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Environment Analysis

Climate change making fires a bigger threat

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The Black Summer fires devastated Australia, wiping out property and wildlife and causing fatalities (Screenshot via YouTube)

The adverse effects of climate change have increased the danger of fires in Australia, with a need to implement strategies to avoid another Black Summer, writes Eleanor Beidatsch.

CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL and it’s here. This year has marked the wettest July on record in Western Australia with up to 231 millimetres of rain and just two years earlier, Australia experienced its second hottest summer on record which experts say was the result of global heating trends.

The regularity of these weather extremes is a sign of the climate changes to come and the effects they will have on the environment.

The lasting impacts of the 2019-2020 bushfire crisis, or “Black Summer”, has shown just how devastating rising temperatures can be.

The Black Summer fires blazed across Australia for almost two years, destroying homes, livelihoods, landscapes, habitats and wildlife.

What was most unprecedented about the Black Summer fires was that they started in mid-July 2019, during the winter after the eastern states had gone through three years of drought.

John Pickrell, science communicator and author of Flames of Extinction, a book about the impact of the Black Summer fires on Australia’s vulnerable wildlife, says:

“The main reason why the fires were so severe and so widespread and burning in all of these unusual habitats was because we had an incredibly bad drought. All of the moisture had been sucked out of the environment and even the normally wet rainforest was able to burn.”

While researching his book, Pickrell was able to visit the burn sites and see the worst affected areas.

He says the damage wasn’t like anything he’d ever seen:

Really, the thing that just struck me most was I was just completely staggered by the incredible extent of the fires. You can drive for hours and hours and hours and all you would see is burnt landscapes and burnt forest, blackened, and trees without any foliage on them.

 

The fact I experienced that all over New South Wales really brought home to me the incredible extent of the bushfire crisis, particularly across New South Wales.

Australia is prone to terrible fire seasons but what made Black Summer unique was the extent of the fire front.

Pickrell explains:

“There's never been a spread of bushfire crises on such a great scale.”

The extent of the fires and the severity of the drought that came before them are both indicators of climate change, and fire seasons are predicted to get worse as global temperatures continue to climb.

Bushfire prevention is an important strategy in Australia and is especially necessary under climate change.

One of the most widely used prevention strategies is prescribed burning where small, controlled fires are lit to remove the understory and reduce the fuel load of a bushfire.

Prescribed burning wasn’t used to prevent the Black Summer fires because the drought was too severe to start a burn.

Pickrell says:

“With golf courses and marshes burning this time, there's only so much that hazard reduction burns can do.”

Prescribed burning is considered one of the more effective fire prevention strategies when used under normal conditions, but there have been some incidents where prescribed burns have been their own ecological disaster.

On 25 March in the rural area of Perup, Western Australia, the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) started a prescribed burn in a nature reserve.

The burn went wrong and destroyed 1,900 hectares of forest including one of two places in the world where the endangered numbat lives.

Farmer Bill Smart, whose property runs alongside the reserve, says he was shocked by the damage:

“The day after the burn, I went in and had a look and I was shocked. There were trees down everywhere. It was terrible, there was nothing left.”

Smart believes the prescribed burn caused so much damage because it was started after an extremely hot period:

“Three days before they lit this up, we had three days of 35 and above temperature, everything was tinder dry. I think that made it worse.”

Esteemed professor Kingsley Dixon of Curtin University and member of The Leeuwin Group of Concerned Scientists says Perup wasn’t an isolated event.

He says prescribed burning is a significant threat to Australia’s biodiversity:

“When we apply it [fire] to the landscapes, we have to be darn certain that we've got the science right. And that we don't get what I would call collateral biodiversity damage. Therein lies the greatest problem with what we currently do. We have very poor science and what science there is shows the impacts [and is] negative to highly deleterious.”

Dixon and colleagues from a range of Australian universities are currently researching the effectiveness of prescribed burning as a prevention strategy and the results are expected to be published later this year.

He says the results already show that the protection offered by prescribed burning is negligible:

In fact, you increase the fine fuels by repeated burning. You drive a more rapid growing understory regime, which becomes more flammable.

 

What you show is you have almost no protective value, no matter what you do with prescribed burning because the damaging fires are not the understory. It's the canopy. But once it goes into the canopy, nothing on Earth can hold it, all the prescribed burning won't hold it.

Canopy fires were some of the most damaging during the Black Summer.

Pickrell says:

“There were some places where the fire was so intense and severe, they were crown fires that had burned right through the canopy of the trees. And often in those places, the trees were completely barren and were not resprouting.”

If prescribed burning is actually contributing to bushfire fuel, then what preventions can be used to stop another Black Summer from happening?

Dixon suggests returning to a traditional prescribed burning strategy like what the Indigenous Australians practised before European colonisation:

“They protected their assets by looking at very patchy, cool burning around the assets. We're saying that more focused asset-based targeted burning near settlements is the first thing.”

In his book, Pickrell discusses some of the strategies that were used to protect vulnerable plants and animals from the Black Summer fires, including the use of insurance populations where endangered species are moved from dangerous areas to sanctuaries so their numbers can increase safely.

Pickrell says these strategies are being considered as ways of reducing the impact of severe fires in the future:

“Scientists and national parks and government are thinking very carefully about what they can do to set in place emergency plans to rescue and protect species.”

Eleanor Beidatsch is a disability and environmental rights activist, and a science journalist. 

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