Fire. It now sits in the pit of my stomach and wrenches at my heart. There are often no words, just sadness, when I watch what is going on in our country at the moment. It is devastating and heartbreaking. The destruction of homes – of both people and our wildlife. The physical and mental exhaustion of our firefighters – volunteers, leaving paid work and going out in absolutely terrifying and life threatening conditions, FIGHTING – yes, that is what they are doing – for days on end, with limited resources and rest, never meant to deal with these monstrous conditions. Towns, such as Mallacoota, black as night in mid morning due to the thick ash, then turning to an eerie red haze as the fire front moves in, thousands of people stranded on the beach and all they can do is watch in horror as many of their homes are destroyed, then later rescued by the Navy as there is no other way out. The biggest mass evacuation Australia has ever seen, with thousands of cars waiting in lines for days to get fuel from the only source of petrol. The death – of people trying to defend their homes, of the honorable firefighters, whose families will never see them again. And of the wildlife – the estimated number of animals killed is in the billions. This is an astronomical figure. And then what about the animals who have managed to survive? They have no home and no food. And there is no end in sight.
I have had the privilege of seeing many amazing places in Australia – some of the most beautiful places that my memory holds. It is absolutely devastating to see that many of these natural wonders have come under threat by the catastrophic fires. Dinner Plain – I have walked through the snow gums within this alpine region, their green leaves standing out against the backdrop of the sparkling snow. This is a scene you will not see anywhere else in the world. Thousands of hectares have been burnt. The fires thankfully narrowly missed the small township. The Blue Mountains – I have stood and looked out over the mountain range at the never-ending tree-tops with their beautiful blue haze. The three sisters are a truly remarkable sight. I have also walked down under the canopy, hearing nothing but the calls of nature – all the different birds and insects. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of this national park have gone up in flames. I have visited Springbrook National Park – which is part of the hinterland surrounding the Gold Coast in Queensland – another wondrous place to walk, hearing the sounds of wildlife and experiencing the humidity, the dampness, the tall trees with their overshadowing canopy, the hanging vines, the growth of moss and mushrooms, the waterfalls, the isolation. This unique and highly diverse environment has also caught fire. In fact, some of this forest is an ancient remnant of Gondwana (the supercontinent) and it has burnt for the the first time. How can a rainforest catch fire? Kangaroo Island – my family and I were just talking the other day, before the fires hit, that we would like to go back and see again the stunning beauty of Vivonne Bay, Stokes Bay and the Flinders Chase National Park. And the abundance of Australian wildlife. The only clamydia free koala population has been decimated. The Ligurian bee population – found nowhere else is the world – has been severely impacted. Many beekeepers have lost huge amounts of their populations and the ones who have survived – there are no flowers left. What will they do?
No one could have foreseen such horrific and catastrophic circumstances. Well … this is where things get slightly uncomfortable. These exact conditions have been predicted by scientists studying changes all around the world. Reports written by the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) have predicted this for the last 30 years. The CSIRO released a report in 2009 specifically on the impacts of climate change on Australia’s fire regimes. It suggests:
“Modeled climate projections show that much of southern Australia may become warmer and drier. This modeling suggests that, by 2020, extreme fire danger days in south-eastern Australia may occur 5 to 65 per cent more often than at present. “
We need to start listening. We should have been listening long ago. We need to listen to the experts. We need to listen to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and the CSIRO, who have been studying Australia’s climate and weather patterns for many years. BOM has recorded 2019 as being the hottest and driest year since records began in 1910. The State of the Climate 2018 states that “there has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia” since 1970. We need to listen to Joelle Gergis – a climate scientist. She is actually a senior lecturer of Climate Science at Australian National University. She states that these fires are not part of Australia’s natural fire regime. Our climate is changing and these fires are a devastating result of unusually hotter and drier conditions.
We need to listen to Greg Mullins, a former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner – an expert on Australian Fire, who also says these fires are not normal. Pyro-convective events – fire storms, or fires so intense they are able to create their own weather – were once a rare event, but now, according to Mullins, they are becoming increasingly common. El Nino events are the weakening or reversal of winds that come across the Pacific Ocean from South America. During El Nino events climatic conditions in Australia are often warmer and drier, resulting in a higher fire risk. Records from the last one hundred years show that our worst fire years have almost always been during El Nino years. And based on this data, our official fire season has always been between October 1st until March 31. Over the last decade Australia has experienced fires in September and April and during non El Nino years. Fires in Queensland’s rainforest started in September and it is currently not an El Nino year.
We need to listen to Forest Scientist Tom Fairman, who suggests that more frequent fires in the last 15 years are impacting Australia’s fire-tolerant snow gums and the wildlife who rely on them for survival, such as the critically endangered Mountain Pigmy Possum and Leadbeaters Possum. Australian snow gums, as do other gums, have a relationship with fire. They have, what is called, a lignotuber, a swelling at the base, which stores energy, as well as protected buds, to help with regeneration after fire. But, studies by Fairman show that these fire-tolerant gums have evolved to handle Australia’s natural fire regime, which is one fire every 50 to 100 years. About 90 percent of Victorian snowgums have been burnt since 2003, approximately four million hectares, which is equivalent to what previously burnt in the 50 years before. Many of the gums have now been burnt two or three times over the last 15 years as large fires have increased significantly in frequency. And it is these populations which are starting to suffer, unable to regenerate and repopulate as they would after one fire. Other vegetation is also being impacted, such as shrubs in the region, as well as alpine and mountain ash populations.
We need to listen to the first Australians, who successfully managed this land for tens of thousands of years. Fire has been a part of the Australian landscape for a very long time. Much of the flora and fauna have actually evolved to rely on it for regeneration and survival. For example, many species of native plants need fire to open their seed pods and they often cannot germinate without the fire and resulting ash. In fact, many Eucalyts are naturally oily and drop large amounts bark and leaf litter to encourage fire. Cultural burning, as opposed to hazard reduction burning, which only aims to reduce fuel loads, is about land management. Vegetation, habitat, moisture levels and soil type all determine the type of burning, which encourages more fire resilient flora, as well as rejuvenation and habitat protection.
Why aren’t we listening to these experts? Well, some people are, just not the leaders of our country. They also need to listen to the people. Listen to their stories; stories make people human. We need compassion. We need care. That’s what drives our amazing and dedicated fire fighters and rescue services. That’s what brings the bravery and community spirit we are seeing from every day people around the country.
We need to start listening.