Doomed Planet

A Note on Climate Change and Bushfires

Fixing the climate so as to fix the bushfire crisis is particularly popular with the authorities. Being able to blame the climate for unstoppable bushfires is, politically speaking, a beautiful strategy: it absolves governments and agencies of accountability. Plus, what empire-building bureaucrat doesn’t want a budget boost to buy water bombers in bulk lots?

A recent article in the Sunday Telegraph paints a despondent picture: horrible bushfires are “the new normal” because of climate change. The fire season, we learn,  now extends to nearly 10 months of the year, and bushfires have become so intense that they cannot be stopped before immense damage is done. According to recently retired NSW fire commissioner Greg Mullins (now a member of the Climate Council): “The price of inaction [on climate change] will increasingly be paid in lives lost and communities shattered”.

This echoes comments made in the wake of the bushfire that destroyed the town of Yarloop in Western Australia in 2016. The conditions were described by authorities as “unprecedented”. And following the 2018 Queensland bushfires, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told reporters “If you want to know what caused those conditions, I’ll give you an answer – it’s called climate change”.

Let’s assume for the moment that this is all correct. Put aside the views of most bushfire experts that the basic problem is failure to prepare the potential fire grounds in the expectation of fire. For the sake of argument, let’s accept that, thanks to climate change, the bushfire threat in Australia is now completely out of hand and deteriorating by the day. So what is to be done?

Simplifying things a little, there are broadly two options for responding to this “unprecedented” bushfire scourge.

The first is: “Fix the Climate”.

This approach comes primarily from environmentalists, political parties like The Greens and their supporters. Their plan is to fix the bushfire threat by fixing the climate. This will be accomplished by reducing/eliminating emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere, which in turn will be accomplished by shutting down the coal industry, generating power by wind and solar instead of fossil fuels, switching to electric vehicles, and so on.  The outcome of these measures is presumed to be a significant reduction in atmospheric CO2, and a return to cooler, wetter and less windy weather across Australia. As a result the bushfire threat will be ameliorated.

The second option is to “Fix Bushfire Management”.

This requires governments to move away from the current approach (based on putting bushfires out after they start) and adopt an alternative approach. This will focus on reducing bushfire intensity, thus making fires easier, safer and cheaper to control.

The key strategy is to shift investment from fire suppression and fire recovery into preparedness and damage mitigation (including fuel-reduction burning). The outcome of this revised policy will not be fewer fires, but fires that are smaller, less intense and thus easier to suppress.

Not surprisingly, the ‘Fix the Climate’ option seems to be the most attractive to most people. Everybody wants milder summer days, more winter rain, lighter winds and no cyclones, and if at the same time the bushfire threat diminishes, that will be a welcome bonus.  However, there are two critical drawbacks to this approach. The first is that it is not supported by climate science; increased temperatures will lead to increased rainfall, not the other way around. More importantly, the promised outcome cannot be achieved overnight. Indeed, it is likely to be 20-30 years before today’s reductions in CO2 emissions will fix the climate.  Over those years we will continue to be faced with lives lost and communities shattered by unstoppable bushfires.

However, those who promote Fixing the Climate as the solution to our bushfire woes are well aware of the latter drawback. They also know what must be done to keep bushfire damage at bay while we wait for the falling atmospheric CO2 factor to cut in. This is to massively ramp up the nation’s firefighting capability, especially to invest in a greatly enlarged fleet of water bombers.

Fixing the climate so as to fix the bushfire crisis is particularly popular with the authorities. Being able to blame the climate for unstoppable bushfires is, politically speaking, a beautiful strategy: it absolves ministers and agency bureaucrats of any accountability.

Those who support the second approach and promote the adoption of a bushfire policy that focuses on preparedness and damage mitigation recognise that this also has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is that the benefit is immediate. Instead of waiting 30 years for the climate to be fixed, land managers/owners can get out there, reduce bushfire fuels in the potential firegrounds and  improve bushfire resilience in threatened communities. Things will start to get better straight away.  There is also a substantial economic benefit: preventing bushfire damage is much cheaper than trying to put them out and then rebuilding in their wake.

There is also the advantage that this approach has been tried and tested and was found unequivocally to work. The ‘Fix the Climate’ approach, by comparison, is speculative.

But there are disadvantages, Firstly, fire prevention is not sexy. Nobody gets any credit for a disaster pre-empted. Journalists and inner-city people love a good bushfire. It is the ultimate theatre, with swooping water bombers, firefighters putting their lives at risk, forest infernos, houses bursting into flames, farmers shooting burnt sheep in blackened paddocks, funerals with bagpipes and so on.

