The tropical savannas of northern Australia are among the most fire-prone regions in the world. On average, they account for 70% of the area affected by fire each year in Australia.
But effective fire management over the past 20 years has reduced the annual average area burned – an area larger than Tasmania. The extent of this achievement is staggering, almost incomprehensible in a southern Australia context after the summer’s devastating bushfires.
The success in northern Australia is the result of sustained and arduous on-ground work by a range of landowners and managers. Of greatest significance is the fire management from Indigenous community-based ranger groups, which has led to one of the most significant greenhouse gas emissions reduction practices in Australia.
Fire is a tool and it’s something people should see as part of the Australian landscape. By using fire at the right time of year, in the right places with the right people, we have a good chance to help country and climate.
Importantly, people need to listen to science – the success of our industry has been from a collaboration between our traditional knowledge and modern science and this cooperation has made our work the most innovative and successful in the world.
A tinder-dry season
The 2019 fire season was especially challenging in the north (as it was in the south), following years of low rainfall across the Kimberly and Top-End. Northern Australia endured tinder-dry conditions, severe fire weather in the late dry season, and a very late onset of wet-season relief.
Despite these severe conditions, extensive fuel management and fire suppression activities over several years meant northern Australia didn’t see the scale of destruction experienced in the south.
This is a huge success for biodiversity conservation under worsening, longer-term fire conditions induced by climate change. Indigenous land managers are even extending their knowledge of savanna burning to southern Africa.
Burn early in the dry season
The broad principles of northern Australia fire management are to burn early in the dry season when fires can be readily managed; and suppress, where possible, the ignition of uncontrolled fires – often from non-human sources such as lightning – in the late dry season.
Traditional Indigenous fire management involves deploying “cool” (low intensity) and patchy burning early in the dry season to reduce grass fuel. This creates firebreaks in the landscape that help stop larger and far more severe fires late in the dry season.
Essentially, burning early in the dry season accords with tradition, while suppressing fires that ignite late in the dry season is a post-colonial practice.
Savannah burning is different to burn-offs in South East Australia, partly because grass fuel reduction burns are more effective – it’s rare to have high-intensity fires spreading from tree to tree. What’s more, these areas are sparsely populated, with less infrastructure, so there are fewer risks.
Satellite monitoring over the last 15 years shows the scale of change. We can compare the average area burnt across the tropical savannas over seven years from 2000 (2000–2006) with the last seven years (2013–2019). Since 2013, active fire management has been much more extensive.
The comparison reveals a reduction of late dry season wildfires over an area of 115,000 square kilometres and of all fires by 88,000 square kilometres.
Combining traditional knowledge with western science
The primary goals of Indigenous savanna burning projects remain to support cultural reproduction, on-country living and “healthy country” outcomes.
Savanna burning is highly symbiotic with biodiversity conservation and landscape management, which is the core business of rangers.
Ensuring these gains are sustainable requires a significant amount of difficult on-ground work in remote and challenging circumstances. It involves not only Indigenous rangers, but also pastoralists, park rangers and private conservation groups. These emerging networks have helped build new savanna burning knowledge and innovative technologies.
While customary knowledge underpins much of this work, the vast spatial extent of today’s savanna burning requires helicopters, remote sensing and satellite mapping. In other words, traditional burning is reconfigured to combine with western scientific knowledge and new tools.
For Indigenous rangers, burning from helicopters using incendiaries is augmented by ground-based operations, including on-foot burns that support more nuanced cultural engagement with country.
On-ground burns are particularly important for protecting sacred sites, built infrastructure and areas of high conservation value such as groves of monsoonal forest.
Who pays for it?
A more active savanna burning regime over the last seven years has led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of more than seven million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
This is around 10% of the total emission reductions accredited by the Australian government through carbon credits units under Carbon Farming Initiative Act. Under the act, one Australian carbon credit unit is earned for each tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent that a project stores or avoids.
By selling these carbon credits units either to the government or on a private commercial market, land managers have created a A$20 million a year savanna burning industry.
What can the rest of Australia learn?
Savanna fire management is not directly translatable to southern Australia, where the climate is more temperate, the vegetation is different and the landscape is more densely populated. Still, there are lessons to be learnt.
A big reason for the success of fire management in the north savannas is because of the collaboration with scientists and Indigenous land managers, built on respect for the sophistication of traditional knowledge.
This is augmented by broad networks of fire managers across the complex cross-cultural landscape of northern Australia. Climate change will increasingly impact fire management across Australia, but at least in the north there is a growing capacity to face the challenge.
