Bushfires have always been part of Australia. Even before the first human settlers arrived around 50,000 years ago, fires sparked by lightning strikes were a feature of the landscape for at least 30 million years.
Reflecting this long history, scientists estimate that about 70 percent of Australia’s native plants need or tolerate fire. Australia’s Aboriginal societies recognised this, and consciously used fire to help maintain ecosystems and create environments more conducive to human habitation.
As detailed in Bill Gammage’s work The biggest estate on earth, pre-1788 Australia was far from being the wilderness that its European colonisers – with their myth of Terra nullius – believed it to be. Tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal settlement had left their mark on every corner of the continent.
When the European invasion began in 1788, there were 750,000 Aboriginal people with 260 distinct language groups and 500 dialects. These people had developed highly sophisticated regimes of land management. “Mere sustainability was not enough. Abundance was normal”, Gammage writes.
Gammage notes that many of the first Europeans to arrive here described the landscape as “park-like”. Particularly in areas along the southern and eastern coastline with a higher population density, there were few of the impenetrable forests that exist in national parks and other so-called wilderness areas today.
“Across Australia”, he says, “newcomers saw grass where trees are now, and open forest free of undergrowth now dense scrub”. Among many examples Gammage refers to is this passage from explorer Charles Sturt:
“As regards the general appearance of the wooded portion of this province, I would remark, that excepting on the tops of the ranges where the stringy-bark grows; in the pine forests, and where there are belts of scrub on barren or sandy ground, its character is that of open forest without the slightest undergrowth save grass … In many places the trees are so sparingly, and I had almost said judiciously distributed as to resemble the park lands attached to a gentleman’s residence in England.”
Aboriginal people left particular areas alone knowing that some untouched forest was necessary for maintaining populations of certain plants and animal species. But in areas of human habitation, the landscape was curated – hence the analogy in the title of Gammage’s book with the estates of the landed gentry in England.
One consequence of this custodianship was that the intense, destructive bushfires that we’re accustomed to today wouldn’t have been a regular occurrence prior to 1788. The forests and grasslands that surrounded areas of human habitation simply wouldn’t have had the density to fuel such fires.
To the new European colonisers – who came from a country at the forefront of early capitalist industrial development – land was something to be tamed and put into the service of the production of commodities for sale on global markets. From this standpoint, fire ceased to be regarded as a necessary and useful part of the Australian landscape, and was increasingly viewed in its potential threat to lives and property.
The colonisers showed no interest in learning the land management practices of the Aboriginal people they displaced. This knowledge, built up over tens of thousands of years, was all but obliterated in the invasion and later war and genocide.
Over the following years and decades, the land so carefully curated by its original custodians underwent a significant change. By the 1830s, wool had become Australia’s number one export. The rapid growth of the industry accelerated the “frontier wars” being waged against Aboriginal people across the continent, as squatters raced to secure prime grazing land.
It also resulted in a rapid transformation of the landscape. The grazing of sheep and to a lesser extent cattle, along with the introduction of rabbits, led to the defoliation of flat and fertile lands. The less easily grazed land on hills and mountain sides was left alone – resulting in a thickening of existing forests and the growth of new forests in areas that had been grassland.
This process, which continued to the early 20th century, resulted in a change in the basic relationship between areas of human habitation and the natural environment. Aboriginal land management practices created a buffer between areas of settlement and uncontrolled forests. In post-1788 Australia, this buffer disappeared.
Uncultivated areas of land were left alone for decades – their fuel loads building up continuously. When fires inevitably broke out, the results were catastrophic, for both nature and human beings.
The earliest recorded bushfire catastrophe in Australian history occurred on “Black Thursday” – 6 February 1851. Almost a quarter of the area of what is now Victoria was burnt. A witness to the fires, William Westgarth, wrote in Personal recollections of early Melbourne & Victoria:
“There has never been, throughout Australia, either before or since, such a day as Victoria’s Black Thursday, and most likely – or rather most certainly – it will never, to its frightful extent, occur again, for every year, with the spread of occupation, brings its step in the accumulation of protectives.”
Westgarth was mistaken. The “accumulation of protectives” – by which he meant the settlement and clearing of land for farming – did not reduce the bushfire threat. In the century and a half since, there have been more regular, and more destructive, bushfire disasters.
A CSIRO study found that from 1901 to 2011, 825 people died in bushfires in Australia and more than 11,000 homes were destroyed. And the more “developed” Australian society has become, the more destructive the impact of the fires has been.
The two most destructive bushfire events in Australian history have both occurred in the past 40 years. The “Ash Wednesday” fires that hit Victoria and South Australia in February 1983 killed 75 people and destroyed nearly 1,900 homes. Eclipsing this, however, were the fires that engulfed areas north-east of Melbourne on “Black Saturday” – 7 February 2009: 173 people were killed in those fires, and more than 2,000 homes were destroyed.
