Mount Buffalo, Victoria (Photo: Johannes Smit)

Living with bushfires

  • BY Ken Eastwood |
  • June 04, 2009

Bushfires are getting bigger, badder and bolder. We now have a choice: work with them or fight against them.

SOMEONE, OR SOMETHING HAD woken the dragon. The stench of its smoky breath hung heavy on the morning air and, as the temperature climbed towards 40ºC, its dark mood became even fouler. By early afternoon we knew this ancient, powerful tyrant was coming our way.

The call came and I joined my folks to defend their fibro-and-brick castle on the edge of the wood. We’d faced this beast before, so we were prepared.

With a thunderous snort, it charged into the valley, sending eucalypts exploding in fireballs before it, then raced up the hill, to tower menacingly over us, as high as a three-story building, bellowing ferocious heat and tongues of fire that spat across the roof, setting the garden ablaze in every direction. Like an impotent knight, I stood with the neighbour’s dribbling hose: water pressure had dropped to almost nothing, as every man and his dog was using the hose that day.

It was 12 January 1994, on the bush-urban interface in northern Sydney. On either side of my parents’ home, eight houses burned to the ground. At their place, fan vents melted to the walls, but the house withstood the attack. Then the dragon moved on, searching for other prey.

In a country where fire is a hallmark of our national character, my fire story isn’t particularly unusual. Fire blackens many of the milestones that mark our lives. There was the bushfire in 1968 that Mum and Dad fought using my nappy buckets. There was the Scout camp in Heathcote National Park in 1978, where my troop was evacuated on foot as a fire closed in around us.

Our nation has charcoal stubs where history’s pages used to be (see full bushfire list): Black Friday, Victoria, 13 January 1939, when fires killed 71; Ash Wednesday, 16 February 1983, when another 75 were killed in Victoria and SA; the devastating Canberra fires in January 2003; and the Eyre Peninsula, January 2005 when nine lives, 73 homes and 46,000 sheep were lost. Some bushfires are recorded in our national art collections by skilled painters such as Sir John Longstaff and Eugene von Guerard, others in the media of the day. Stories in last summer’s newspapers echo the previous summer: people describe the speed, the noise, the heat and the helplessness as they face a major bushfire.

But such fire lists and media reports are always biased towards the populated south-east of the country. Elsewhere in Australia – such as in the desert or the savannah country – fires much larger than any of these are an annual event. “One at the moment is 60,000 sq. km – that’s a fire burning the size of Tasmania,” said Jeremy Russell-Smith of Bushfires NT late last year. “That’s not even reported in the local media, let alone the wider Australian media.”

Like many fire researchers in the north of the country, Jeremy gets sick of the emphasis placed on southern fires. He says if you drew a line across the continent from Rockhampton to Broome, about 20 per cent burns every year and in total, some 340,000 sq. km of savannah burns each year out of an estimated 500,000 sq. km of fire Australia-wide. “The further north you go, the greater the incidence is – in parts of Cape York Peninsula and the Top End it’s about 50 per cent per annum. These are phenomenal fires on a global scale.”

Fire a friend and foe

In many of these areas, fire is not an evil beast to do battle with, but a helpful friend. Fire brings with it renewal and regeneration. It is the giver of life; the breath that freshens stale vegetation and landscape.

Other positive aspects of fire are well known to us. From lone swagmen boiling the billy to stockmen sheltering from the cold in the high country; from ancient Aboriginal corroborees to modern-day campers sharing intimate yarns over flickering flames, fires have provided comfort throughout the millenia. They’re mesmerising and sensual. They provide warmth, security, a place to cook and talk, and a way to keep back the darkness. Our use and control of fire is one of the characteristics that distinguishes us from other species.

But fire’s very nature means it doesn’t like being restricted. It’s greedy. It wants to expand, to consume. And as it grows, it gains power, eventually creating its own weather patterns to suit itself. Hot air rises and new air rushes in to replace it, fanning the flames with gusty winds and driving the fire on to new feeding grounds. Pyrocumulus clouds sometimes form above, the smoke-particle-laden moist air rising rapidly and building highly charged clouds, sometimes leading to lightning strikes and even more fire. Or, if the fire thinks it’s wreaked enough damage, the cloud can bring rain.