Rohan Fisher, Information Technology for Development Researcher, Charles Darwin University and Jon Altman, Emeritus professor, School of Regulation and Global Governance, ANU, Australian National University
Jonathan Pollock, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Paul Gregory, Australian Bureau of Meteorology
Northern Australia is likely to see fewer cyclones than usual this season, but hot, dry weather will increase the risk of fire and heatwaves across eastern and southern Australia.
The Bureau of Meteorology today released its forecast for the tropical cyclone season, which officially runs from November 1 to April 30.
Also published today is the October to April Severe Weather Outlook, which examines the risk of other weather extremes like flooding, heatwaves and bushfires.
Warmer oceans means more cyclones
On average, 11 tropical cyclones form each season in the Australian region. Around four of those cross the coast. The total number each season is roughly related to how much cooler or warmer than average the tropical oceans near Australia are during the cyclone season.
One of the biggest drivers of change in ocean temperatures is the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. During La Niña phases of ENSO, the warmest waters in the equatorial Pacific build up in the western Pacific and to the north of Australia. That region then becomes the focus for more cloud, rainfall and tropical cyclones.
But during El Niño, the warmest water shifts towards the central Pacific and away from northern Australia. This decreases the likelihood of cyclones in our region.
Explainer: El Niño and La Niña
And when ENSO is neutral, there is little push towards above or below average numbers of cyclones.
Temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean have been ENSO-neutral since April and are likely to stay neutral until at least February 2020. However, some tropical patterns are El Niño-like, including higher-than-average air pressure at Darwin. This may be related to the current record-strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole – another of Australia’s major climate drivers – and the cooler waters surrounding northern Australia.
The neutral ENSO phase alongside higher-than-average air pressure over northern Australia means we expect fewer-than-average tropical cyclones in the Australian region this season. The bureau’s Tropical Cyclone Season Outlook model predicts a 65% chance of fewer-than-average cyclones.
At least one tropical cyclone has crossed the Australian coast every season since reliable records began in the 1970s, so people across northern Australia need to be prepared every year. In ENSO-neutral cyclone seasons, this first cyclone crossing typically occurs in late December.
Other severe weather
While cyclones are one of the key concerns during the coming months, the summer months also bring the threat of several other forms of severe weather, including bushfires, heatwaves and flooding rain.
With dry soils inland, and hence little moisture available to cool the air, and a forecast for clear skies and warmer days, there is an increased chance that heat will build up over central Australia during the spring and summer months. This increases the chance of heatwaves across eastern and southern Australia when that hot air is drawn towards the coast by passing weather systems.
Likewise, the dry landscape and the chance of extreme heat also raise the risk of more bushfires throughout similar parts of Australia, especially on windy days. And with fewer natural firebreaks such as full rivers and streams, even greater care is needed in some areas.
Widespread floods are less likely this season. This is because of forecast below-average rainfall and also because dry soils mean the first rains will soak into the ground rather than run across the landscape.
However, as we saw in northern Queensland in January and February this year, when up to 2 metres of rainfall fell in less than 10 days, localised flooding can occur in any wet season if a tropical low parks itself in one location for any length of time.
Most of all, it’s always important to follow advice from emergency services on what to do before, during and after severe weather. Know your weather, know your risk and be prepared. You can stay up to date with the latest forecast and warnings on the bureau’s website and subscribe to receive climate information emails.
Jonathan Pollock, Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Head of Long-range Forecasts, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Catherine Ganter, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Paul Gregory, BOM, Australian Bureau of Meteorology
A startling phenomenon occurs after a bushfire tears through a landscape. From the blackened soil springs an extraordinary natural revival – synchronised germination that carpets the landscape in flowers and colour.
So what is it in bushfires that gives plants this kiss of life? The answer is smoke, and it is increasingly transforming everything from large-scale land regeneration to nurseries and home gardening.
The mystery of seed germination
Burnt plants survive bushfires in various ways. Some are protected by woody rootstocks and bark-coated stems; others resprout from underground buds. But most plants awaken their soil seed bank, which may have lain dormant for decades, or even a century.
However, this smoke-induced seed germination is not easily replicated by humans trying to grow the plants themselves. Traditionally, many native Australian flora species – from fringe-lilies to flannel flowers and trigger plants – could not be grown easily or at all from seed.
In recent decades this has meant the plants were absent from restoration programs and home gardens, reducing biodiversity.
In 1989, South African botanist and double-PhD Dr Johannes de Lange grappled with a similar conundrum. He was trying to save the critically rare Audonia capitata, which was down to a handful of plants growing around Cape Town. The seed he collected could not be germinated, even after heat and ash treatments from fire. Extinction looked inevitable.
But during a small experimental fire, a wind change enveloped de Langer in thick
smoke. With watering eyes, he realised that smoke might be the mysterious phoenix factor that would coax the seeds to life. By 1990 he had shown puffing smoke onto soil germinated his rare species in astonishing numbers.
