Too hot to handle

By Andrew Stevenson

The biggest threat to Australia’s biodiversity is not climate change but fire, says Mark Adams, who argues that we need a new bushfire strategy – one which deprives fires of fuel.
Image of Mark Adams

Credit: Ted Sealey

For a week or so in summer – and not even every year – Australians pay close attention to the commanding presence of fire as it rears up from the forest like a vengeful spirit to disturb the heavy comfort of Christmas and holidays. Then it is gone, leaving behind a charred landscape and memories seared into the minds of those exposed to its frightening power.

Sometimes there is an inquiry, which offers sage advice of limited impact once fire has slunk back from whence it sprung.

Life goes on. People forget. Scientists go back to their research and politicians put away the protective clothing they keep camera-ready in summer.

It’s one of the cycles of life in Australia: to drought and flooding rains, we can add fire and forgetting. And it is a cause of grave concern and considerable frustration to Mark Adams, the Dean of Agriculture and Environment at the University of Sydney, one of Australia’s foremost authorities on bushfires.

But forgetting will get harder. The good news is bad news, warns Adams. The frequency of catastrophic bushfires such as the 2009 blazes which claimed 173 lives in Victoria is increasing at a disturbing rate, both fuelled by and fuelling climate change. And human influence, including patterns of internal migration, land management and ideas about environmental protection, are all contributing to an ever-worsening bushfire scenario. Soon, if not already, there won’t be time to forget.

“South East Australia has always had its catastrophic fire events but the research suggests the big ash forest fires, the ones that scare the living daylights out of anyone who gets even close to them, have come in the order of every 50, 100 or 200 years,” explains Adams.

"There’s plenty of evidence to say we should be concerned."

“But now we’ve had them in 1939, 1983 and 2009. That’s getting very short. Many of the scientific community feel that we just have to wait for the next El Nino and we’ll have another one. And the area that is subject to high-intensity wildfire is expanding. Previously, it was pretty much restricted to that south-east corner, particularly around Melbourne. But, as climates change, so do fires. The recent disastrous fires in western NSW remind us the potential for high-intensity bushfire now spreads as far north as Sydney and we are seeing increasingly long fire seasons in parts of Queensland, all the way up to Rockhampton.

“There’s plenty of evidence to say we should be concerned.”

Adams says fire is “the big one”, in terms of coming environmental impacts. “If you want to pick one thing that will change Australia’s biodiversity, it won’t be climate change. It will be fire,” he says. “Major fires are a big, big issue. If you are worried about biodiversity, if you are worried about greenhouse gas emissions and if you are worried about changing climates in Australia, then you can’t afford to forget about bushfires.”

Unravelling those three distinct but related threads is a complex scientific task. Bushfires are feeding carbon back into the atmosphere at an as yet unmeasured scale. If the climate scientists are right about CO2 and climate change, then large-scale, high-intensity fires will make the world an even warmer place, ratcheting up the risk of catastrophic fire events in the process.

Adams has outlined the issues, most recently in the journal Forest Ecology and Management in a paper “Mega-fires, tipping points and ecosystem services: Managing forests and woodlands in an uncertain future”.

Mitigating the danger

The answer, which is not an answer that will solve all problems or appeal to everyone, is fire mitigation. “Fuel reduction is not a panacea. Fuel reduction is about having large enough areas, some kilometres wide, that will give you some time when the fire hits them. It slows things down, allows people to get out, allows firefighters to do their job, allows people to call up the aircraft and slow it further. Without large, contiguous areas it won’t help at all. Ten metres over your back fence? Forget it,” says Adams.

“Fuel reduction is the long-term mitigation strategy. It has to be done over large areas and accepted for what it is – a mitigation strategy that will never stop the worst bushfires from happening, but which buys time, can prevent small fires turning into large fires, and protects ecosystems from the most severe effects of bushfires like those in 2009.”

The scale of fuel reduction burns needed to successfully mitigate bushfires poses a major challenge. The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (to which Adams provided expert assistance) is the latest and most rigorous inquiry for the past several decades. Key recommendations included a three- to fourfold increase in the area of public land treated for fuel reduction every year. In Victoria, with some 8 million hectares of forest and woodland, that would mean burning almost 400,000 hectares every year. That requires a massive increase in the commitment of manpower and resources – and brings with it uncomfortable and socially disruptive issues such as reduced air quality – that can put the lives of asthma sufferers at risk if not properly managed.

Image of Mark Adams

Credit: Ted Sealey

“The problem is equally bad in NSW. As in Victoria, land managers have struggled to treat 100,000 hectares each year,” he says. “NSW has even more forest and woodland than Victoria, though, fortunately, some of it is not as susceptible to fire. Even so, the scale of the problem in NSW has left the politicians and policy makers with their mouths open saying ‘how on earth are we going to pay for it?’.”

