Stephen Pyne on the Australian fires

Photo from National Geographic

Photo from National Geographic

American fire historian Stephen Pyne comments in The Australian on the current Australian fires in Bushfire leader becomes laggard:

Australia knows better. It developed many key concepts of fire ecology and models of bushfire behaviour. It pioneered landscape-scale prescribed burning as a method of bushfire management. It devised the protocol for structure protection in the bush, especially the ingenious stratagem of leaving early or staying, preparing and defending. In recent decades it has beefed up active suppression capabilities and emergency services.

… Yet Australia keeps enduring the same Sisyphean cycle of calamitous conflagrations in the same places. It isn’t translating what it knows into its practices. It seems to be abandoning its historic solutions for the kind of telegenic suppression operations and political theatre that have failed elsewhere. Even when controlled burning is accepted in principle, there always seems a reason not to burn in this place or at this time. So the burning gets outsourced to lightning, accident and arson.

It’s too early to identify the particulars behind the latest catastrophe. But it’s likely that investigation will point to the same culprits, perhaps aggravated by climate change and arson. Both are relevant, but both are potential distractions.

Global warming might magnify outbreaks, but it would mean a change in degree, not in kind; and its effects must in any case be absorbed by the combustible cover.

Arson can put fire in the worst place at the worst time, but its power depends on the capacity to spread and to destroy susceptible buildings.

Yet neither is fundamental. With or without global warming or arson, damaging fires will come, spread as the landscape allows and inflict damage as structures permit. And it is there – with how Australians live on the land – that reform must go.

Australia will have fire, and it will recycle the conditions that can leverage small flames into holocausts. The choice is whether skilled people should backburn or leave fire-starting to lightning, clumsies and crazies.

After the 1939 Black Friday conflagration, a royal commission set into motion the modern era of bushfire management. At the time the official ambition of state-sponsored conservation was to eliminate fire as far as possible, and through fire exclusion alter the character of the landscape so it would become less fire prone. Leonard Stretton asked the nation’s forester why he continued to hold this view when it had never succeeded, when bushfires had inevitably wiped out his every repeated effort. Wryly, Stretton mocked the absurdity of those who sought to make sunburnt Australia into green England.

Black SaturdayII will yield another royal commission. Much has changed in 70 years; Australians are more urban, more sensitive to environmental issues, keener to protect unique ecological assets. Yet perhaps they are substituting another, more modern delusion: striving to remake the burning bush into an unburnt Oz, only to find this vision also repeatedly obliterated by remorseless fire.

Good points, but I think he under-states the change in settlement patterns, as increasing number of people live in ex-urban areas that complicate fire management, and also the risk that climate change produces a disequilibrium between vegetation and climate that can result in much larger than fires one would observe in an equilibrium climate.

Stephen Pyne is also on an ABC radio podcast discussing the environmental history of bushfire in Australia.

6 thoughts on “Stephen Pyne on the Australian fires”

  1. Thanks for the link.
    It is basically the same as the article in Australian that I linked to above.
    There is more discussion in the interview on ABC I link to at the bottom of the post.

  2. I read both versions. The one on the forest history blog has a very different tone to it because of the order of the paragraphs. I think that it’s the more authoritative because he’s published with them. Just my two cents’.

  3. Bushfire management is carried out by volunteers. The States only pay lip service and ignore what’s over the border. There is no state coordination and the Federal Government has no say in land matters (note the Murray-Darling Basin and the futility of effort).
    So we will get bigger fire, global warming may help there, and yes, more lives will be lost

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