A firefighter warns of a terrifying future

Nature is never far from you at Sydney’s northern edge, which is where Greg Mullins grew up. His home turf was a small suburb nearly surrounded by that scrubby woodland so characteristic of the Sydney region.

Being at home in both city and bush stood him in good stead as an officer with Fire and Rescue NSW. He spent the last 14 years of his 40-year career at the pinnacle of his profession, in charge of Australia’s largest fire service.

Mullins retired from his professional role in 2017, but as is the habit of retired firefighters immediately went back to where it all began, joining his old mates of the Terrey Hills volunteer brigade. Which is how he came to be at the fire front throughout Australia’s most devastating fire season, the 2019-20 Black Summer.

The arrival of Covid just as the fires were going out should have helped people forget the previous summer, but it didn’t. Countless fire victims still suffer trauma, and for those most directly affected the wounds may never heal.

Mullins was as deeply shocked as anyone at what confronted him around Christmas-New Year of 2019-20 – the climax of the longest fire season our country has ever seen, from July to the following March. Shocked but not surprised, because for many years he had been preparing in his mind for just such an event.

Now he has committed to paper his lifelong journey through changing fire and weather patterns. Firestorm is the story of that journey, and I’ll say at the outset that I have never read anything more insightful about the climate crisis we’re landed in and what we must do to address it.

Mullins spent his career building an extensive practical experience of fire and fire weather in the Australian landscape and a deep awareness of changes happening over time, as climate changes. It’s a rare combination limited to a handful of people – including First Nation land managers, whose superb fire skills he fully acknowledges.

In January 1994, after good spring rain and at a time when the normal NSW fire season would be all but over, Mullins went camping with his family. Then all hell broke loose as the family’s campsite was overrun by fire. The shock of that event, at the time the worst January fires on record in NSW, got Mullins thinking hard about changing weather patterns.

A 1995 Churchill Fellowship took him to Europe and the US where he discovered fire officers shared his concerns about worsening fire seasons. Back home, the disquiet was steadily reinforced by more bad Sydney fires in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2006.

Canberra’s 2003 fires were the first clear sign of a new order of things. The national capital was hit by one of the world’s first recorded fire tornados, whose 200 km/h winds cut a 200m-wide swathe through a pine plantation and ripped roofs from houses. It was a sign of worse to come.

More troubling signs: Victoria’s shocking, deadly Black Saturday fires of 2009 and the 2013 fire that all but obliterated Dunalley, events which changed everyone’s bushfire thinking. For most, staying to defend any home at the fire front ceased being an option. For Mullins, those fires were the future – undeniable evidence that climate change was on the march.

Retirement got Greg Mullins thinking. With 22 other retired fire and emergency chiefs from all states and territories he formed Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. In April 2019, helped by media publicity, that organisation sought to brief prime minister Scott Morrison about their fears of a devastating fire season ahead. 

They got no response until, after another letter, the PM responded in July offering up two ministers for a meeting. More approaches, more delays until finally a small group got to meet energy minister Angus Taylor and emergency minister David Littleproud. That was in December, eight months after the first letter, with Black Summer fires already raging. 

I have no clue what gets Coalition MPs going, but I hope numbers of them will be moved to get hold of Firestorm and read it with an open mind. They have made clear many times they don’t like climate change being discussed while fires are burning. This fire-free spring should be an ideal time.

One person in particular should read the book ahead of his trip to Glasgow. If he’s short of time the PM should start at page 229, where Mullins begins examining the root causes of Black Summer and our terrifying prospects with unmitigated climate change. If that doesn’t persuade him that Australia needs the world’s most ambitious emissions targets, nothing will.

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