GRAEME WORBOYS: “I’ve never seen anything like this before”

Jan 21, 2020

Catastrophic fires in Australia in 2019/2020 burnt millions of hectares, lives were lost and property burnt. Huge walls of fire, ember attacks and spot fires burnt through super dry bush and other lands. I’ve never seen anything like this before” was a regular response.

The fires have been a tipping point for Australians. Climate change was real and effective response leadership was called for.

Severe bushfires had impacted large parts of Australia by January 2020. Extreme conditions had fuelled fires continuously since August 2019 with 2019 being Australia’s warmest and driest since records began in 1900. Millions of hectares had been burnt with Western Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales all enduring dangerous fires, many extremely large. Lightning caused fires were indiscriminate and no lands or infrastructure in the path of extreme fires were spared. Rainforests, grazing properties, vineyards, orchards, state forests, plantations, protected areas, tourism lodges, a ski resort, historic buildings and private property were burnt. Whole towns were impacted and houses lost, industrial sites burnt, domestic animals and stock lost and tragically, many people were killed.

Fire behaviour was extreme and dangerous during the passage of major weather fronts. Powerful winds drove waves of fire that ignored containment lines and brave fire fighters necessarily would fall back to save houses and property where it was safe to do so. Pyro-cumulus clouds developed above frontal fires and generated their own fire winds and spot-fires that spread the fire further. Dry lightning storms ignited new fires. Time and time again, experienced fire fighters and residents commented “I’ve never seen anything like this before”.

Climate change scientists and fire professionals had long forecast such worsening fire weather conditions and fire behaviour. In an unprecedented move in April 2019, 23 former fire and emergency service leaders sought to meet the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison to discuss improving climate change responses, the root cause of worsening fire behaviour. The government’s minimalist climate change response actions and support for the coal industry had been found wanting by many. Morrison refused to meet them. He had stated:

“Let me be clear to the Australian people, our emissions reductions policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risk and hazard we are seeing today”.

People were no fools. Marketing rhetoric implying that “everything was under control” was seen for what it was. Australia’s greenhouse emissions had been rising year-on-year for five years prior to 2019 and the government had no credible policy to reduce greenhouse pollution. Morrisons “quiet Australians”, every day citizens including town’s people, business people, fire fighters, farmers, vignerons, scientists, tourism operators, economists and 23 fire chiefs were seeking an improved climate change response.

Diverting attention away from the climate change issue soon became important. Morrison advised that in the post fire future, “all contributing factors” to the prolonged fire season would be assessed including: “a need to address hazard reduction for national parks, dealing with land clearing laws, zoning laws and planning walls around peoples properties and where they can be built in countries like Australia up and down the coast”. Suddenly hazard reduction burning in national parks was targeted, an interesting perspective when fires had started and burnt in all tenures including grazing lands, vineyards, plantations, state forests rainforests and urban areas.

The Prime Ministers words were immediately seized on. Pro-logging, pro-burning and anti-park opportunists couldn’t help themselves. The forest industry and the Construction, Forests, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) lobbied for selective logging (thinning) of national park forests and for fuel loads to be aggressively managed by hazard reduction burning “to prevent future fire crises”. NSW National MPs, no friend of national parks, supported this action.

The forest industry proposal was delusional. It had resurrected forestry ideology that fuel reduction burning “would prevent” catastrophic fire behaviour. The reality was that catastrophic fires, as fire weather took charge, were beyond what humans could control. Contemporary experts provided more responsible advice about fuel reduction burning: it only provided a small window of benefit in extreme conditions. NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, in charge of the 2020 fires in NSW, confirmed prescribed burning was helpful at times, but no panacea. The industrial logging and landscape burning approach proposed by the forest industry, presumably for economic access to timber, would vandalise Australia’s protected areas and had little chance to deliver what was promised. Devoid of any moral integrity, their proposal to log national parks was akin to mining the iconic Great Barrier Reef or quarrying the remarkable Uluru Kata-Ttjuta.

Politicians also seized on the fuel reduction issue. Simple to understand, popular, seldom contested and good for an undiscerning media, it diverted media attention from community demands for climate change action. The Government led the charge. Instead of waiting for an appropriate in-depth (evidenced based) post fire inquiry, pet “solutions” were being championed and blame apportioned. Prime Minister Morrison wanted more land clearing and hazard-reduction burns; National Party backbencher Barnaby Joyce blamed a lack of hazard reduction burns (and green laws that prevented them) and Liberal MP Craig Kelly claimed fuel loads were largely to blame for the spread of fires. Others also had their say. Senator Pauline Hanson claimed hazard reduction burns were being restricted and NSW National Party leader and Deputy Premier John Barilaro blamed the greens for limiting prescription burning. There was silence when it came to the cause of the extreme fire behaviour. Canberra’s January 2020 air was indeed thick with smoke and alternative facts.

This cascade of political views was painfully endured by fire fighters. Rural Fire Service volunteers; NPWS, NSW Forestry, and NSW Fire and Rescue staff and a flotilla of community support organisations and individuals however thankfully focused on the business of responding to the extreme fires and the safety of the community.

The 2020 exclamation “I have never seen anything like this before” by experienced fire fighters symbolised a cultural tipping point. Climate change was real, dangerous and the disastrous consequences of extraordinary fires had impacted entire landscapes, towns, communities and World Heritage national parks. Something meaningful needed to happen. Politicians had missed the point. Playing a blame game with diversionary rhetoric was not wise when most Australians were seeking major improvements to the Government’s climate change policies. The effective and immediate reduction of carbon dioxide pollution of the atmosphere was wanted as was leadership to achieve this. The message was clear for the Australian Government.

Dr Graeme L. Worboys is an (Honorary) Associate Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and a recipient of the National Medal with clasp for his bushfire management service.


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