In October, firefighters in Tanzania had to tackle a number of fires on Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain and the largest free-standing mountain in the world. The mountain and surrounding forests fall into Kilimanjaro National Park, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Andreas Hemp provides a glimpse into the mountain’s natural environment and the challenges it faces.
Is this the first time there has been a fire of this magnitude? If there have been fires like this before, what damage was done to the mountain’s vegetation and how long did it take it to recover?
Fires are quite common in the higher areas of Kilimanjaro at the end of the dry seasons, around February to March and September to October. Fire can transform land cover, but it also maintains it. Studies that I’ve done with colleagues (using pollen records buried in the soil that go back 50,000 years) showed that fires always played a role in shaping the vegetation belts on the mountain.
For instance, certain species, such as the giant groundsels (Dendrosenecio) became fire-adapted. Also, without fires opening up the forests many light demanding species, such as the famous giant lobelias, would not be able to grow.
There have, however, been several severe fires on Kilimanjaro over the last few decades that have dramatically changed land cover.
Fires in 1996 and 1997 – years with unusually dry seasons – destroyed vast areas of old cloud forest. These are characteristically moist forests in high altitude areas which create unique environments. The forest was replaced by bush. Vegetation has started to recover and shrubs have sprouted, but it’s far from being a forest, which would take at least 100 years to grow without fire. Since these old forests have an important function of fog water collection, the loss of these forests means a serious impact on the water balance of the mountain, much larger than the impact of the melting glaciers, which is ecologically negligible.
The impact of these former fires was much bigger than that of the recent one, which “only” affected bush land and not forest.
What type of vegetation exists on Mt Kilimanjaro and how unique is it?
Due to its enormous height, Kilimanjaro has several distinct vegetation belts.
Higher up the mountain – between about 1,800 and 3,000 metres – a montane forest belt encircles the whole mountain. This is one of the largest forest blocks in East Africa.
Even higher up, between 3,000 and 4,000 metres, there’s a heathland belt typical of the high mountains in East Africa. This vegetation consists of Erica, Protea, Stoebe and many other shrub species, many of them are endemic, occurring only on one or several mountains.
Erica shrubs burn very easily, which makes this vegetation belt particularly flammable. During wet periods without fire, the former forest can re-establish and expand to the tree line at 4000m. During dry periods, with recurring fires (natural and or caused by people), the forest belt shrinks and the ericaceous belt expands.
What challenges does the mountain’s natural environment face and have there been any noticeable changes over the years?
Over the last 150 years, the regional climate has become drier. This has caused the mountain’s glaciers to shrink by almost 90% of their former extent. The drier climate is also the reason for an increase in the frequency and intensity of wild fires in the upper areas of Kilimanjaro, affecting the forests.
Most of these fires are lit by people (such as honey collectors smoking out bees), but these fires would not have been so devastating if the climate was wetter.
There’s an interplay between direct anthropogenic (caused by people) and climatic impacts.
Since 1911 the human population on Kilimanjaro has increased from 100,000 to over 1.2 million. This has resulted in an enormous loss of natural vegetation. Kilimanjaro is becoming an ecological island, isolated and surrounded by agriculture. Over this period it has lost 50% of its forest cover. In the lower areas this is mainly due to logging and clearing. In the upper areas it’s due to fires.
In combination with global climate change, this forest destruction results in a decrease of moisture in the region. This will also affect agriculture in the region because it’s partly irrigated.
Who is responsible for protecting the mountain and how well protected is it?
In 2005, the forest belt was incorporated into the mountain’s existing national park area. This means that it falls under the responsibility of the Tanzania and Kilimanjaro National Park authorities. The forest belt is much better protected than it was before, as a forest reserve.
The banning of camp fires on the tourist routes by the national park authorities helped to reduce the fire risk. But it’s not possible to exclude the risk in this large heathland belt totally. Perhaps the acquisition of larger fire-fighting airplanes could help. Fires are usually fought by hundreds of volunteers and firefighters, using shovels and machetes creating fire breaks by hand. This recent fire was the first time that a helicopter was used to carry water from nearby dams.
What else can be done?
To protect the biodiversity of Kilimanjaro the unique forests of the larger deep river valleys below the National Park should be incorporated into the National Park. Kilimanjaro is becoming an ecological island completely isolated and surrounded by agriculture. This inhibits the exchange of animal populations and affects biodiversity.