It’s no respecter of lines on maps: national parks, conservation zones, sheep stations, private property, Aboriginal land – they all burn. Even if we think we know how a fire will act, it may change its mind, just to keep us guessing. Then it moves on, leaving us to argue about who’s to blame.

In our high-tech world, we’re using everything we’ve got to understand and manage this ancient creature: from the Erickson Air-Crane heli-tanker, which can lift and then dump 9.5 tonnes of water at a time, and quick-footed national parks teams who rappel into remote areas to tackle fires before they become too big, through to satellite mapping and early-warning systems that detect any new hot spot from space.

Grant Allan, a scientific officer with Bushfires NT, is one of the modern firefighters. With a bushy mo and beard that look like they could do with a reduction burn, he sits in his office in Alice Springs with satellite maps on his wall, his big glasses directed towards two large computer screens flashing information at him simultaneously about the current fires – when was the last time an area burnt, when did it rain last? 

“It’s only when you look at satellite images that you realise how many ignitions are going on out there – and most people have no idea,” Grant says. “It’s easily in the thousands.” Most ignitions are natural, caused by lightning strike, particularly in the highly flammable spinifex country or the dry savannah grasses.

But Grant knows only too well how some areas are burnt time and time again, either intentionally or unintentionally, by humans. Some areas of the country, however, remain relatively fire free. “The Simpson Desert is Australia’s driest patch of country and fires down there are very rare,” he says. “As you move towards Darwin, the frequency increases.”

Drought bad news for fire

In temperate, southern Australia, it’s drought that brings on bad bushfire seasons. “But here, it is the wetter the season, the bigger the fire season,” Grant says. More rain equals more vegetation, which means more to burn.

Grant is seeing perceptions slowly change as the long-term effects of fire are studied. Cattlemen and women who value every blade of grass are increasingly open to management plans in which fire plays a part in renewing the landscape. “Many of them say: ‘I shouldn’t have put that fire out. I should have let it burn more. I can now see the long-term impact and it really was a waste of my time’.”

Although the jigsaw is far from complete, we’re increasingly gaining an understanding of how Australia’s plants and animals cope with fire. When a bushfire goes through, some animal populations hardly change, others suddenly increase with the new shoots that come up, others still – such as koalas – do very badly. Some plants’ seeds need bushfires to crack their coats to let water in, bringing on new plants. Others germinate once they’ve been stimulated by smoke. Some plants just like the country being opened up after fire, and stretch out into the new space.

In the high country of Victoria and NSW, the hills are covered with bleak snow-gum skeletons. The fires that swept through this region in 2003 were like bombs exploding. “We thought we’d see some recovery in 5–10 years and it’s going to be more like 10,” says Ken Green, wildlife ecologist with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). “That’s just for the shrub cover, but in terms of tree canopy, you’re talking 25–30 years. If you’re talking about fully mature snow gums, you’re talking about 250 years.”

Ken has been studying how broad-toothed rats, antechinus and bush rats are affected by fire, and each has had a very different response. After the 2003 fire, numbers of all the animals immediately plummeted to about 20 per cent of what they were, but then stabilised. “The few animals out there were able to forage and survive,” he says. In winter, most of these animals live under a blanket of snow.

“They need the vegetation to hold the snow off the ground in winter – they burrow underneath and move around.” However, with no vegetation to hold the snow up, the animals disappeared off the radar. “Basically, winter ’03 saw the end of them,” Ken says, “but then suddenly, in the summer of 2006, bush-rat numbers went ballistic – just soared – higher than before the fire. This summer, numbers crashed again, but now antechinus numbers are back up to pre-fire levels.” The broad-toothed rats appear to be recovering, but very, very slowly.

There, in a snow-gum-nut shell, we have the dilemma facing fire ecologists. Nearly every species recovers from, or benefits from, fire differently, over different periods. So how can we manage each landscape for all these factors?

Weighing up the fire risks

“Environmentalists are in danger of proposing solutions that are so complex that they can’t be enacted,” says Mark Adams of the Laboratory for Ecology and Ecosystem Science at the University of NSW. “How often should the high country burn? How long is a piece of string? People say ‘you should only burn this in a cool fire’ or ‘you should only burn this in a hot fire’, but this is an overly optimistic approach. The best you can do is some form of fire mosaic.”

