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Climate change and the bushfires

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 18 November 2019


The alarmists are sure: climate change makes bushfires even worse, because the planet is hotter, hence the bush is drier. Well, that's what The Guardian says, and we know that its position on climate change is wonderfully balanced, even if the Deputy Prime Minister says that such a proposed cause is rubbish. The IPCC sort of agrees with him. Adam Bandt, Greens MP, thinks the fires are due to the Government's lack of a proper climate-change policy. He too is a noted dispassionate observer of climate. Barnaby Joyce MP says the cause is the conservationists' opposition to fire-hazard reduction-burning. The alarmists say there have been fires all over the world this year. Surely that tells us something! I'm sure it does, but what it does tell us is not wholly clear. There have been big fires before, and there will be big fires again. And there will be floods, too. The Australian meteorological record tells us to expect them, and prepare for them. We sort of do, but our response is muddled. We have a new word now, 'catastrophic', and the media love it. It's only been part of the fire classification for a decade, but it sounds as though the fires we are having are somehow unprecedented. They're not, of course. Only the word 'catastrophic' is.

So far the death toll from these fires is small, and likewise the number of houses destroyed. The Canberra fires of 2003 killed four people and destroyed more than five hundred houses. I mention it first because I was there when it was occurring. Actually I was at the coast when it started, and began to receive calls from family and friends as to whether we were all right. So we headed back to an eerie brown sky. Our house was untouched. But the Canberra fires, destructive as they were, were small in comparison to the really big ones in the past.

The worst was probably in Victoria in 1851, which burned a quarter of the colony, and killed unknown numbers of people, but also a million sheep, thousands of cattle and innumerable native fauna. Victoria seems to be particularly prone to massive fires. Here are the five most destructive fires since 1900, according to Australian Geographic. They can't all have been caused by climate change.

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All but one occurred in Victoria. In what follows the first figure is the number of people who died, the second the number of houses destroyed.

  • Victoria 1939: 71/650
  • Victoria 1926: 60/n.a.
  • Tasmania 1967: 62/1300
  • Vic/SA 1983: 75/1900
  • Victoria 2009: 173/2000

I came across an interesting essay on the Californian wildfires, and saw in it numerous parallels between the fires on each side of the Pacific. The essay is by Jim Steele, whose work on the Californian environment I have read before. He is a retired, sceptical scientist, and his essay is full of data. It seems that California has had lots of big fires before the advent of 400+ ppm CO2 levels, just like Australia. It seems also that the argument that CO2 > global warming > hotter climate > more and hotter bushfires is alive and well in the US too.

There's more. Faulty or damaged electrical grids cause fires, as they have done here, along with 'increased surface fuels from years of fire suppression', plus changes in vegetation that have generated more fine fuels, like annual grasses, which occur when forests are logged. All that is familiar. As is, of course, lightning, which occurs in both countries mostly in the summer season. And there are the wretched arsonists. What prompts their actions defeats me. I haven't heard of any particular arsonists being involved in our current bushfires, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they have been present. There have been suggestions to that effect in Queensland and, only in the last day or so, also in Turramurra in Sydney's northern suburbs.

The Queensland fires have mostly been in scrubby country with a lot of small-diameter fuels that let fires spread rapidly. So has Southern California. Both our countries have seen the expansion of suburbia into bushland, which means that more people and their houses are affected by fire. Yes, we have both enlarged our fire-fighting and emergency response teams, machines and forecasting. But still we have destructive fires.

What should we do about it? My thoughts are these, though they are not in priority order, since I really don't know what the most important causes are. What comes to me first is the need to get rid of as much fuel litter as possible, and on a regular basis. There seems to be an antipathy to doing this on the part of local councils and state governments, though not in the ACT, I am glad to say. Why is there this antipathy? Some of it seems to be the result of Green and Green-sympathiser pressure: we should leave Nature to take its course. Back-burning causes native animals to flee in terror. Don't forget the koalas, and so on. I think that this is misguided. We are all in danger from fire, human beings as well as koalas, and the more fuel there is, the hotter the fires will be, and even more death and terror. Oddly enough, NASA was opposed to back-burning in 2017 because of 'climate change'. How come? Frequent controlled burns reduce the capacity of forests to sequester carbon dioxide. Hmm. What is the cost/benefit ratio here?

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A related issue is the lack of foresight on the part of house-builders and councils in building and allowing the building of houses right in the middle of native forest, or next to pine plantations, across the road from where I now live. I have written before about the eucalypt, which I would not have anywhere in an urban area, let alone in a backyard. I came across a suggestion that the eucalypt prepares for the fire that will allow it to regenerate by dropping branches and twigs beneath it to create favourable conditions for the next big fire. While there is an anthropomorphic air in this suggestion (making eucalypts capable of thought, like human beings) natural selection can have favoured the sub-species that tended to do this.

A suggestion from California is that all towns and villages create a mile-wide area of ploughed ground between the town and the forest, and keep the grass down through the efforts first of cattle, then of sheep, then of goats, so that the next fire has nothing to feed on when it advances toward the town. I think this is a brave suggestion, and it might have more chance of success in the USA than here, where I can't see any local councils having the nerve to propose such a scheme, let alone the power to implement it. American local governments have much more autonomy, and much more capacity to act when citizens see the need to do something, than do Australian ones, all of them the creatures of state governments.

Well, that's my tuppence worth. I'd be glad to read of other suggestions. I don't think we have really grasped the right way to deal with fire, or flood for that matter. Maybe the Aboriginal people had it right, with frequent burns to keep fuel loads light and to encourage new growth. Bill Gammage, an eminent Australian historian, certainly thinks so. See his The Biggest Estate on Earth.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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