The conditions faced by firefighters and affected communities that day were apocalyptic. The land had been baked by a dry summer that included, in the weeks preceding the disaster, a record-breaking spell of three consecutive days on which the temperature in Melbourne reached more than 43 degrees. On Black Saturday, the maximum in Melbourne was an all-time record of 46.4 degrees, with humidity as low as 2 percent and gale force winds from the north.
The most destructive of the fires began in Kilmore East and was caused by a faulty powerline. (The lack of maintenance of the line by energy company AusNet, which ultimately led to its paying $380 million in damages to affected communities, is another story about the perils of privatisation.) The fire spread quickly. By the time it entered the forests to the north of Kinglake, burning embers were landing up to 40km ahead of the fire front.
Survivors struggled to find words to describe the force of the firestorm. In testimony to the later royal commission into the fires, they spoke of the noise of the fire being “like a jet plane coming straight at you” or “10 to 12 jumbo jets screaming their lungs out all at once”. The commission report quotes John O’Neill, a resident of Steels Creek, near Kinglake:
“I could hear the approaching fire front … It sounded like 10 or 20 steam trains rumbling towards us at a very high roar. I also noticed that the sky turned red, black and purple … I screamed at my sons to come into the house … Once inside, the fire front sounded like a hurricane. Burning embers slapped into our windows and the rest of the house … It was like being inside a washing machine on spin cycle and full of fire and embers.”
The fire that destroyed Kinglake is estimated to have reached an intensity of 150,000 kilowatts per metre (kW/m). One kW/m is roughly equal to the energy released by a small bar radiator. Controlled burns are usually kept below an intensity of 500 kW/m. Only bushfires of an intensity less than 2,000 kW/m can safely be fought by firefighters and machinery working at the fire front.
Capitalism and land
From the earliest days of European colonisation, the capitalist nature of the economic system has stymied the potential for governments to manage the bushfire threat. Private ownership of land, combined with the imperative to suck every last drop of profit from the resources it contained, meant that anything resembling the systematic use of controlled burning by Aboriginal people was out of the question.
The focus, from the start, has been on the most immediate measures to fight fires. On the fire prevention side, this meant things like implementing fire bans in periods of hot, dry weather to reduce the likelihood of fires being lit accidentally. But above all, it meant establishing forces to fight fires once they’ve broken out.
The first volunteer fire brigades were formed in centres such as Sydney and Melbourne in the mid-1800s and extended to rural areas over the next 50 years. Urban fire fighting has largely been professionalised. In country areas, however, it’s still predominantly volunteer based.
The Country Fire Authority was established in Victoria in 1945, bringing together the existing hodgepodge of volunteer brigades into a single coordinated entity. Similar coordinating bodies have been set up in other states.
Given the scale of the bushfire threat in Australia, it’s a scandal that we’re still forced to rely on an overwhelmingly volunteer force. Governments should provide the resources necessary to expand the pool of full time, professional firefighters to take the leading role in bushfire fighting.
The bigger problem, however, is the relative lack of focus on long term bushfire prevention measures. Providing more funding to fight fires will always be the more attractive option for politicians keen for a popularity boost in the wake of a disaster. Funding for longer term, “behind the scenes” fire prevention is an afterthought.
The reality, however, is that no amount of funding for fire fighting, and no amount of professionalisation of firefighters, could have prevented the disaster that hit Kinglake on 7 February 2009. Under the conditions on that day, once the fire ran out of control, it simply couldn’t be stopped. The only thing that might have prevented the disaster, or at least limited the scale of destruction, would have been a regime of controlled burning that could have cleared much of the fuel that fed the fires.
Over the years, governments recognised the value of controlled burning as a fire prevention measure. But there are many barriers to following through at anywhere near the scale required. The biggest is economic. This passage from the report of the royal commission into the 1939 “Black Friday” bushfires is illustrative:
“The amount of [controlled burning] which was done was ridiculously inadequate. The [Forest] Commission’s officers regard the forest as a producer of revenue and for this reason, and because their education appears to lead them to demand that no tree or seedling be destroyed except in the course of silviculture, they are averse to burning of any sort.”
Since then, report after report has recommended that governments increase controlled burning on public land. The most recent was the royal commission into the Black Saturday fires, which noted:
“About 7.7 million hectares of public land in Victoria is managed by DSE [the Department of Sustainability and Environment] … DSE burns only 1.7 percent of this public land each year. This is well below the amount experts and previous inquiries have suggested is needed to reduce bushfire and environmental risks in the long term.
