AUSTRALIA – The Bellingen business owner and father of four was one of many volunteer firefighters called to help efforts to contain a major blaze burning within the shire at Dorrigo, in New South Wales.
As he stood, taking in the sight before him, he overheard a radio call that yet another fire had broken out; this one closer to his home.
Depending on the wind, his family home could be at risk and Mr Doye’s property has one road in and out.
“I was pretty stressed at that moment because you’re there with a very confronting scene in front of you and you know that you’ve got your family down in the valley with another separate fire which could well head over the hill,” he said.
“Making sure that you’re prepared for it is really important.”
He called his wife, Lowanna, to warn her about the fire and she and their children started to enact the initial stages of the family’s fire plan. They packed some essentials and prepared to leave.
That day marked a new era in their off-the-grid life in a town known for its rainforests.
“In all the time we’ve been here, it’s the first time we’ve come that close to fire,” Mr Doye said.
If this is ‘the new reality’, towns will need help
Bellingen on the mid-north coast of New South Wales is not your typical fire-prone region; its tree-lined streets are dotted with friendly faces, bohemian energy, and fresh produce from the surrounding farms.
The town is nestled in a valley between state and national parks, made up of bush and rainforest, and just to the east is the ocean.
However, to the west of the shire, high on an escarpment, fire has been burning in forest not expected to go up in flames.
While the odd spot fire can always ignite, widespread bushfires are not common because the region is so lush.
The town’s Mayor, Dominic King, is scared for his community — it knows floods, not fires.
He said the fire on the Dorrigo Plateau was the wake-up call his shire needed to boost its bushfire preparedness.
“What we’re seeing with the amount of fuel on the ground and how dry that is, we are really concerned about large parts of our shire that are among the forest,” Cr King said.
“To see those forests up on the escarpment burn, that have never burnt before, is scary stuff.
“The scientists have been talking about this — longer, more intense fire seasons and we’ve been pretending it isn’t going to happen and that was a big wake-up call for us.”
Cr King said he wanted government help to better equip the region for fires.
“We will be having some really hard conversations with ministers and authorities about what we need to do into the future,” he said.
“If this is the new reality, there’s a whole heap of stuff we need to think about in terms of our planning, the sort of houses that we allow to be built.
“I know this is a global phenomenon. We’re not the only community that’s burning now that hasn’t burnt before.”
We can no longer rely on history: researcher
Dr John Bates is the research director at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.
He said the early and ferocious start to the fire season was not exclusive to Bellingen.
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Three years of drought means soils and vegetation are dry, and changing weather conditions have shortened the season when hazard-reduction burns can occur.
All of that means there is a lot of fuel to burn. Add to that high temperatures and strong winds, and it can create dangerous conditions.
“The conditions are appearing earlier in the season because it’s been so dry and I think, whilst we talked about it being conditions that are worse this year, I think it’s worse because we don’t expect them to happen at the time of year,” Mr Bates said.
“We’re starting to see [fire] in vegetation in places in the country that we’ve not seeing them before; all of it being driven by the increase in temperature and the increasing drivers in the landscape.”
Are you in a bushfire zone?
While climate change may not be igniting fires, it is intensifying their impact, and Mr Bates said people in Australia could no longer rely on history to predict fire habits.
While Australia does have a history of dramatic and even restorative fires, what is being seen now is proof things have changed.
“What people need to do is to look around them and say ‘what does the world around me look like today?’ And not say, ‘what do I remember my world looking like?’
“Because if the vegetation is dry, it will burn and that’s the thing that we’re seeing and people don’t seem to be getting the message.
“If you live near a forest, if your forest is dry, if the temperature is high, and there is dry vegetation on the ground; so dead leaves, dead grass and branches that have fallen down, it is likely that you will be exposed to a fire and you need to be prepared for it.”
The message from fire researchers is if you live near any area of bush, grassland or even an urban park — you are at risk of bushfires this season.
“The risk is to anybody that is exposed to a form of forest or plant matter that is drying out and is likely to burn,” Dr Bates said.
He said even if people were not directly adjacent to a forest, there was still a risk.
In country environments, embers can travel much further than people expected and inside urban areas — or “urban forests” like Kings Park in Western Australia — where city dwellers might mistakenly believe they were safe.
“The most recent update from the Bureau [of Meteorology] (BoM) on the weather shows the parts of the north-east of New South Wales are the driest they’ve been on record,” Dr Bates said.
“This is new and people need to understand the new ‘new’ and to prepare themselves for it because once a fire starts it becomes unsafe if you haven’t thought what you going to do.”
Vulnerable towns call for change
For Mr Doye and his family, the answer to getting on top of worsening fires globally is to address the drivers of climate change itself.
“We need to take immediate action on climate change. We need to actually start listening to youngsters who are screaming at us to change what we are doing at the moment,” Mr Doye said.
“In Australia, we have an enormous business opportunity to actually lead this change.”
Dr Bates said the information coming out of the BoM was that this is the longest period without rain on record.
“That is a change. It is different to what we know,” he said.
“And on the back of that, people need to say, not ‘what have I experienced before and how can I use that to tell me what this summer is going to look like?’ But ‘what is the world around me looking like, and how do I need to change my behaviour to be safe if a fire starts?'”