This idea of a “fire mosaic” or “patchwork” is commonly adopted by environmentalists. Ideally, an area should have some spots that haven’t been burnt for a long time, next to small, recently burnt patches, next to some burnt, say, five years ago, 10 years ago and 20 years ago. Theoretically, the smaller the patches, the higher the likelihood that all the plants and animals will have their needs provided, and the lower the risk of extremely large, uncontrollable fires, or megafires.

NT chief district ranger Stephen Nicholson watched such a megafire burn 80 per cent of the Davenport Range, 350 km north of Alice Springs, in 2001. “We’re trying to avoid that ever happening again,” Stephen says. A joint fire project was undertaken: an annual program of burning “reasonable sized patches” with  traditional owners the Warumungu, Alyawarre and Kaytetye as consultants. “It’s a pretty inexact science – no-one really agrees on the best times to burn things,” Stephen says. “But in the absence of perfect knowledge, we just try to create diversity.”
Some habitats aren’t fire-resistant at all. In the high country, century-old mountain plum pines would be killed by fire. Many bushfires are so big, they burn way beyond the home-range size of small animals – so animals surviving the fire have nowhere to recover and build up numbers. Even long-legged creatures such as emus are believed to have declined by 30 per cent over three generations as result of excessively large fires.

Jeremy Russell-Smith says we need to take into account the impact of such large fires on climate change. “Two-thirds of Australia’s carbon monoxide emissions come off savannah fires,” he says, and it’s not as simple as saying that the after-fire regrowth sucks up that carbon, making it a neutral equation. “Under these nasty fire regimes, there’s a net loss of carbon in the system.” Large trees die more often than they should, vegetation doesn’t always recover, and, with the recently burnt areas dominated by grasses, the country is soon ready to burn once more.

In the Red Centre, chief district ranger of the NT Parks and Wildlife Service (NT PWS) Chris Day – who has helped develop some of the most useful fire regimes – admits that there’s still a lot we don’t know. “We really didn’t actually start doing active fire management until 1983. Up to then it was the same as every other State – you waited until there was a fire, and then went to try to put it out,” he says. “We’re still doing it in a fairly limited fashion. We’re still learning what’s the right frequency of fire in different vegetation communities and what’s the right intensity of fire to bring certain conditions.” Chris has noticed an increase in ironwood on pastoral properties where there hasn’t been enough fire, and a loss of mulga in the West MacDonnell Ranges where there’s been too much. “Mulga takes 15–20 years before it’s producing viable seed, so two fires in 30 years will kill it off.”

Other species just love fire, and the hotter the better. Alongside the starkly beautiful sandstone formations of Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, 75 km south of Alice, lies a small, rare purple-flowering shrub, called eremophila Rainbow Valley. A decade ago it was incredibly rare, with just a few known specimens. But after a firebreak was put through the area in 2001, the plant came up in the thousands, says Angus Duguid of the Biodiversity Conservation Unit, NT PWS.
“It’s a short-lived species [2–10 years], but has a long-lived seed with a hard seedcoat,” he says. Angus carried out a series of studies, burning patches in the area when the soil was wet after rain, and some patches when soil was dry to generate a hotter fire. The results were surprising. “It’s quite clear that the hotter, dry soil burns brought on a lot more germination,” Angus says. “This study is conclusive that active fire management is good for this species.”

Aboriginal people have a long history with fire

Of course, Aboriginal people have long known about fire’s beneficial relationship to the land and its inhabitants. Ethnoecologist with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Fiona Walsh, in research part-funded by the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), has been studying the ecology of various bush foods, such as the desert raisin. With hair the colour of a wildfire, she describes the desert raisin as a keystone species that can indicate the fire history of an area. Depending on rainfall, it responds rapidly six months after fire and fruits one year later. “It peaks in productivity 2–3 years after fire and then declines,” she says. “In the old times and until quite recently it was a very productive plant, but in recent years its special distribution is limited. This plant needs people to harvest it and people to burn it to keep it ticking along. To exclude people from its ecology threatens its sustainability.”

