With fires devastating much of Australia, people are looking for answers. Reintroducing traditional fire management practices, taxing industries that contribute to climate change, and dramatically accelerating emissions reduction efforts are central to the solution, Byron Fay writes.
The terrible bushfires that have affected much of Australia have left many people looking for answers. And the questions I hear most frequently – given my background – are on the traditional fire management practices of Indigenous ranger groups.
The first thing to say is that it’s a complex space. In general, we have two major environmental dynamics in play: one, of course, is climate change – hotter, dryer conditions leading to bigger, more intense fires and a longer fire season.
The other is the way changed fire management practices have altered our natural environment since European invasion. Bill Gammage’s seminal work The Biggest Estate on Earth details how our First Nations people spent around 60,000 years meticulously managing the landscape with low intensity fires.
They did this for a number of reasons – hunting, both to flush animals out and to promote new growth to attract them in, navigation, and to protect biodiversity, cultural sites, buildings, food sources, and people.
The specifics of the practices vary throughout the continent, but the basics are the same: burn when it is cool and there’s still moisture in the landscape. This practice reduced fuel loads and created fire breaks that, in turn, reduced the scale and intensity of peak summer or late dry season fires.
With the interruption of these practices, many areas of southern Australia’s natural environment have been transformed from open woodlands characterised by scattered trees and grasses to more dense vegetation dominated by trees and shrubs.
The first settlers wrote about being able to gallop a horse in a straight line from Sydney harbour to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. It was grassland dotted with trees. Now if you look at any bush land around Sydney you will see that would be impossible, there are far too many shrubs filling the gaps.
Europeans brought a European mindset about fire, and it’s one which still dominates our thinking: fires are bad. If they happen, put them out.
Eventually we realised this kind of prevention and suppression was a problem, which is why we started doing hazard reduction burns. But, in all likelihood, we are not burning anywhere near as much land as was burnt pre-invasion.
So, if we want to stop these disasters from happening, we need to dramatically increase our efforts to return our natural landscapes to their pre-invasion state, and ramp up mitigation efforts to protect built and natural assets. It may sound counterintuitive, but it means more human intervention, not less.
From northern and central Australia there is demonstrated evidence of the effectiveness of traditional fire management practices in reducing the impact of the recent fires. And, from substantial experience in forested areas of southern Australia, we know hazard reduction activities can work when climatic conditions are favourable, which is why we do them.
But these activities are not without risk. Cool burns can get out of control and the smoke the generate can also cause issues. This presents a communications, and perhaps political, challenge. However, given what we’re seeing right now, the cost-benefit argument will certainly be easier to make.
The challenges of replicating the impressive efforts our First Nations peoples are obvious. First, there is the resource requirement, both human and financial. Second, the hotter and dryer climate means the window of time for safe burning is narrowing.
Climate change also means that even these efforts will, at times, be insufficient. Cool burns clear out undergrowth and don’t touch the crowns of trees. So, if peak summer fire gets up into the canopy and is fuelled by record-breaking drought, temperatures and high winds, it will burn, whether managed previously or not. We’ve seen examples of this occurring over extensive areas in past, but especially with the recent fires.
Therefore, a key part of the answer is also to stop, and ultimately reverse, global warming. We have already seen global average temperatures increase by 1.1 degrees since the start of the industrial revolution, and we are on track for 3 degrees of warming by the year 2100. Holding warming to 1.5 degrees will require reducing emissions by 7.5 per cent per year every year from 2020-2030.
Yet, in 2019 our emissions globally rose by 0.6 per cent, and here in Australia, our coal and gas exports reached an all-time high in 2019, and emissions have risen every year since the Abbott government repealed the carbon price in 2013. There is a mammoth task ahead, to say the least.
The emissions reduction potential of traditional fire management is another complex part of the story. In the tropical north of the continent, we are sure that reintroducing annual traditional cool burning practices reduces emissions and helps maintain carbon stocks. Early dry season savanna burning is a registered offset methodology under the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund, and Indigenous fire management projects are now registered over 300,000 km2 of northern Australia. By comparison, the whole of Tasmania covers 60,000 km2.
They have been an incredible success, reducing emissions by up to 50 per cent, protecting and revitalising biodiversity, and providing valuable seasonal employment opportunities for remote Indigenous communities. Win, win, win.
It’s been such a success that the DFAT-funded International Savanna Fire Management Initiative was formed in 2013 to help indigenous people in similar tropical savanna landscapes around the world to revive their own traditional fire management practices. The Initiative is currently working to establish pilot projects in Botswana, and is aiming to expand to other countries in the region.
Evidence suggests that similar fire projects in southern Australia will not afford annual emissions reduction benefits as for savanna landscapes given the extensive areas of fuel reduction which would need to be treated each year to reduce risks of occasional summer wildfire infernos
Plus, if the argument that we have increased the fuel load in the landscape is correct, then returning the environment to more like its pre-colonisation state could actually result in reducing existing carbon stocks – in other words, increasing emissions. On the other hand, emissions from the current fires are immense, so maybe there could be an overall emissions benefit to more widespread management.
Despite the emissions question, it is still absolutely worth expanding traditional fire management practices from an adaption and biodiversity protection perspective.
So, part of the solution to our increasing fire threat lies in moving away from a European mindset and into an Indigenous mindset.
That means accepting we live in a fire-prone landscape and that we all have a responsibility to learn how to work with fire and manage it. It also means joining our local Indigenous ranger group or Rural Fire Service and spending our winter weekends helping to conduct cool burns.
There’s a reason First Nations people taught their children to use fire from an early age: it was a survival necessity. Now, more than ever, we must learn from them. It’s no longer sufficient to see bushfire as something that happens far away in some alien land.
Mike Kelly, the MP for Eden-Monaro, whose electorate takes in many areas hit hard by the fire, has put forward the idea of creating a ‘Civil Defence Corps’, modelled off the Defence Force Reserves, to massively scale up our fire management efforts.
It’s a sensible proposal, particularly considering we are in an existential fight for our survival. But a few tweaks may be needed. First, it should be paid for with a levy on coal and gas exports, not a public levy in the style of the 2011 Queensland floods, as suggested by Dr Kelly. The industries that have caused the problem should be the ones to pay, not the general public. Second, any such program should also include funding for Indigenous ranger groups and an option to serve with them.
Emulating traditional fire management practices on a large scale will not be a silver bullet for our fire troubles, but it can make a valuable contribution to helping our people and wildlife adapt to a new reality.