It’s all the more important that the wildlife corridor connecting the Amboseli ecosystem in Kenya and Kilimanjaro National Park has to be well protected. It is under great pressure due to grazing and agriculture. This corridor is important for the migration of elephants, which stay now more and more on Kilimanjaro destroying the forest.
Last summer, many Australians were shocked to see fires sweep through the wet tropical rainforests of Queensland, where large and severe fires are almost unheard of. This is just one example of how human activities are changing fire patterns around the world, with huge consequences for wildlife.
In a major new paper published in Science, we reveal how changes in fire activity threaten more than 4,400 species across the globe with extinction. This includes 19% of birds, 16% of mammals, 17% of dragonflies and 19% of legumes that are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.
But, we also highlight the emerging ways we can help promote biodiversity and stop extinctions in this new era of fire. It starts with understanding what’s causing these changes and what we can do to promote the “right” kind of fire.
Exceptionally large and severe fires have also been observed in areas with a long history of fire. For example, the 12.6 million hectares that burnt in eastern Australia during last summer’s devastating bushfires was unprecedented in scale.
Fire enables many plants to complete their life cycles, creates habitats for a wide range of animals and maintains a diversity of ecosystems. Many species are adapted to particular patterns of fire, such as banksias — plants that release seeds into the resource-rich ash covering the ground after fire.
But changing how often fires occur and in what seasons can harm populations of species like these, and transform the ecosystems they rely on.
We reviewed data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and found that of the 29,304 land-based and freshwater species listed as threatened, modified fire regimes are a threat to more than 4,403.
Most are categorised as threatened by an increase in fire frequency or intensity.
For example, the endangered mallee emu-wren in semi-arid Australia is confined to isolated patches of habitat, which makes them vulnerable to large bushfires that can destroy entire local populations.
Likewise, the Kangaroo Island dunnart was listed as critically endangered before it lost 95% of its habitat in the devastating 2019-2020 bushfires.
However, some species and ecosystems are threatened when fire doesn’t occur. Frequent fires are an important part of African savanna ecosystems and less fire activity can lead to shrub encroachment. This can displace wild herbivores such as wildebeest that prefer open areas.
There are three main ways humans are transforming fire activity: global climate change, land-use and the introduction of pest species.
Humans also alter fire regimes through farming, forestry, urbanisation and by intentionally starting or suppressing fires.
Introduced species can also change fire activity and ecosystems. For example, in savanna landscapes of Northern Australia, invasive gamba grass increases flammability and fire frequency. And invasive animals, such as red foxes and feral cats, prey on native animals exposed in recently burnt areas.
Importantly, cultural, social and economic changes underpin these drivers. In Australia, the displacement of Indigenous peoples and their nuanced and purposeful use of fire has been linked with extinctions of mammals and is transforming vegetation.
A suite of emerging actions — some established but receiving increasing attention, others new — could help us navigate this new fire era and save species from extinction. They include:
managed wildfire — let some fires burn naturally in fire-prone ecosystems where fire has been absent for too long, suppressing only under specific conditions
deployment of rapid response teams to enact targeted fire suppression and emergency conservation management, including providing animal refuges, reseeding to promote plant regeneration and large-scale habitat restoration
The input of scientists will be valuable in helping navigate big decisions about new and changing ecosystems.
Empirical data and models can monitor and forecast changes in biodiversity. For example, new modelling has allowed University of Melbourne researchers to identify alternative strategies for introducing planned or prescribed burning that reduces the risk of large bushfires to koalas.
New partnerships are also needed to meet the challenges ahead.
At the local and regional scale, Indigenous-led fire stewardship is an important approach for fostering relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations and communities around the world.
And international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming are crucial to reduce the risk of extreme fire events. With more extreme fire events ahead of us, learning to understand and adapt to changes in fire regimes has never been more important.
Luke Kelly, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Centenary Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Annabel Smith, Lecturer in Wildlife Management, The University of Queensland; Katherine Giljohann, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Melbourne, and Michael Clarke, Professor of Zoology, La Trobe University
The Black Summer bushfires were devastating for wildlife, with an estimated three billion wild animals killed, injured or displaced. This staggering figure does not include the tens of thousands of farm animals who also perished.