As well as studying the way fire is used by different desert peoples to bring on plants, Fiona has helped document other Aboriginal uses of fire, and the different way men and women traditionally use it. “Women’s burns on the whole tended to be smaller – immediate, purpose-specific,” she says. “Mardu women used fire as an everyday tool. If people were going out hunting goanna, they’d use fire to clear the land to see the goanna holes.”

Men often have much bigger fires, with 1 km fronts. “Men also burned to flush kangaroos. But men would also talk about burning to clean-up country and would light much larger fires.”

Traditional reasons for lighting fires included signalling on a hunting trip – “they’d put up smokes to mark their progress through country,” for cooking, to “be a friend” to the country, to clear a camping spot of snakes and scorpions, to get rid of perceived evil spirits or just to make walking easier. As central Australian historian Dick Kimber says, “dense spinifex hurts Aboriginal legs as much as it hurts anyone”.

According to Nic Gambold, the Central Land Council’s senior land management officer, some of the ways being suggested by whitefellas to burn country with cool burns in winter isn’t appropriate. In desert regions north of Yuendumu, “turpentine and other acacias form impenetrable thickets 3–4 m high,” he says. “It very quickly becomes a monoculture if the land isn’t kept open by fire. To get those acacia thickets to combust and destroy the acacia you need a ferocious fire.”

So, in the northern Tanami Desert they burn late in the season – October to December – when the wind is up and bigger fires will be created that can burn for hundreds of thousands of hectares. “Getting people to fiddle around with small fires in the winter months isn’t part of their traditional practices,” Nic says. “People like to burn late in the season, just ahead of the rains – open the country up for the rains. In fact, often they use a fire to create rain. Under those conditions, you get a fantastic response from the vegetation. You get a lot of useful plants, whereas when you burn early in the season, you get a lot of trash.”

There’s no doubt that when people walked constantly over the landscape, burning as they went, the “patchwork” of fire was more intricate. Aerial photographs show that in 1953, in 2500 sq. km of the western desert area, there were 864 measurable fire events, with an average burnt patch of 64 ha. Thirty years later there were just four measurable events, with an average area of 52,644 ha.

“A big problem for the land council is that people now live in centralised communities, so these huge land trusts are uninhabited,” Nic says. Instead of a lot of little fires “you get a lot of ignitions, easy ignitions along the roads”.

When Aboriginal people became stockmen after European settlement of the centre, they moved on horseback over the landscape droving and occasionally lighting fires. Now movement is generally restricted to major roads, and burning – call it traditional or not – is often concentrated along these thoroughfares (particularly near major towns such as Alice Springs), disappointing tourists sick of staring out coach windows at a barren, smoke-filled, black landscape. “The youth, particularly, don’t burn traditionally,” says Kasia Gabrys, a researcher with the Desert Fire Project of the Desert Knowledge CRC. “They’ve been known to burn sacred sites and burial places.”

Some of Kasia’s research has focused on Warlpiri communities, north-west of Alice Springs, who, like many Aboriginal groups, have an intricate cultural connection with fire. The Warlpiri language has more than 100 words for different kinds of fire. “People generally don’t just burn willy-nilly – there is a complex system in place,” she says. “They wouldn’t burn particular trees at particular times because there were nests there. People are very careful with fire in particular regions, but then not in other regions – it might be for spiritual reasons or hunting reasons or no real reason at all.”

Kasia notes that many of the traditional reasons for lighting fires, such as communication, continue. “There are accounts of Aboriginal people with satellite phones breaking down who still light a fire to let people know where they are.”

Southern Arrernte elder Peter ‘PK’ Kenny remembers “the way the fellas used to burn and bring the bush tucker back after a good burn. That’s the main reason they used to burn. Get rid of the old bushes that have rotted out.”

