Australia’s deadliest bushfire season started early, in September 2019, and with months still to go, there have already been 24 deaths, over two thousand homes burned, and more than 5.9 million hectares of scorched land.
The internet has been saturated with images of charred, sculpture-like animals, as the blazes swallow huge amounts of Australia’s wild animal population.
It rained ash in Sydney’s city streets in December and by January, the smoke from the fires had travelled more than 11,000 km across the Pacific, to Argentina and Chile.
“I have never witnessed fires or debris or smoke like this in my life and I have lived in Australia all my life,” says 82-year-old Sydney resident John Neeld.
There’s little doubt among scientists and fire experts that global climate change is a leading causal factor in Australia’s worst-ever bushfire season, triggered by years of extreme drought followed by several record-breaking national heat waves.
A growing chorus also points to the abandonment of traditional burning methods, in use in Australia for thousands of years, as also contributing to the crisis as fuel loads build up to excessive levels.
Extreme Fire Season
Australia is not alone in facing increased fires. A study of global fire trends between 1979 and 2013 published in Nature found that the fire weather season has lengthened by 18.7 per cent across a quarter of the Earth’s vegetated surface.
Fires are far more likely to start when the atmosphere is hot and dry. Wherever there’s fuel to burn and a spark for ignition, wildfires or bushfires can take hold in these hot dry conditions.
In late October experts were already predicting that Australia’s 2019-2020 fire season would be of an unprecedented size across southern and eastern Australia.
“The numbers, scale, and diversity of the fires is going to reframe our understanding of bushfire in Australia,” prominent fire ecologist and director of the Fire Centre of Tasmania in Hobart, David Bowman, told Science on November 22, 2019.
“What is happening is extraordinary,” he continued. “It would be difficult to say there wasn’t a climate change dimension. We couldn’t have imagined the scale of the current event before it happened. We would have been told it was hyperbole.”
Bowman said that even places which do not normally burn have caught fire: “We’re seeing recurrent fires in tall, wet eucalypt forests, which normally only burn very rarely. A swamp dried out near Port Macquarie, and organic sediments in the ground caught on fire.”
Scientists and traditional owners of the land are coming to some consensus on one major contribution to current extreme fires: fuel loads are too high.
Traditional practices help manage the fuel load
Darren Charlwood, a Wiradjuri tour guide at the Sydney Botanical Gardens, says the situation could be fixed with traditional burning: “We’ve stopped the environment from burning and it’ll bounce right back if you burn it.”
He goes on to say, “The decrease in burning is why the bushfires are happening now.”
“When things traditionally burn each year… the plants get the benefit from it because it is part of their biology and you clear the ground,” he says.
“When all the fuel builds up the fire burns things like banksias that will usually cope with it but can’t cope with it anymore, and lots of plants have mechanisms and buffers to stop them from completely dying due to these burnings, but when that fuel builds right up the fires are out of control and it just kills everything, it burns everything,” Charlwood adds.
There’s evidence that Aboriginal burning practices have been an effective means of fire management in the past, and as the wider community has begun calling on cultural burning experts to help fuel load management, there are now cases showing these practices remain still highly relevant today.
One example comes from Phil Sheppard, who co-owns a property outside of Laguna, in the Hunter Valley of NSW, in an area hit hard by the Gospers Mountain fire in late December.
He told the Sydney Morning Herald on January 6, that his property had been saved by the Indigenous burning practices he and his co-owners had welcomed three years prior.
During the fires that swept across Sheppard’s property in December, the only building lost was the one hut which had not been ‘protected’ by the burnings.
Cultural burning is used to clean up country
Leading anthropologist Petronella Vaarzon-Morel has worked with many indigenous groups who still maintain burning practices. “An important part of Aboriginal burning practices is reducing fuel load, reducing that undergrowth,” says Vaarzon-Morel. “They call it cleaning up country.”
She also says that many plants need burning in order to regrow. “Their growth is tied to Aboriginal patch burning. So, burning countries at different areas creates different patches, which allows regeneration for different kinds of plants at different periods of time.”
When this burning is not done, the equilibrium of the ecosystem is thrown out of balance.
But it’s not simply a case of randomly burning different parts of the environment.
“You have to have knowledge of when to burn and when plants are going to come up, among other things,” Vaarzon-Morel says.
There are long and complex traditions and intricate knowledge which informs the burning practices, she adds. “This knowledge about fire is encoded in the stories and songs,” she says.
Vaarzon-Morel says that non-indigenous people in Alice Springs were doing hazard reduction burning to prevent fire, but they didn’t do it correctly. “They were burning at the wrong times and they were burning dangerously because they did not understand the winds necessarily, or how things work, or the plants. Warlpiri can look at plants and know what the burn’s going to be like, how it is going to act,” she says.
Governments not using knowledge
The deeper knowledge of burning that Aboriginal groups have, comes from a 70,000-year long relationship with the land – and is particularly useful for mitigating the intensity of bushfires.
Although not all Aboriginal groups retain this knowledge because so much traditional knowledge and history was lost during the colonial period, many groups in fire-prone areas still have very useful contributions and knowledge to share.
The government has yet to make use of this extensive knowledge.
Lack of government intervention is not limited to not supporting indigenous burning practices. In this out-of-control fire season, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison is still defending his decision not to hold a bushfire emergency summit, forcing fire chiefs to push for it themselves.