolled blazes, and in the absence of a history with fire they are entirely unprepared.
But it doesn’t need to be this way, says the report – it’s time to instigate a global knowledge-sharing effort, and face the issue united.
“These areas that are experiencing fires, they don’t have to start from from scratch, absolutely not,” says Penman. “They need to be able to work with other countries that have gone through this before and learn from them.”
Australia’s relationship with fire is long and considered, and our researchers are ready to share their expertise with the rest of the world.
“Australia has a very long history of working relationships both from a fire agency, fire management [and] suppression side, but also from a research side with both the US and Canada,” says Penman. “And there’s been a long history of exchange of people during major fire seasons, researchers at different times, going all the way back to the 1950s.
“And Australia, in terms of fire research, really punches above its weight. Our output is quite significant. And it’s very high-level work that has broad applicability in other countries as well. So I think Australia’s in a great position to provide the full spectrum of help from how you actually do things on the ground, how you respond to fires, how you prepare people, but also the research in terms of how you start thinking about longer-term issues that are beyond the remit of agencies and how you can trade off different strategies and make good decisions.”
Clarke believes that preparing the world for this challenge will require cooperation that stretches not just across the globe, but across an enormous suite of research disciplines.
“Underpinning these efforts to illuminate fire’s complexity are fire ecologists, fire behaviour analysts, climate scientists and many other natural scientists, not to mention social scientists, economists, communicators and environmental managers. Many more will be needed.”
Focus on the bigger picture
The unifying message from all researchers is the need to lift our eyes above the flames.
“If we think of this as just a fire problem, it can get thrown to the fire agencies and we just say, ‘you have to do something about this’,” says Penman.
“But the reality is, if we keep just trying to deal with the fire problem, the flooding problem, the ecological problems, all of these things, in isolation, we’re never going to have the momentum and the strength to deal with the underlying cause, which is climate change.
“We need leadership and strength at the higher level to bring all this stuff together because within the lens of individual disturbances or disasters, we can’t hope to address the bigger problem.”
Parkins agrees. “We need to see a much bigger focus on preparedness and longer-term risk mitigation efforts, through research, investment and community engagement, and these must be aligned with future projections.
“The seriousness of the threat must be matched with serious progress in preparedness for the future.”
Jamie Priest is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of Adelaide.