The bushfire royal commission’s final report, released on October 30, recognised the gravity of the fires’ extraordinary toll on animals.
It recommended governments improve wildlife rescue arrangements, develop better systems for understanding biodiversity and clarify evacuation options for domestic animals.
While these changes are welcome and necessary, they’re not sufficient. Minimising such catastrophic impacts on wildlife and livestock also means reducing their exposure to these hazards in the first place. And unless we develop more proactive strategies to protect threatened species from disasters, they’ll only become more imperilled.
The royal commission recognised the need for wildlife rescuers to have swift and safe access to fire grounds.
In the immediate aftermath of the bushfires, some emergency services personnel were confused about the roles and responsibilities of wildlife rescuers. This caused delays in rescue operations.
To address this issue, the royal commission sensibly suggested all state and territory governments integrate wildlife rescue functions into their general disaster planning frameworks. This would improve coordination between different response agencies.
Another issue raised by the commission was that Australia does not have a comprehensive, central source of information about its native flora and fauna. This is, in part, because species listing processes are fragmented across different jurisdictions.
To better manage and protect wild animals, governments need more complete information on, for example, their range and population, and how climate change threatens them.
As a result, the royal commission recommended governments collect and share more accurate information so disaster response and recovery efforts for wildlife could be more targeted, timely and effective.
While promising, the measures listed in the royal commission’s final report will only tweak a management system for wildlife already under stress. Current legal frameworks for protecting threatened species are reactive. By the time governments intervene, species have often already reached a turning point.
Governments must act to allow wild animals the best possible chances of escaping and recovering on their own.
This means prioritising the protection and restoration of habitat that allows animals to get to safety. As a World Wildlife Fund report explains, an animal’s ability to flee the fires and find safe, unburnt habitat — such as mesic (moist) refuges in gullies or near waterways — directly influenced their chances of survival.
Wildlife corridors also assist wild animals to survive and recover from disasters. These connect areas of habitat, providing fast moving species with safe routes along which they can flee from hazards.
Hazard reduction activities, such as removing dry vegetation that fuels fires, were also a focus for the royal commission. These can coexist with habitat conservation when undertaken in ecologically-sensitive ways.
As the commission recognised, Indigenous land and fire management practices are informed by intimate knowledge of plants, animals and landscapes. These practices should be integrated into habitat protection policies in consultation with First Nations land managers.
The commission also suggested natural hazards, such as fire, be counted as a “key threatening process” under national environment law. But it should be further amended to protect vulnerable species under threat from future stressors, such as disasters.
Governments also need to provide more funding to monitor compliance with this law. Another new World Wildlife Fund report warns that unless it is properly enforced, a further 37 million native animals could be displaced or killed as a result of habitat destruction this decade.
And, as we saw last summer, single bushfire events can push some populations much closer to extinction. For example, the fires destroyed a large portion of the already endangered glossy black-cockatoo’s remaining habitat.
Pets and farm animals featured in the commission’s recommendations too.
During the bushfires, certain evacuation centres didn’t cater for these animals. This meant some evacuees chose not to use these facilities because they couldn’t take their animals with them.
To guide the community in future disasters, the commission said plans should clearly identify whether or not evacuation centres can accommodate people with animals.
Evacuation planning is crucial to effective disaster response. However, it is unfortunately not always feasible to move large groups of livestock off properties at short notice.
For this reason, governments should help landholders to mitigate the risks hazards pose to their herds and flocks. Researchers are already starting to do this by investigating the parts of properties that were burnt during the bushfires. This will help farmers identify the safest paddocks for their animals in future fire seasons.
Disasters are only expected to become more intense and extreme as the climate changes. And if we’re to give our pets, livestock and unique wildlife the best chance at surviving, it’s not enough only to have sound disaster response. Governments must preemptively address the underlying sources of animals’ vulnerability to hazards.
How we plan for animals in emergencies
Ashleigh Best, PhD Candidate and Teaching Fellow, University of Melbourne; Christine Parker, Professor of Law, University of Melbourne, and Lee Godden, Director, Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne
As fires ravaged large sections of the Australian bush last summer, cities and towns all along the coast were blanketed in toxic smoke. Air pollutants were measured at unheard of levels across the country.
Hazardous air descended on cities hundreds of kilometres away from the fires themselves. This air was the most dangerous to breathe on the planet.