The other disadvantage is that environmentalists hate fuel-reduction burning, saying that it destroys the biodiversity and generates smoke (which contains CO2). Green fear of prescribed fire and climate change dominates bushfire policies in all Australian states at the moment (with the exception of WA) with the result that Australian bushfire management (when seen in terms of outcomes rather than inputs) has fallen to Third World standards.

For this reason the Fix the Climate approach seems to have the numbers amongst Australian governments, and little wonder. Firstly, it enables them to side-slip responsibility for inaction in the fields of effective land management and mitigation.  If world-wide changes in climate are the cause of bushfire calamity, a state government in Australia cannot be blamed. Secondly, they escape the wrath and ballot-box revenge of the environmentalists.

Finally, and most tragically, Australian governments are increasingly being suckered by the media and the aviation industry to put their faith in water bombers. Everybody else knows that even the world’s mightiest fleet of water bombers cannot slow the progress of a crown fire in heavy forest. Nobody blaming climate change for unstoppable bushfires seems to appreciate this irony: on the one hand climate change has made fires unstoppable, but on the other hand if we have enough water bombers the unstoppable fires will be stopped.

There is a way through all this nonsense. We could stop arguing about whether nasty climate change caused by emissions of nasty CO2 is the cause of nasty bushfires. Instead we could adopt a set of strategies that prevent a bushfire from becoming nasty — and does so almost immediately, not in 30 years.  We know how to reduce fuels in bushland and harden up communities in bushfire-prone areas, and we know that these strategies work and can be implemented on the smell of an oily rag compared to the water-bomber approach. We should adopt them, not simply because they will be effective in reducing  bushfire disasters, but because they will work irrespective of projected climate change.

Roger Underwood is a retired forester and chairman of The Bushfire Front, a volunteer organisation dedicated to getting bushfire management back on the rails. His essay on the poor management of the bush, Flaming Idiots, is well worth re-visiting with the summer fire season upon us.

6 comments
  • ianl

    Rationality has been executed quite a few dawns ago and its’ wounded are now all bayoneted.

    In short, Roger Underwood’s sensible, practical comments are completely covered in the 20m thick concrete of successful greenie propaganda.

    I remember Greg Mullins addressing an anxious crowd in my area on several advancing firefronts: “We can’t reduce fuel in the entire forest areas”. Well, we were asking for fuel reduction on the strips adjacent to towns and villages, not the entire national park. He chose to sneer and patronise – with the ABC grinding away with its’ propaganda cameras in the hall for him. All as the fire fronts were encroaching under high winds.

    How can one be anyway but contemptuous of these self-chosen fools ?

  • Bushranger71

    At 81, I have lived in many once forested regions of Australia and experienced numerous frightening bushfire events, which taught lessons largely unheeded throughout the country.
    I am formerly a rural person and not connected in any way with extreme ‘Green’ notions.
    I have grown to fear controlled burning more than the fire events themselves as a very high percentage of these efforts get out of control.
    Also; our native vegetation regenerates so rapidly, it is just impossible to counter the fuel build-up – observe the leaf drop behaviour of eucalypts.
    And what about the wildlife loss directly due to controlled burning; never mentioned by the authorities?
    A partial answer years back was significant fire breaks that were government created and maintained; but conservationists of course oppose this sensible course of action.
    State and Local Governments have contributed hugely to the problem with inappropriate leafy development approvals that are increasingly being wiped out in bushfire events.
    We recently lived for 17 years in a bushland setting in a quiet seaside village around Port Stephens, NSW
    with no reticulated water supply and dependent upon rainwater.
    I cleared our land of combustible eucalypts and turfed our 1600 square metres; also voluntarily maintained a 35 metre zone at rear of the property as a fire break.
    We installed abundant rainwater storage and I built a firefighting trailer with a powerful motorized water pump that could shoot very strong streams of water through fire hoses and nozzles beyond 50 metres. I could saturate the whole of our house in less than 5 minutes and also easily cover both neighbouring dwellings. This manually movable unit cost around $2,000.
    Previously, when living in the Blue Mountains; at the first whiff of smoke, the local Bush Fire Brigade would trundle around dropping hoses at all of the hydrant points to assist the community in fire defence.
    Whether we get drier and hotter or wetter and colder depends entirely on solar cycles, so bushfire risk will forever prevail in this land with lightning strikes quite often being an initiator.
    Instead of throwing a huge amount of money at more bureaucratic organizations so the executives involved can prance around in fancy uniforms and do media grabs, would it not be better to motivate the populace to provide their own fire defence potential?
    Allow a 100 percent taxation concession for all measures relating to home bushfire risk protection. Promoting this approach with appropriate guidance material would be money better spent than fostering the ‘firebug’ mentality of so-called controlled burning which is highly risky, destructive and cannot possibly counter fairly rapid vegetation regeneration.

