Fire weather sounds an alarm

We keep on getting reminders of the growing threat from climate change, but some people just don’t want to know about it. [15 January 2012 | Peter Boyer]

Ground Zero at Dunalley, photographed on the afternoon of 4 January by Tammy Holmes, who with her grandchildren survived by taking refuge beneath the town jetty. ABC-TV—7.30

Survival in the face of great danger and adversity is the story of the fires that set 2013 under way. It presses all the buttons — courage and fear, toughness and despair, love and loss.

The story celebrates old-fashioned virtues of practical commonsense, reliability and presence of mind, bound up with decisive action when circumstances demand it. And it has a moral, which is to be prepared and watchful, helpful and kind, and ready to run.

The story may not yet have run its course — it’s still very early in the fire season — but it’s already shown that we can still rise to the occasion when the need is there. When nature turns on us we can take care of each other: a united front in the face of nature’s fury.

It’s times like this that sun-bronzed, practical, cheerful blokes and sheilas of the outdoors come into their own. They’re life savers, and thank heavens they still exist.

As a boy I wanted to be like these. From my bushman father I learned how to wield a sharp axe and fire a rifle. I read Lawson and Patterson, listened to Smoky Dawson on the radio and watched in awe as great Tasmanian woodchoppers sliced through a foot-thick log in seconds.

Such men went to war and came home to build a nation — literally. Unlike the output of many of us today, their achievement could be seen and touched. We celebrated them as heroes, as we should.

That’s the good part of the story, but it has a flip side. The smoke from the fires was still in the air as we started counting the cost, and it was then that the blame game began. Or rather, the blame game continued from where it had been before the fires, but at increased volume and intensity.

The obvious targets are “greenies” — anti-logging protesters, national parks advocates, Greens party members and such like — whose opposition to current forest harvesting, it is said, has forced usable land into reserves and prevented essential fuel-reduction burning.

Bushfire specialists are still debating whether or not burning off makes much difference to the kind of wildfire that hit Dunalley this month. Certainly the proximity of timbered land behind the town would have raised the intensity of the fire, but there are also other factors at play.

The speed of the fire was a big concern of authorities on that windy day as they sought to get people to move away from their homes to safer places. Forest fuel levels don’t affect fire speed; that’s determined by wind (which we can’t control) and dry soil and vegetation. Using fuel reduction burning to clear understorey plants can lead to a thinner forest canopy and expose soils to drying winds. So it’s no universal panacea.

But that doesn’t mean we should abandon actively managing forests. If I have one big beef with “green” forest policies over the years, it’s been in the notion of wilderness, whereby humans are seen as separate from a natural order. That to me is plain wrong-headed.

We can manage our forests to reduce wildfire risk. The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage’s monumental 2011 study of pre-settlement Australia, highlights the role of low-intensity, carefully constrained year-round burning in the Aborigines’ active management of their lands before 1788.

These people felt integrated with the natural order, not separate from it. They closely watched natural changes to inform how they shaped their landscape. There will be no going back to a nomadic existence like theirs (short of a global catastrophe) but we learn much from their attitude to nature.

In both Aboriginal Australia and early settlement times, when most of Australia’s population lived in non-urban areas, people had to be attuned to what nature was doing. The vast majority of us today are far less aware of such things, and we are paying a heavy price.

We will continue to do so as long as the likes of Warren Truss, acting Opposition Leader while Tony Abbott was out with his local brigade on bushfire watch, downplays the possibility that climate change is a factor in the intensity of wildfires this summer.

Objecting to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s warning that a warming climate would bring more severe fire conditions in the future, Truss reframed Gillard’s statement to suggest that she was claiming climate as a cause of the fires, a position he viewed as “utterly simplistic”.

Well, yes. Wildfires happen every Australian summer. It would have been simplistic to say climate change caused this year’s fires. But Truss should have pointed out that the weather conditions in which they occurred have been so exceptional that climate has to be factored in.

Temperature records are often broken, but until recently when this happened the new mark was almost always within a small fraction of a degree of the old one. Meteorologists were astonished on “Black Saturday” in February 2009 when Melbourne exceeded its hottest-ever mark by a “whopping” 0.8C.

Tasmania’s big fire day on Friday 4 January was Hobart’s hottest since records began in 1883. At 41.8C it was a full degree above the previous 130-year high. For those who can remember the horrific conditions of “Black Tuesday” in 1967, this year’s high was 3C hotter.

Current record heatwave conditions in which the national mean maximum topped 40C have prompted the Bureau of Meteorology to add new colours to its maps to accommodate temperatures above 50C. How long will politicians continue to pretend nothing’s happening here?

Truss, Tony Abbott and many others on both sides of politics have used “green-bashing” as a tool of their trade, pitting conservationists against the firies in a phoney war while neglecting the real war that needs to be waged — to lessen the impact of climate change.

Conservationists deserve our thanks for leading the effort to make us more climate-conscious. To deal with it we will need both environmental awareness and hard-headed practicality, not one to the exclusion of the other.

• REPORT coordinators for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Dr Peter Stott (UK) and Dr Linda Mearns (US) will address a public meeting at the Stanley Burbury Centre, University of Tasmania, 5.30 to 7pm this Friday, at the end of the IPCC lead authors meeting in Hobart this week.

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