The bushfire royal commission was tabled on October 30, with some sobering findings about fires and air pollution. Unfortunately, it showed that as a nation we were not prepared to deal with this public health emergency.
These disasters are inevitable under climate change, and while we need to urgently act on climate change to protect future generations, we also need to make changes now to mitigate the risks that already face us.
Australia must get better at communicating how to identify and then stay safe in hazardous air. A national set of air quality categories would go a long way to achieving this.
The royal commission heard that air pollution from the summer fires likely caused more than 400 deaths. Thousands of additional hospital admissions put added strain on our hospitals. All up the added burden to our health system was estimated at almost A$2 billion.
Even in the absence of extreme natural disasters, air pollution is one of Australia’s biggest public health concerns. Pollution from all sources causes thousands of deaths per year. This includes emissions from coal-fired power stations, diesel cars and wood-fired heaters.
Better preparing ourselves to deal with bushfire smoke will have flow-on benefits in tackling these problems.
The royal commission found “there is an urgent need for national consistency in the categorisation of air quality”. At the moment, every state has their own system to categorise air quality and communicate it to the public.
But there are major discrepancies with how different states identify the worst air quality.
Air quality is the sum impact of the concentration of various unhealthy chemicals in the air. These include ozone, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and fine particulate matter. To communicate this to the public, most countries convert these chemical concentrations into an Air Quality Index (AQI).
In the US, there is a standardised AQI categorisation for the whole country.
In Australia, the situation is very different. Every state has its own bands, with their own colour codes. These bands trigger at different pollutant levels and carry different health advice. The Royal Commission told us this needs to be standardised, and now.
For example, in NSW the worst air quality category is “Hazardous”, which triggers at an AQI of 200. South Australia, however, only recognises “Very Poor” as the worst class of air quality, with an AQI of 150 and above.
During the summer bushfires, AQI values as high as 5,000 were measured. It’s clear the highest bands of air pollution are no longer appropriate.
We have faced a similar problem before. After Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in 2009, we recognised that our fire danger ratings were inadequate.
The Black Saturday royal commission found we needed a higher category for the most dangerous fire conditions. The “Catastrophic” category (“CODE RED” in Victoria) was added. It carried clear advice about what to do in such dangerous conditions, instructing people to safely leave as early as possible.
Something similar now needs to happen with air quality ratings.
When facing future extreme bushfires, we need a way to identify when catastrophic conditions have led to air so unhealthy that everyone should take precautions, such as staying indoors and wearing masks. We then need to get clear health advice out to the public.
A national air quality rating system could achieve this, and would also help address other important recommendations of the Royal Commission: That we need improved means of getting reliable information out to the public, along with better community education around what to do when air quality plummets.
An Australian AQI should be featured on national weather reports and forecasts, providing important health information to the public every day of the year. At the same time it would familiarise Australians with air quality measures and actions that need to be taken to protect ourselves from unhealthy air.
But there is work to do. First, we need to develop a new set of air quality categories that work for the entire country, and reflects both the everyday hazards of industrial pollution and the extreme dangers of bushfires. These categories also need to be matched with sound health advice.
And if we are going to report these measures more widely then we also need to get better at measuring and predicting air quality across the nation — two other important royal commission recommendations.
Achieving all of this won’t be easy. But if we can get it right then we will be much better placed to deal with smoke risk the next time severe bushfires inevitably happen.
Australia should develop a national aerial fire fighting capability and fuel load management strategies should be more transparent, the inquiry set up following last summer’s devastating bushfires has recommended.
In its 80 recommendations, including many shared between federal and state governments, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements calls for a bigger federal role in dealing with disasters but stresses
there are compelling reasons for state and territory governments to continue to be responsible for disaster management.
The recommendations are aimed at increasing national co-ordination to prepare better for natural disasters, respond more rapidly (including through the army), and ensure the recovery is focused on making communities more resilient.
Natural disasters have changed, and so must the management arrangements, the report says.
Extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable. Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise.
Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.
But the report does not make recommendations on climate change policy.
Calling for a “national” approach to natural disasters, the commission says this doesn’t mean the federal government taking over, but rather a “whole of nation” level of cooperation and effort.
As part of playing a greater role, the federal government should be able to declare “a state of national emergency”.
