Never before have we experienced fires like the present. They challenge us to re-assess our whole approach to living in Australia. With global warming a reality, we now face some pretty stark options.
The unprecedented fires of 2019-2020 were preceded by a drought which began in 2017, while we were still recovering from the flow-on effects of the Millennium drought of 1997-2009. These fires exceed in extent, intensity and duration anything we have yet experienced. (See my previous P&I article on the history of fire).
In terms of intensity and duration, the nearest comparison are the bushfires of 2002-2003. Previous fires lasted a week or fortnight; the 2002-03 season lasted from late December to early March. The current fires across Australia began in early September 2019 with an estimated 10.8 million hectares already burnt by 11 January 2020.
The reality is that we are now reaping the results of 230 years of gross vandalism in the landscape. Our settler forebears tried to re-create their European homelands in a totally different world. While their nostalgia was understandable, the results have been disastrous. There has been a massive increase in fire post-1788 as land was cleared and eroded, forests logged or degraded, and rivers dammed or drained. As a result, Australians now have to confront a complete re-assessment of our relationship to nature and specifically to fire.
As a first step we have to rethink our whole approach to the landscape and our place in it. The core question is one of values. We have to decide what is most important, what ‘asset’ do we most want to protect? Fire ecologist, Malcolm Gill says: ‘Unless “assets” are understood, the nature of the fire problem is not understood…[and] what is considered an asset will vary within and between societies.’
He distinguishes three types of assets: owned assets such as land, tangible assets such as a house, stock or pasture, and intangible assets such as biodiversity, natural beauty, wilderness, the spiritual/imaginative values of nature. Gill says that conflicts about assets are especially sharp on ‘the urban to wildland interface’ and ‘the farmland to wildland interface.’ He sees the challenge facing us as negotiating viable compromises between these conflicting asset values.
However, I think we have now reached a situation in our relationship with nature in Australia where that is no longer possible. Yes, we need to negotiate, but we also have to choose priorities in a situation in which global warming will continue to impact every aspect of our lives. Australia’s climate has already increased by just over 1°C since 1910.
Therefore, we must decide what is most important to us. For me, unequivocally, the foundational moral principle is one that prioritizes the natural world and biodiversity. With a shocking history of species loss and with estimates of a billion or more native animals killed since September—and that’s not counting bats, frogs, insects or other invertebrates—I’m happy to say that the survival of species takes priority over everything else, including human assets.
This question of priorities is already confronting us, because those who believe the old doctrine that you fight fire with fire are already out on the hustings. Scott Morrison tells us that he wants to see more land clearing and ‘hazard management in national parks.’ National Party hacks, the logging industry and the CFMEU, are already blaming conservationists and insufficient hazard reduction for the fires.
NSW Rural Fire Services chief Shane Fitzsimmonds rejects these claims insisting that hazard reduction is an important element of fire prevention, but it’s not a universal panacea.
Australians have been obsessed with ‘hazard reduction’ since the late nineteenth century. A whole succession of self-proclaimed ‘practical bushmen’ told Leonard Stretton’s 1939 bushfire Royal Commission that you fight fire with fire. Despite Stretton’s nuanced response to the mania with burning, hazard reduction became ‘orthodox doctrine’ post-1945.
We need to retreat from our obsession with ‘managing’ nature; it doesn’t need human management. Originally Australian forests were self-protecting with an intact canopy. The understory was open, damp and ‘park-like.’ Because only limited light penetrated, the growth of combustible vegetation was prevented. Once forests were logged, or partially cleared, they became vulnerable to combustible undergrowth and fire.
The evidence shows that hazard reduction burning even in dry sclerophyll forests doesn’t reduce fire spread. What does work are 40 metre buffer zones around houses and other assets. Broadscale burning of forests and national parks achieves little or nothing.
One approach that has gained much traction lately is the use of ‘Aboriginal fire management,’ to quote the catch-phrase. The traditional Aboriginal focus was burning open grassland and savannah and most likely was not consistent across the continent. People knew their own country intimately, so their burning practices likely varied in different landscapes. Also, how certain can we be that we still have access to the details of traditional knowledge?
Even if we had that knowledge, the real problem is the country has changed radically. There were about 750,000 Aboriginal people here in 1788. The population is now 25.3 million, which creates a vastly different situation. Secondly, the landscape has been modified and changed on a vast scale; we are literally dealing with a different country. I’m not saying we have nothing to learn from traditional fire practices, but I am saying they won’t solve everything.
The real changes that have to occur are attitudinal. We have to move beyond the notion, much touted by government, that ‘growing the economy’ is the main purpose of existence. We’ve got to recognize that creating this economy has produced climate change and that climate change is not only a threat to biodiversity, it is a threat to us.
Second, we have to prioritise nature. The core moral principle that governs everything must be that the biological diversity of life, expressed in all its detail and species, as well as the maintenance of the integrity of the earth must come first, before everything else. And by “everything” I mean everything, including us. Given our total dependence on the earth system, to think or act otherwise is delusional.
No, we don’t need another royal commission to tell us what to do. We just have to accept the principle ‘earth first’.
Paul Collins is the author of Burn. The epic story of bushfire in Australia (Allen&Unwin, 2006) and a reprint by Scribe (2009.