Dressed in overalls, and carrying a petrol-and-diesel-dripping “firebug”, PK is involved with the NT PWS in prescribed burning around Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, his traditional lands, as part of the NT’s flexible employment program. Central netted dragons, stick insects and cockroaches scurry out of the way, and black kites circle overhead, as a team burn a strip between claypans, adding another patch to the quilt of fire history lain across this land. “Instead of burning in big patches, burn in little patches,” PK says. “If you burn in big patches, there’s nowhere for the animals to go.”
He describes traditional burns to flush animals out, where they would set up traps with big mulga logs as wings, then set fire around and drive little animals such as mala and bilbies into the traps. But he says that since cattle were introduced, a lot of the bush tucker has been eaten out. “But sometimes if you get fire at the right time, these things will come back.”

All of a sudden, a gust of wind whips a fire away from PK, and spinifex and mallee erupt in a quickly moving fire. My southern-Australian response is to panic, but head of this crew, ranger Rick Hope, just turns and smiles. “Well, whatever happens now, this is a traditional burn,” he says.

Extreme fires are increasing

Despite all we’ve learned about fire, climate change is now forming an evil alliance with the rampaging dragon to bring about more destructive fires. As a result of global warming, large areas of mainland Australia are likely to have less soil moisture, leading to more intense fires when they occur. The number of 'extreme' fire danger days in south-east Australia could increase by up to 65 per cent by 2020, according to a major report released last year by the Bushfire CRC and Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Bushfire seasons will start earlier, the report says, preventing fuel-reduction burns that could reduce the intensity and scope of fires. There’ll be less time between major fires.

At the Bushfire CRC’s national forum “Are Big Fires Inevitable?”, in Parliament House last year, CSIRO honorary research fellow Phil Cheney, who has investigated large bushfires since the 1967 Tasmanian fires, said one of the problems with very hot megafires is that they leave very few unburnt areas within the perimeter. “Everything burns – there are no refuges for wildlife.”

Phil said that for years Australians living in the south-east have been told how bad fire is. As a result, we haven’t been keen on fuel-reduction burns. “We’ve convinced them very effectively that all fires are bad,” he said. “We need to regain consciousness of fire as being a natural part of the environment.” He decried legislation that discourages rural dwellers from burning off parts of their property to reduce “fuel” loads. (Sticks and twigs of about 2.5 mm diameter cause the biggest flames.) “We are going to have big fires, it’s a question of whether it’ll be high intensity or low intensity.”

Rob Rogers, acting commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) told the forum that his organisation would like to intentionally burn much more than they do. “It’s been suggested in recent times that every five years the landscape should be burned,” he said. “Considering we have 20 million ha of bushfire-prone land in NSW, you’re talking about 4 million ha a year that we’re going to burn. So that’s [the area destroyed during] the worst of our fire seasons every year that’s going to be burned.”

Like any fire, a fuel-reduction burn can occasionally get out of control, leaping containment lines, even threatening property. “There will be over-achievements, as we quite like to refer to them,” says John Gledhill, the chief officer of the Tasmanian Fire Service, only partly tongue-in-cheek. “Fire is demonised in the media. But fire is normal – we’ve got to learn to live with it. We’ve got to co-exist... It’s very much about empowering people who own the land, who own the fuel, to manage it properly and wisely.”

Volunteer fire fighters

Rural communities are battling other problems, though. In some areas, volunteer fire brigades are in decline as long-time residents age or move out and hobby farmers move in. According to Rod Young, a Coonabarabran grain and sheep farmer who had been a RFS firefighter for 42 years then helped set up the rival Volunteer Fire Association, it’s not just numbers, but the calibre of Australia’s 220,000 volunteer firefighters that’s decreasing. “For some of them it’s an ego trip. Some are more dangerous than the fires themselves,” he says.

Like many private landholders, Rod is quick to point a burnt stick at public-land managers for not doing enough fuel reduction, leading to larger fires when they occur. “I believe we need selective logging and grazing reintroduced into some of our national parks,” he says. “Fuel-reduction” grazing is a thorny bush. Pastoralists swear it works, but research in Victoria after the 2003 fires showed it makes little difference in either scope or intensity of fire.

There are also concerns that water is taken from nearby landholders to fight fire. Water generally concerns pastoralists far more than fire. “When Dad used to be on the land they used to burn off quite a bit,” says Anthony Coulthard on Orange Creek station, 85 km south of Alice. “But we don’t do as much anymore. It’s been so dry that the cattle need the feed.”