A declaration should be the catalyst for a quicker, clearer and more pre-emptive mobilisation of federal resources but should not give the federal government power to determine how state resources are to be used, the report says.
While usually a state or territory would have asked for help, “in some limited circumstances” the federal government should be able to take action during a natural disaster, “whether or not a state has requested assistance”.
In the bushfire crisis, there was tension between the NSW and federal governments over the deployment of military personnel.
The commission’s recommendations on the controversial issue of fuel loads concentrate on questions of clarity.
Public land managers should clearly convey and make available to the public their fuel load management strategies, including the rationale behind them, as well as report annually on the implementation and outcomes of those strategies,“ the reports says.
It also says governments should review the assessment and approval processes on vegetation management, bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction to make it clear what landholders and land managers need to do and minimise the time taken for assessments and approvals.
On air capability, the report says all Australian governments should develop a “modest, Australian-based and registered, national aerial firefighting capability”. This would be made up of “more specialised platforms … to supplement the aerial firefighting capability of the states and territories”.
After some anger at charities’ use of money donated for bushfire victims, the commission has said federal, state and territory governments should create a single national scheme for the regulation of charitable fundraising.
The Minister for Emergency Management David Littleproud said cabinet would consider the report next week.
The bushfire royal commission today handed down its long-awaited final report. At almost 1,000 pages, it will take us all some time to digest. But it marks the start of Australia’s national disaster adaptation journey after a horrendous summer.
The report clearly signals the urgent need to improve disaster management capacity in Australia. Closer examination of the report will determine if other recommendations are needed. But overall, this seems a realistic report that incorporates a diverse and complex body of evidence. And it arrives at recommendations likely to enjoy broad political, institutional and community support.
As the report states, the 2019-2020 bushfires were the catalyst for, but not the sole focus of, the inquiry. It also looked at floods, bushfires, earthquakes, storms, cyclones, storm surges, landslides and tsunamis.
The recommendations demonstrate the Royal Commission is serious about shifting the status quo when it comes to managing Australia’s natural disasters – events that will become more frequent and severe under climate change. What’s needed now is political will for change.
The commission received evidence from more than 270 witnesses, almost 80,000 pages of tendered documents and more than 1,750 public submissions. It recaps the damage wrought, including:
more than 24 million hectares burnt nationally
33 human deaths (and perhaps many more due to smoke haze over much of eastern Australia)
more than 3,000 homes destroyed
thousands of locals and holidaymakers trapped
communities isolated without power, communications, and ready access to essential goods and services
estimated national financial impacts over A$10 billion
nearly three billion animals killed or displaced
many threatened species and other ecological communities extensively harmed.
The report noted every state and territory suffered fire to some extent, adding “on some days, extreme conditions drove a fire behaviour that was impossible to control”.
The scope of the commission’s recommendations is vast. For government, it would mean changes across land-use planning, infrastructure, emergency management, social policy, agriculture, education, physical and mental health, community development, energy and the environment.
Broad areas of recommended change include a clearer leadership role for the federal government and establishing a national natural disaster management agency. The report notes while state and territory governments have primary responsibility for emergency management, during the bushfire crisis the public “expected greater Australian Government action”.
Other recommendations include:
nationally consolidating aerial firefighting capacity
more capacity in local government
nationally consistent warnings including air pollution (especially bushfire smoke) forecasts
acknowledgement of the role of Indigenous fire managers in mitigating bushfire risks.
The commission says preparing for natural disasters “is not the sole domain of governments and agencies”. Individuals and communities must also ensure they’re prepared. As the commission notes:
While we heard that some individuals and communities were well prepared for the 2019-2020 bushfire season, this was not always the case. For other individuals and communities, although they did prepare, the intensity of the bushfires meant that no level of preparation would have been sufficient. For others, they were seemingly unprepared for what confronted them.
The inquiry said governments have a critical role to play here, by providing information on disaster risks through community education and engagement programs.
During last summer’s bushfire crisis, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was reluctant to draw links to climate change. And before the inquiry commenced, there was much doubt over whether it would adequately probe how climate change is contributing to natural disasters.
Significantly, the commission’s final report explicitly recognises climate change increases the risk and impact of natural disasters. It says global warming beyond the next 20 to 30 years “is largely dependent on the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions”, but stops far short of calling for federal government action on emissions reduction.
