Scorched earth

2 January 2021
Dave Bishop

After a red stringybark burns, buds buried in the trunk spring to life, and new sprouts emerge within days. Like most other eucalypts, the tree has adapted to wildfire over millennia. Pyrophytic plants—those that have adapted to fire—are common in Australia and anywhere that fire has been a regular occurrence through the ages.

Animals, too, have developed an impressive bag of tricks for surviving fire and even thriving in the aftermath. Depending on the severity of the blaze, small animals might hide in gullies or become squatters in a wombat’s burrow. Larger animals, like kangaroos, will find their way to water or even double back to safety in areas already burned. In a healthy ecosystem, fire can act as a keystone predator, bringing natural disruption and helping maintain biodiversity. But fire patterns are changing with the climate, and this is disrupting the intricately balanced relationship between ecosystems and fire.

On a warmer planet, conditions for more severe wildfires are increasingly common in regions as far apart as Australia and the Arctic. Plants and animals that have adapted to occasional and less severe fire may not survive or have the chance to regenerate with longer, hotter and drier summers and extended fire seasons. Bushfires now reach into ancient rainforests like the Gondwana in northern New South Wales and other regional ecosystems untouched by fire for millennia. In places like these, where plants and animals have not adapted to wildfire, it’s an open question whether ecosystems can recover naturally.

Climate change is the main driver of the record-breaking run of wildfires in recent years. Fire has been a natural part of life on Earth for aeons. But today, most wildfires are burning faster and longer because of global warming. This is both an indictment of capitalism and an indication that we hold the key to solving the problem ourselves.

Lightning started most of the fires in Australia’s 2019-20 Black Summer. They were so vast, and burned so intensely, that they spawned an unprecedented number of pyrocumulonimbus clouds, a type of storm cloud that can form over fires and carry enough energy to generate their own damaging wind squalls and lightning. Firefighters fear their unpredictability and the dry lightning strikes that often spark new blazes far from the fire front. More of these nightmare clouds formed during the Black Summer than over the past 30 years combined.

The fires scorched 19 million hectares—an area equivalent to 9.5 million Melbourne Cricket Ground playing fields—and more than 3,000 homes were destroyed. Three billion animals are estimated to have been killed or displaced. At least 33 people died in the fires themselves, while more than 400 excess deaths occurred, and thousands more were hospitalised, due to the thick smoke that blanketed cities for weeks on end.

The intensity and size of the fires meant that in many cases firefighters could do nothing but stand and watch. The challenges they faced were compounded by the fact that water reserves in the worst hit areas of Victoria and New South Wales were often depleted. Even after the fires were extinguished by widespread rain in January, communities faced a new threat as runoff brought ash and other pollutants into waterways, leading to mass fish deaths and endangering the water supply of millions of people.

There may be some respite from bushfires this summer, thanks to a La Niña weather pattern, which typically brings higher than average rainfall to many fire-prone areas of eastern Australia, and because so much fuel in these areas burned last year. But the risk is still high in south-east Queensland, and grass regrowth west of the Great Dividing Range could provide fuel for new fires in the late summer sun. Whatever happens this summer, however, the road ahead is perilous.

In a report published in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences in March, a team of climate scientists from around the world concluded that global warming has already made severe bushfire seasons like the one last summer at least 30 percent more likely. The report also claims that further warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius would lead to conditions like those of the Black Summer recurring at least four times as often.

Australia isn’t alone in this new reality. Across the Pacific, there is an unfinished season of megafires and hazy skies up and down the western regions of North America. California has been hit by five of the state’s six largest wildfires ever recorded. With more than 1.6 million hectares scorched so far, the total area burned in California this year is more than double the previous record for the state, which was set only two years ago. Oregon is also dealing with a record year of forest fires and—along with Washington state and British Columbia—the worst air quality recorded in US/Canadian history.

The Amazon rainforest in Brazil is another global fire hot spot. After the Brazilian Space Agency produced satellite evidence of fires and deforestation earlier this year, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro fired the head of the agency. “They won’t find any spot of fire, nor a quarter of a hectare deforested”, he said. “This story that the Amazon is going up in flames is a lie and we must combat it with true numbers.” The true numbers are that, as of 2019, 17 percent of the Amazon rainforest had been clear-cut or burned since the 1970s, and the widely reported fires in the Amazon in 2019 have already been surpassed by the total area burned in 2020. Further deforestation would have an enormous impact on the climate globally because the rainforest is the world’s largest land-based carbon sink.

The destructive feedback loop of wildfires, carbon emissions and global warming can be seen most clearly in the unprecedented and ongoing burning of ancient peat lands in the Arctic. The peat lands are another of the world’s most important carbon sinks that may soon become a source of carbon emissions—a shift in the region’s climate was expected by the end of the century, but appears to have arrived ahead of time.

Global mapping of wildfires often shows sub-Saharan Africa ablaze more than any other region. While this may appear alarming, it is not yet a serious problem: grasslands of the African savanna burn naturally and regrow rapidly. A greater risk would be more wildfires reaching into the rainforest of the Congo basin, another important carbon sink. Madagascar, on the other hand, is in a dire situation with nearly complete deforestation due mostly to slash-and-burn farming.

Paradoxically, it seems that the total area burned globally has been on a downward trend since 2003. The reason is related to land use. Specifically, the conversion of the African savanna into farmland has greatly reduced the area of grassland left to burn. Research has found that this downward trend in total area burned globally is likely to reverse in the decades ahead as global warming creates the conditions for more severe wildfires.

The path to mitigating the threat of wildfires must begin with efforts to slow or reverse the trend of global warming. At the same time, firefighting organisations in Australia, the United States and elsewhere are calling for a transition away from fire suppression towards traditional methods of fire management.

Indigenous people on this continent invented fire stick farming tens of thousands of years ago, carving the landscape into a mosaic of patchwork burns, reducing the danger of wildfire while allowing easier hunting and cultivation of fire-tolerant edibles such as murnong (yam daisies). Colonisation, and the genocide that accompanied it, nearly destroyed this knowledge and replaced it with fire-suppression strategies that are highly resource intensive and, as last year’s Black Summer shows, incapable of preventing or halting the worst of the fires. Today, Indigenous land managers in the Northern Territory are heralded for operating the world’s best fire management system.

While a return to traditional use of fire as a land management technique appears to be an obvious part of the solution, economic and political barriers remain. Indigenous fire-management practices require a collective understanding that is immediately at odds with the regime of property ownership, industrial interests and liability concerns in the US and much of Australia. Put simply: capitalist property relations make it impossible to undertake the kind of long-term planning and coordination of land management over vast areas and timescales on which Indigenous fire management is based.

The economic drivers of the fire-suppression method are significant. Real estate development in the wild land-urban interface is highly profitable and also makes it impossible to let a wildfire burn out naturally without endangering lives and homes. Privatisation and de-professionalisation of firefighting is another step in the wrong direction, a trend expressed most vividly in southern California, where Kim Kardashian and Kanye West hired a private firefighting force to protect their US$50 million mansion during the wildfires of 2018.

Ultimately, a lack of serious action to slow or reverse global warming will make the fire management debate moot. As fire seasons take up more of the year, there is less time for low-risk cool burns in the months between. Reversing the gradual apocalypse of climate change and shifting away from the competitive, profit-driven logic of global capitalism are prerequisites for preventing future Black Summers.

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