Jimmy Hayes, patriarch of 1550 sq. km Undoolya station, 17 km east of Alice, agrees: “We don’t go out with any intention of burning because every blade of grass is valuable.” Jimmy and his wife Gail describe with affection the help they received when bushfires burnt half their land in mid-2002. “There was no way in the world we could handle it,” Jimmy says. People in Alice provided food or drove graders and neighbours helped save the homestead. It’s this willingness to work together that some say is missing in evolving rural communities. Why volunteer to help someone else, when your own property could burn down?

On top of this, we have ever more people living on urban fringes with bush right to their back doors. People gladly buy their cheaper house in the quiet of the bush, but expect council, government, or someone else to reduce the fire risk for them. Trees are planted right next to houses, leaves fill gutters and wood piles hug walls.

In the Blue Mountains of NSW, Richard Kingswood sees these situations every day. He’s the upper mountains area manager for the NPWS and one of those at the bushfire control centre when the dragon visits the mountains. As a result he’s heard the jokes about the “National Sparks and Wildfire Service” and “how does the RFS put out a fire in your living room? By back-burning your bedroom”. In fact, he heard that joke at the height of a fire in November 2006 when a back-burn – a fire deliberately lit to contain another – joined with the original fire and eventually burned 15,440 ha, including most of the Grose Valley.
“There are a lot of days where it doesn’t rest well in my mind,” Richard says. “You get many, many people telling you how it should have been managed. But fires are such a variable thing to deal with. We refine our approach each time and we get better, but there’s always room for improvement.”

Perhaps most controversially, that fire burned the coveted Blue Gum Forest, often credited as being the birthplace of the Australian conservation movement and what is now the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. As a whitefella cultural site, it’s significant, and there were plenty of people ready to burn at the stake the people responsible.
"No-one wants to see the Blue Gum Forest burn, but 15,000 ha in almost 1.1 million ha of contiguous forest is probably not all that significant in the grand scheme of things,” Richard says. “At the same time, there was a 60,000 ha fire in the Wollemi that received less publicity. Cultural aspects are just one of the factors we assess when managing a fire.”

Initial reports described a complete wipe-out of the 70 m blue-gum canopy. But studies have since shown that only 5 per cent of the trees have been killed outright. Some are standing seemingly unaffected, others have epicormic shoots, and some have been structurally weakened. Most worrying though is that hardly any young ones are sprouting, perhaps as a result of this fire or others, the area’s history of grazing, or both. “If we had another ignition here, I would throw absolutely everything at it,” Richard says. 

On the ridgetops above this ancient forest, where houses abut the bush, many home owners seem unaware of or unwilling to take even basic steps to make their houses more fire-resistant. Yet it’s not that hard, according to Justin Leonard, at the CSIRO in Melbourne. He has the arsonist’s dream job – setting fire to things and watching how they burn. “All of our research points to one fact – that more than 90 per cent of houses are lost in the absence of direct flame attack,” he says. “It’s more of an insidious mechanism through ember attack.” It could be a burning leaf or twig that lands in a gutter, on a fence, under the house or blows in under a door. One little ember; one big fire. “The contents of a house have a very high fuel load – much higher than in a forest.”

Justin says that even when houses are seemingly well prepared for fire, they can burn down because of the weakest-link principle (see “Where’s your weakest link?”, page 65). “You can have the perfect house and design, but if you have just one small thing wrong, the risk factor may be greatly increased,” he says. “It’s these small, insidious things. Once you’ve accepted the fact that it’s embers that do it, you realise it’s very random. It’s like spinning a roulette wheel – is this the one that’s going to do it?”

Justin is in the final stages of trialling and implementing an assessment system that can give a person a probability of loss for their structure. They can then choose to knock factors off. “Zero isn’t an appropriate level,” he says, as we don’t want to live in airless concrete bunkers surrounded by concrete. “It’s about coming down to a level that they’re comfortable with.”

He gave two key tips to reduce risk for those living in bushfire-prone areas: screen any gap on your house greater than 2mm with metal flywire, and install flyscreens on all windows. “If a bushfire turns up and you’ve got an unscreened open window, your chance of the house burning down is pretty much 100 per cent.”

Source: Australian Geographic Jul - Sep 2008

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