But the alternative – horrific events such as 2009 where the damages bill ran well into the billions – will become equally unpalatable, Adams warns. “It is a wicked problem and a very vexed public policy question. It’s a big ticket item in every case.”

Selling the message to the public and policy makers means scientists will need to speak with a clear voice, Adams suggests. The scientific community can speak among itself with fine nuance about fire-regimes and intervals “but when we do we have completely lost the general public who haven’t a clue what we’re talking about”.

“Most of the public understand the flora and fauna are highly adapted to fire. They understand you can use fire to mitigate the worst effects of the biggest, nastiest bushfires. So why the hell don’t we do it? “We can’t really afford to lose the public on this one. There is too much dependent on it. We have to try and keep the messages simple. To change behaviour you have to be consistent and constant. You need a very clear message and use it day in, day out.”

Wildfires in the USA are increasing in intensity and frequency and the boreal forests, a vast expanse of spruce and conifer forests in the far north of the Northern Hemisphere, is literally changing before our eyes. Fire activity, says Adams, has doubled in the past 30–40 years, and where conifers stood, deciduous trees have taken over, with obvious impacts on biodiversity.

Adams believes fire on such a scale is making a very significant contribution to our greenhouse gas emissions. He cites the research on the 1997 Indonesian forest fires which assessed its contribution as being equal to almost half the annual global emissions of carbon dioxide.

"Most of the public understand the flora and fauna are highly adapted to fire. They understand you can use fire to mitigate the worst effects of the biggest, nastiest bushfires. So why the hell don’t we do it?."

Australia can’t afford to go on ignoring the impact of bushfires on our greenhouse gas emissions, he says. “The international literature gets it. The Canadians get it, the Americans get it and the Europeans get it. The increase in fire frequency and intensity in the boreal forests is a potential disaster. If we are worried about CO2 in the atmosphere we need to worry about the boreal forest and fire because it is changing things at a frenetic pace.”

Change will require those who understand fire to work with those who don’t. “If you lived in the bush in Australia in the 1920s you knew you were on your own and you had better know what to do in case a fire came,” he reflects.

Nowadays, with more people in cities – but also more people on the bush fringe – a whole group of people are exposed to fire but have little knowledge of what to do. “People who really understand fire used to be 10 or 20 percent of the population; they’re now less than one percent of the population. We’ve lost decades of experience.”

Those people also understood the importance of land management, which reinforces Adams’ commitment to continue pushing a simple message. “Let’s get away from disasters and emergency response and let’s start talking about sound land management: boring, prosaic, land management,” he says. “Education is my greatest source of optimism for the future – although a bit of spine from some of our politicians would be good too.”

Designing fire-safe homes

Fire-safe house

Villa Vals, Switzerland. Architects: SeARCH & CMA. Designers: Bjarne Mastenbroek & Christine Muller. Photographer: Iwan Baan

Douglas Brown’s interest in designing homes with improved bushfire protection is both professional and deeply personal. He owns a bush block and if he doesn’t get the design right, any home he builds on it might not last long.

“My block (in the mid-Blue Mountains) is right next to a power line, at the top of a ridge, surrounded by National Park and with just one road in,” explains Brown, who is currently completing a PhD on the vulnerability of housing in bushfire-prone areas with the Faculty of Architecture, Design andPlanning, funded by the support ofthe Bushfire CRC (research centre) and also supported by the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Brown, who completed a master’s in Sustainable Design in 2010, reckons he is about the best person to design a house for it. He is adamant he does not want to build a bomb shelter and is keenly interested in marrying contemporary living, energy efficiency and improved bushfire performance. “People are looking at the ability of a house to survive a fire but it also has to be a pleasant place to be in the times when a fire isn’t there,” he observes. “We live in a time when everyone wants the outside to be inside, using large glass doors and windows. But that means a bushfire will come inside too if you are not careful.”

Simple design features can increase the capacity of a house to withstand a bushfire, says Brown. They include metal shutters on windows (which can be incorporated into the walls of new homes); dispensing with gutters to avoid the collection of leaf material; embedding homes into the side of a hill; adding angled metal strips at the junction of verandas and walls; and using sprinkler systems capable of drenching the roof and walls.

Brown is researching which spaces within a home people feel safest in so that future homes can be designed to have increased fire protection in those areas. He also wants to incorporate a separate structure linked to the main house which has even greater fire protection; this could be used as a home office, guest accommodation or a play area for children.

“I am looking at designs which will integrate bunkers into the house in a way which will make it a place people are comfortable with. I want a structure that is totally integrated into the family life of a house,” he says. “It would really help my research to hear from fellow alumni who have built in bushfire-prone areas and have come up with ideas to reduce ember entry or direct flame contact,” says Brown.