  • Peter OBrien

    Bushranger71 makes an interesting point but his strategy relies on every householder in an affected area to do the work and spend the money to set up the infrastructure. A highly unlikely scenario. It also ignores the massive damage done to forests by mega fires that are fuelled by years of fuel accumulation. These destroy swathes of mature trees that do not regenerate quickly as I witnessed last year on a visit to the Falls Creek area.

  • Bushranger71

    Respectfully Peter; is there not a ‘Greenie’ tinge to your comments?
    Lightning strikes are beyond human control and do you really think that a piddling amount of back-burning in the swathes of national parks, forestry reserves, etcetera makes any real difference?
    There are simply not the resources or the expertise available to conduct largescale controlled burning, as evidenced by the extent to which smallish scale tinkering with the problem often generates larger scale outbreaks.
    Mature age trees do not last forever and there are many timbered areas in this land that have been repetitively burned over centuries and the vegetation regenerates, especially eucalypts. There is a lot to be said for vegetation renewal initiatives.
    I am not proposing an all-embracing strategy, as you suggest.
    One of the failings of contemporary Australia is that people increasingly are unwilling to take personal responsibility and majority of newcomers prefer to be city dwellers.
    On Australia Day, it is timely to consider the desirable attitudes of those who pour into this country rather than the growing culture wherein expectations are that government services will provide all needs.
    Those that are prepared to be more self-help conscious ought to be encouraged by governments so taxation concessions for bushfire protection efforts would obviously improve life and property preservation.
    While Bush Fire Brigades perform dedicated service, they are unable to protect dwellings in many situations.

    • Roger Underwood

      Response from Roger Underwood – 25 January 2019. Email: [email protected]

      Bushranger71 opposes fuel reduction burning on the grounds that (i) burns get away; (ii) they destroy the wildlife; and (iii) they are ineffective because the bush regrows after the burn. These are the three classic objections always used by those who condemn the use of fire to fight fire, and who believe that we should focus on putting fires out after they start, or restricting pre-emptive measures to the house yard.

      In responding, I would like to emphasise that I promote “professionally managed fuel reduction burning” by well-trained and supervised people, not the sort of ad hoc “burning off” that sometimes masquerades as “controlled burning”. If done properly, using a prescription that dictates the conditions under which the burn will be done, and specifies the risk management and control procedures on the day of the burn, and overseen by experienced bushfire personnel, very very few burns get away. When they do, the cause is always obvious – proper procedures were not adopted.

      And yes, of course the vegetation and the fuel recover after a burn. This is why we talk about a fuel reduction burning program, in other words a planned cycle of fuel reduction, the length between burns being dictated by the rate of fuel accumulation for that vegetation type. A one-off burn will do some good, but only for about 5-8 years, after which the benefit, in terms of fuel reduction, inevitably declines.

      Finally, there is simply no evidence of loss of biodiversity due to a program of mild-intensity fuel reduction burning in Australian forests. The greens have been trying to demonstrate this for decades, without a single success. For example, not one species of plant or animal has become extinct as a result of prescribed burning in WA forests, after nearly 60 years of periodic burning. To believe that the Australian forest biota is vulnerable to extinction from periodic fire you need to also believe that over milenia, no fires were ever started by lightning or lit by Aborigines.

  • Bushranger71

    Come off it Roger!
    I did not imply extinction of wildlife through so-called ‘control burning’.
    Go walk through the immediate aftermath of such burns and the wildlife casualties are indisputable.
    It is invalid to slam ‘The Greens’ when they argue logically (although I largely abhor their politicking).
    Australia is quite unlike geographically smaller England where the cultural expectation is that levels of government will provide for all needs.
    Much of the leafy and forested areas of this vast country are largely inaccessible by vehicles and machinery and lighting strikes often trigger the larger fire outbreaks.
    Rural Bush Fire Brigades are mostly minimally equipped and largely dependent on voluntary effort to mainly mitigate the effects of fires once caused. The nation simply cannot afford enlarged remunerated bureaucracies to provide these resources.
    Consider the recent power struggle in Victoria concerning the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Country Fire Authority: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_Rescue_Victoria
    Victoria is among our smaller States/Territories and the bushfire risk is magnified enormously in the larger regions.
    Historically, in a far flung land, self-help was an essential characteristic in pioneering days and is no less relevant today in our remoter areas.
    The majority of our burgeoning population may feel content with professional urban fire brigades protection and greedily expect government actions to better safeguard property where there have been development planning failures.
    Fringe controlled burning can be seen as blatant politicking as it does very little to counter past government shortcomings.
    Those who have chosen to reside in leafy areas must be prepared to accept responsibility for their own safety and property protection.

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