The report says extreme weather “has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change; further global warming over the next 20 to 30 years is inevitable”. It goes on:
Globally, temperatures will continue to rise, and Australia will have more hot days and fewer cool days. Sea levels are also projected to continue to rise. Tropical cyclones are projected to decrease in number, but increase in intensity. Floods and bushfires are expected to become more frequent and more intense. Catastrophic fire conditions may render traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.
Among its recommendations, the report calls for improved national climate and weather intelligence to support governments to implement, assess and review their disaster management and climate adaptation strategies.
The commission acknowledged most of its recommendations identify what needs to be done, rather than how it should be done.
The commission also says while governments and others have backed the notion of improving natural disaster resilience, “support is one thing – action is another”. And the time to act, the report says, is now.
This is a key point. As noted by the report, more than 240 inquiries about natural disasters have been held in Australia to date. Many would have been time-consuming and expensive. And while many recommendations have been implemented and have led to significant improvements, the report said, “others have not”.
So will this royal commission lead to substantive change? The inquiry suggests this will require that governments “commit to action and cooperate and hold each other to account”. Further, progress towards implementing the recommendations should be publicly monitored.
Fundamentally, political appetite will determine whether the royal commission’s recommendations ever become reality. There is much work to be done by governments and others to iron out the legal, administrative, social and practical complexities of changing the status quo. And the Morrison government has given next to no indication it’s willing to seriously tackle the problem of climate change.
Ultimately, these findings are small steps towards achieving natural disaster reliance. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this report can be read not as the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning of the long road to climate change adaptation.
Across rural Australia, volunteer-run bushfire brigades have long been a central part of the life of the towns. Volunteer brigades provide the frontline defence against bushfires, and also undertake bushfire prevention and mitigation activities.
These frontline volunteer firefighters are supported by many others, including those who step up to support the families and businesses of volunteer firefighters while they are away fighting fires.
With rural Australia already facing a major volunteer shortage, and bushfires projected to become increasingly frequent and prolonged, it is vital we consider new ways to support the rural volunteer labour force.
Rural Australia has long relied on an army of volunteers. However, an increase in the demands on volunteers’ time has eroded the capacity for further work to be absorbed.
The increase in demand on volunteers has been driven, in part, by the consolidation of government services into larger cities and centres, meaning smaller communities need to provide more essential and social services through volunteer organisations. It has also been driven by an increase in regulation of volunteer activities, particularly essential service provision, with more time needed to be dedicated to training, reporting and compliance activities.
Our research revealed that population change across rural Australia has also presented challenges. For some places, population decline and ageing have had the dual impact of increasing the need for volunteer services, while reducing the number of available volunteers.
For other places, particularly those experiencing people moving to the town for lifestyle reasons population growth has increased the pool of potential volunteers. But newer residents have been less likely to become involved in traditional volunteering organisations.
For volunteer bushfire brigades, our research revealed an intensification in centralised regulation and compliance requirements. This in turn increased the time volunteers needed to commit to their local bushfire brigade. This increased time commitment presented a barrier to volunteers either remaining involved or becoming involved in their local brigade.
Our research also found this greater regulation has come at a time when people are increasingly seeking to volunteer in less formal and more occasional ways. For volunteer bushfire brigades, where regular engagement is required, this preference for episodic volunteering is a concern.
The collective volunteering effort put towards fighting bushfires in Australia is immense, and it would be too expensive to fully professionalise firefighting services. Australia’s volunteer firefighters contribute between A$1.2 billion and A$2 billion in labour per year.
This assessment is based only on reported incidents, and does not include time volunteers spend on small fires, mitigation activities, gear maintenance, fundraising and training. This assessment of value also does not include the efforts of those who support volunteers while they are on the front line.
Fire events are also sporadic, with the risk greatly increased in some years and much less in others. Given the geographic spread of Australia’s population, effectively distributing a professional volunteer fire service would be exceptionally challenging.
Being involved in volunteering is also important for well-being and social connections. For many, being a volunteer firefighter is a way of life and a part of who they are.
With rural volunteering at saturation, it might be time to look further afield for volunteer labour.
Australia’s devastating bushfires of 2019-20 thrust into broader public consciousness the crucial role of rural volunteer firefighters. This period saw huge bushfires burn up to the outskirts of the largest cities and population hubs – and on numerous fronts.
