Australia– Why is it that Australians appear almost surprised when bushfire breaks out somewhere across the continent?
When he reached the Australian mainland, one of the first things English navigator James Cook noted was smoke. The immediate significance to Cook was not that this was a continent on fire, but that it was a place inhabited by man.
Yet even the dour Cook was impressed by the extent of the burning he encountered in late April 1770, describing Australia as a “continent of smoke”. Fire, it seemed, was everywhere. It had been so for millennia.
Bushfire still burns somewhere in Australia pretty much all year round. Often it is uncontrolled and destructive fire, sometimes deadly. The nature of fire in our landscape has changed, as has the way we think about it and respond to it.
The incidence of fire has changed, too, with one recent study pointing to a 40 per cent increase in bushfires between 2008 and 2013.
This has certainly been a significant summer season: worse than many, yet not as bad as others. There have been major fires across the nation’s southern half, from south-west Western Australia to Tasmania, from the South Australian wheat belt to the Victorian holiday coast.
These bushfires have come at immense cost, claiming six lives in WA and two in SA, destroying hundreds of homes across three states and leaving an indelible imprint on the World Heritage estate.
But should we be surprised by such events and how has it come to this?
Our relationship with fire and with the environment has changed over the past century, in particular. There is a huge disconnect between Australians and the bush. No matter how many four-wheel drives and camper trailers we own (or perhaps because of them) not many of us actually know much about the bush environment any more.
The activities that connected people to the bush have steadily been eroded. In 1916, only about half of all Australians lived in towns and cities. A century later, that figure is closer to 90 per cent. According to the World Bank, the proportion of Australians living in rural Australia had dropped from just under 16 per cent in 1967 to 10.7 per cent by 2014.
The decline of rural communities has been well documented, but apart from the simple loss of physical connection is the loss of work in rural and forest landscapes that once connected people inextricably to an understanding of weather and landscape, vegetation and land management.
At the same time, there has been a fundamental shift in the values and beliefs attached by our society to the remnants of a natural environment. We no longer see the bush simply as something to be chopped down, dug up or redefined for agriculture.
The changes wrought by European settlers to the Australian landscape are self-evident. From nearly 20 million hectares of forest in 1869, Victoria’s forest cover was reduced to about 8 million hectares by the late 20th century. We have introduced new plants and animals, fenced, farmed and cruelled the land.
Land managers are having to relearn how to mitigate the impact of fire in landscapes that have been totally altered. The increased use of controlled burning merely to achieve a quantum of hazard reduction is not, as Victoria discovered after Black Saturday, the simple answer.
Any bush firefighter with more than a few years of experience will tell you that the incidence and severity of bushfires is increasing. The climate is changing. Fire seasons are longer. There is less rainfall across much of the most fire-prone parts of Australia.
There are simply more fires in the bush more often than there were only a few decades ago.
Almost perversely, cities and towns are pushing out into the very remnant landscape that we are anxious to protect. Australians are injecting themselves back into an environment that remains rich in fire. They do not bring with them the knowledge that it is a fire environment, let alone what they need to do to protect themselves and their families either through the type of homes they build orthe way they behave when fires occur.
So all Australians whether living in a bushfire-prone area (as about 20 per cent of us do), working, travelling through or holidaying in such areas need to relearn things that have been lost. That means rebuilding a relationship with the bush that will reinstate fire as a natural part of it and a part of it that will not simply go away if we rely on the state to buy more helicopters and air tankers.
Those living in bushfire-prone communities need to accept they have responsibilities in terms of fire prevention and mitigation. More of us at a community level will need to roll up our sleeves and share the burden of firefighting by joining volunteer brigades.
Largely missing from the modern landscape is the fire that Captain Cook saw, fire introduced into the landscape by Indigenous Australians. Cook sailed the east coast well after the bushfire season. He was most likely seeing smoke from the smaller, cool burns Indigenous Australians once used as a management tool, burning that focused on health and welfare of the land.
Perhaps one way forward for dealing with future bushfire is to relearn and apply Indigenous burning practices that have largely disappeared from some of our highest-risk bushfire landscapes.
That knowledge has not been completely lost. Now is the time to revisit a use of fire that put landscape, rather than man, at its centre