“The state has allowed the forests to continue accumulating excessive fuel loads, adding to the likelihood of more intense bushfires and thereby placing firefighters and communities at greater risk. The Commission proposes that the state make a commitment to fund a long-term program of prescribed burning, with an annual rolling target of a minimum of 5 percent of public land each year.”
The Victorian government accepted the report’s recommendations. However, since 2010 the target has been met only once. It’s a similar picture in other parts of Australia. No government has implemented a program of controlled burning anywhere near what’s required.
Australia’s forests continue to accumulate fuel loads with the potential to spark destructive, unstoppable fires.
Over the past decades, a new factor has emerged with the potential to amplify dramatically the bushfire threat: climate change.
At the time of writing, Queensland is suffering through a record-breaking heatwave and associated bushfire emergency. While Queensland is prone to regular bushfires, the conditions are the worst ever seen.
No single extreme weather event can be straightforwardly attributed to climate change. But the trend is clear: with global temperatures now 1 degree Celsius above the long term average, Australia is already experiencing an increase in the frequency of severe fire weather of the kind that prevailed in Victoria in February 2009.
According to the CSIRO, “catastrophic” fire weather conditions (an addition to the fire danger rating system adopted following the Black Saturday fires) are a 1 in 20, or 5 percent, chance to occur in any summer. It forecasts, however, that by 2050 this will have increased to 15 percent, and by 2100 to 30 percent.
This is bad news for rural and peri-urban communities like Kinglake. CSIRO lead researcher Justin Leonard argues, “The inevitability that a big fire will run on that day is nearly absolute – it just depends where in the landscape it’s going to turn up”. It’s yet another way the government’s refusal to act on climate change is playing Russian roulette with our future.
There’s more bad news. Controlled burning can be carried out only in mild and stable weather conditions, which typically occur in a brief window of five to eight weeks a year in autumn and spring. This window, however, is closing.
Longer, hotter summers and shorter, drier winters mean that governments’ controlled burning efforts are being squeezed into a period of only a few weeks. Without significant investment in personnel and equipment, the kind of ambitious targets set by the Victorian government in response to the devastation of Black Saturday will increasingly be far out of reach.
Our predicament is bleak. If we do nothing, and the status quo prevails, we’re headed towards a “scorched earth” Australia – a land of lethal droughts and heatwaves, punctuated by deadly and uncontrollable firestorms.
That our leaders seem either oblivious, or at least relatively comfortable, with this, shouldn’t be a surprise. The richest section of the population, the fossil fuel barons and others who Scott Morrison and Co. have made it their mission to serve, won’t be the ones who bear the brunt of the impact.
During recent devastating bushfires in California, the rapper Kanye West hired a team of private firefighters to save his $50 million mansion from the flames. Afterwards, he announced his intention to build a “fireproof community”.
Elsewhere in California, people weren’t so lucky. At least 88 people were killed when fire tore through the town of Paradise, north-east of San Francisco.
It’s a glimpse into the dystopian future we can expect if we remain on our current course: one in which the wealthiest few barricade themselves inside well-protected enclaves with their own private armies, while the rest of us are left to survive as best we can on cut-to-the-bone public services.
There has to be a better way. The Aboriginal societies that managed the Australian “estate” up to 1788 maintained a healthy environment and reduced the bushfire threat for 50,000 years with none of the sophisticated equipment we possess today.
The easy answer, it seems, is simply for us to relearn and re-employ the ancient land management techniques nearly lost in the invasion and genocide of the past 230 years. The problem, however, is the economic reality of capitalism, in which long term, cooperative and society-wide measures in any field bump up against the imperative of private profit. Gammage alludes to this in his comparison of Aboriginal land management with modern farming:
“A key difference between how farmers and how Aborigines managed land was the scale of 1788 enterprise. Clans could spread resources over large areas, thereby better providing for adverse seasons, and they had allies, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, who could trade or give refuge. They were thus ruled less by nature’s whims, not more, than farmers.”
The problem identified by the 1939 royal commission is still the problem today: in our society, things that will not make someone a profit, and things that might threaten someone’s ability to make a profit, will never be prioritised. This rules out the possibility of managing our relationship with nature – in the manner of pre-1788 Aboriginal societies – under a long term, rational plan.
To address the bushfire risk and the impact of climate change, we must break with the profit logic of capitalism, and create a new society in which we collectively and cooperatively decide where our resources and skills are invested.
In Capital, Karl Marx wrote of our “freedom” in relation to the natural world as consisting “in socialised man [sic], the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control … and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature”.
Given the immense growth in population, the change in technologies and so on, it’s impossible for us to return to the way of life enjoyed by Australia’s Aboriginal societies prior to 1788. We can, however, fight to construct a society based on cooperation rather than competition, and on solidarity rather than division.
Such a society is called socialism. The urgency of constructing this society has never been greater.