Just over 10% of Australia’s population faced a direct threat from the bushfires and more than 14 million people were impacted by bushfire smoke. With the fires burning more than 18 million hectares, volunteer and professional firefighters were spread thin across the extensive fronts. The Australian Defence Force was mobilised to assist, including evacuating trapped residents and holidaymakers.
During this period, many people sought ways to help not just those directly impacted by bushfires, but also those fighting the fires.
However, firefighting is something that requires extensive training, and regular commitment. Past volunteers who sought to be involved in the firefighting effort had to be turned away as they did not have current training.
There is a need to expand the volunteer bushfire labour force. There is very little, or no more, capacity in rural communities. If we are going to turn to city populations to assist, then planning and preparation are needed.
We are now on the cusp of the next fire season. The Royal Commission into the National Natural Disaster Arrangements is set to deliver its findings on October 28. A huge volume of material has been submitted to its hearings, including more than 1,700 submissions from the public.
There seems an appetite for change. However, this summer we will again be looking to the same fire crews, the same volunteers, who spent last summer fighting fires on multiple fronts.
Its observations in the wake of our Black Summer suggest the commission’s final report, due on October 28, may recommend a major shake-up of how disaster management is governed at the federal level. This includes setting up a national body focused on recovery from and resilience to future disasters.
Most initial observations are uncontroversial and sensible, but there is a glaring omission. It involves the most urgent measure to reduce the risk of future disasters: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
In my former role as the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, I saw first-hand the impacts of natural disasters, and nations’ efforts to build their climate change resilience. The royal commission process is a unique opportunity to accelerate progress in these areas, which are so critical for Australia’s future.
In February, the royal commission was tasked with finding ways to improve disaster management in three main areas:
The initial observations touch on each of these areas. This includes the need to collate, harmonise and share disaster data across jurisdictions; enhance research in climate and disaster resilience; reassess aerial firefighting capabilities; and plan more effectively around critical infrastructure.
It’s also worth noting the royal commission hasn’t yet formed a view on a key change Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested was necessary in the wake of the bushfires: establishing the legal authority for the federal government to declare a national state of emergency. Currently, only state and territory governments have this power.
And controversially, the commission suggests the long-standing role of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) should be transferred to a federal government agency.
AFAC is a non-government organisation that facilitates the deployment of emergency personnel and equipment interstate and internationally. But the states and territories may not be willing to relinquish the engagement they have under the current arrangements.
Most importantly, the royal commission is considering consolidating disaster recovery and resilience functions in a new national body.
These functions reside in at least three agencies. They include Emergency Management Australia, the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, and the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency.
Consolidation makes good sense as the recovery phase from disasters can contribute to strengthening resilience.
It’s also sensible to separate the resilience function from the disaster response function, currently led by Emergency Management Australia. In my experience, resilience work rarely gets the whole-of-government attention it deserves when it’s embedded in agencies focused around responding to emergencies.
After the devastation Black Summer wrought, it’s clear resilience to future disasters must start with action on climate change. So it’s disappointing the royal commission has not yet commented on the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible.
Although COVID-19 has masked our awareness of the rapidly increasing climate threat, the evidence — even over just the past three months — is overwhelming.
In June, the record was set for the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic. The associated unprecedented heatwave in Siberia contributed to massive bushfires razing an astonishing 20 million hectares.
While Siberia burned, severe floods devastated South Asia, China and Japan. One-third of Bangladesh was underwater, affecting almost 15 million people.
In China the figure was 63 million, with daily rainfall records set across the country. China’s Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam, the world’s biggest, received the largest inflow of water in its history, prompting fears last week the dam would be breached.
In southern Japan, record-setting rains that dumped 1,000 millimetres of water in just three days forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Then, earlier this month, deadly fires erupted across California, exacerbated by persistent drought and record-setting temperatures. In just five days, the fires burned more land in the state than was destroyed in all of 2019.
While it’s difficult to scientifically demonstrate that climate change “causes” any one disaster, the general direction is crystal clear. As the climate continues to warm, the frequency and severity of these events will increase.
We’re already seeing worrying signs of this in Queensland, our most hazard-prone state. Over the past three years, 53 of Queensland’s 77 local government areas have endured three or more major disasters. And 71 out of 77 local government areas have experienced two or more such events.
These communities are increasingly in the unsustainable situation of chronically recovering from disasters.
The prime minister has argued “Australia, on its own, cannot control the world’s climate, as Australia accounts for just 1.3% of global emissions”.
But because we’re disproportionately vulnerable to the threats of climate change, it’s imperative we convince other nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Our international advocacy will only be credible if we strengthen our own ambition to mitigate climate change. And as the government prepares to submit its updated targets under the Paris Climate Agreement, a recommendation to reduce emissions from the royal commission would be appropriate and extremely useful.
Following the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, many people throughout Australia, and across the world, wanted to know how they could help in response to the environmental disaster.
Hundreds contacted the Australian Citizen Science Association (ACSA), Australia’s peak citizen science body, for guidance on how to participate in relevant scientific projects.
It was a golden opportunity to show that science can be, and is, done by all kinds of people – not just those working in labs with years of training and access to high-powered instruments. A scientist can be you, your children or your parents.
And this recognition led to the establishment of the Citizen Science Bushfire Project Finder, a key outcome from the bushfire science roundtable, which was convened in January by Federal Science Minister Karen Andrews.
To establish the project finder database, ACSA partnered with the CSIRO and the Atlas of Living Australia to assist the search for vetted projects that could contribute to our understanding of post-bushfire recovery.
Five months on, the value is evident.
In response to the bushfires, one citizen science project set up was the Kangaroo Island Dunnart Survey. A record number of citizen scientists answered the call to assist in recovery efforts for this small marsupial.
The Kangaroo Island dunnart was already listed as endangered before the fires, with population estimates between 300-500 individuals. And initial post-fire assessments indicated a significant further decline in its population, highlighting the importance of tracking the species’ recovery.
Meanwhile, nearly 1,500 kilometres away from Kangaroo Island, a local resident set up “Mallacoota After Fires” in the small community of Mallacoota, Victoria – a region hit hard by the bushfires.
This has enabled the community to record and validate (via an app and website) how the fires impacted the region’s plants and animals.
So far, the project has documented the existence of a range of flora and fauna, from common wombats to the vulnerable green and golden bell frog. It has also captured some amazing images of bush regeneration after fire.
Science does not just belong to professionals. As eminent US astronomer Carl Sagan noted, “science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge”.
This suggests that, when properly enabled, anyone can actively participate. And the output goes beyond the rewards of personal involvement. It contributes to better science.
Citizen science is significantly contributing observations and expertise to bushfire research. Across southeast New South Wales and the ACT, several hundred citizen scientists have:
And it’s not just in local communities. Platforms such as DigiVol have enabled citizen scientists from around the world to review thousands of camera trap images deployed post-fire to monitor species survival and recovery.
Still, there is much more to do. Australia is a vast continent and as we saw last summer, the fire footprint is immense.
But there is also a huge community out there that can help support the implementation of science and technology, as we adapt to our changing climate.
In January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked the CSIRO, supported by an expert advisory panel chaired by one of us (Alan Finkel), to develop recommendations for practical measures that would increase Australia’s disaster and climate resilience.
The report on Climate and Disaster Resilience gives due emphasis to the importance of citizen science in complementing traditional research-led monitoring campaigns and sharing locally specific advice. One component of the response also brought together national stakeholders, to develop a series of more detailed recommendations regarding the critical role of citizen science.
Citizen scientists can be involved in important data collection and knowledge building. They can collaborate with disaster response agencies and research agencies, to develop additional science-based community education and training programs.
Also, citizen science is a way to collect distributed data beyond the affordability and resources of conventional science.
With that in mind, the task now is to better marry the “professional” scientific effort with the citizen science effort, to truly harness the potential of citizen science. In doing so, we can ensure environmental and societal approaches to disaster recovery represent a diversity of voices.
The role of the community, particularly in developing resilience against environmental disaster, can be a most useful mechanism for empowering people who may otherwise feel at a loss from the impact of disaster. Furthermore, by working with communities directly affected by bushfires, we can help measure the extent of the impact.
We call on our professional scientist colleagues to actively collaborate with citizen science groups. In doing so, we can identify priority areas with critical data needs, while also informing, enriching and engaging with diverse communities in science.
Equally, we encourage citizen scientists to share and tell their stories across social and political settings to demonstrate the impact they continue to have.
The beneficiary will be science.