The technique is simple. Create a smouldering fire of dry and green leafy material and pass the smoke into an enclosed area where seed has been sown into seed trays or spread as a thin layer. Leave for one hour and water sparingly for ten days to prevent the smoke from washing out of the seed mix. The rest is up to nature.
Taking smoke germination to the world
Soon after the de Lange discovery, I visited the Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden in Cape Town. I was shown a few trays of seedlings out the back – some from seeds treated with smoke, some without. The difference was stark. Smoke-treated seeds produced a riot of green, compared to others that resulted in sparse, straggling seedlings.
But was smoke just an isolated African phenomenon, I wondered? Would 150 years of frustrated efforts to germinate some of Australia’s most spectacular and colourful species – from grevillea and fan-flowers to rare native heaths – also be transformed by smoke?
At first, the answer appeared to be no, as every attempt with Australian wildflower seed failed. But after many trials, which I oversaw as Director of Science at the Western Australian Botanic Garden, success came in 1993. Extra time in the smoke house and a serendipitous failure in the automated watering system resulted in the germination of 25 different species with seedlings. Some were thought to have never been germinated by humans before, such as wild-picked yellow bells (Geleznowia verrucosa) or the giant feather rush (Loxocarya gigas).
This discovery meant for the first time smoke could be used for difficult-to-germinate species for the home gardener and cut flower growers. These days more than 400 species of native seeds, and potentially more than 1,000, respond to smoke treatment. They include kangaroo paw, cotton-tails, spinifex, native bush food tomatoes and fragrant boronias.
Highway plantings, mine site restoration and, importantly, efforts to save threatened plant species now also benefit greatly from the smoke germination technique. For example, smoke houses are now a regular part of many nurseries, which also purchase smoke water to soak seeds for sowing later.
In mine site restoration, direct application of smoke to seeds dramatically improves germination performance. This translates into multimillion-dollar savings in the cost of seed.
Smoke is also a powerful research tool used to audit native soil seed banks, which includes demonstrating the adverse affects of prescribed burning in winter and spring on native species survival.
Collaboration with research groups in the US, China, Europe and South America has expanded the use of smoke to germinate similarly stubborn seed around the world.
So what is smoke’s secret ingredient?
In 2013, an Australian research team made a breakthrough in determining which of the 4,000 chemicals in a puff of smoke resulted in such starting germination. They patented the chemical and published the discovery in the journal Science.
The smoke chemical, part of the butenolide group of molecules, was named karrikinolide, inspired by the local Indigenous Noongar word for smoke, karrik.
Karrikinolide is no shrinking violet of a molecule: just half a teaspoon is enough to germinate a hectare of bushland, which equates to 20 million seeds.
Smoke is sold to home gardeners and for commercial use in the form of smoke water, smoke-impregnated disks, or smoke granules. All contain the magical karrikinolide molecule.
Why not try it at home?
Home gardeners can try smoking their own seeds – but what you burn matters. Wood smoke can be toxic to seeds. Making your own smoke from leafy material and dry straw ensures you have the right combustible materials for germination.
For the home gardener, having a bottle of smoke water on hand or constructing your own smokehouse can make all the difference to germinating many species – including those stubborn parsley seeds. To find out more, a webinar at this link shows you how to use smoke and even construct your own smoke apparatus.
Bushfires are predicted to be worse than normal across much of Australia this summer but research shows many people, especially those in high-risk areas, remain unprepared.
The latest Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook shows the 2019-20 fire season has the potential to be an active season across the country, following a very warm and dry start to the year.
The east coast of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as parts of southern Western Australia and South Australia, face above-normal fire potential. It means communities in those areas, and across Australia, should start planning their emergency fire response.
The ingredients for a bad fire season
Above-normal bushfire potential refers to the ability of a large fire to take hold. It takes into account recent and predicted weather for a particular area, the dryness of the land and forests, and recent fire history.
The year to date has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. In fact it has been the fifth-driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970. Some areas, such as New South Wales into southeastern Queensland, are into their third year of dry conditions.
The warming trend means that above average temperatures now tend to occur in most years, and 2019 has followed this pattern. These high temperatures further dry the landscape and vegetation.
An early start to the fire season has been declared in many areas across eastern Australia. The dry landscape means that any warm and windy conditions are likely to see elevated fire risk. However in some drought-affected areas, poor growth of grass and annual plants means that vegetation loads are reduced, which may lower the fire risk.
The climate outlook for the next few months is also a crucial factor. Of particular interest are the future tendencies of Pacific sea surface temperature associated with the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, as well as the Indian Ocean Dipole, major climate drivers over Australia.
Climate change doesn’t create bushfires, but can make them worse
Heat, drought, flood and fire are not new phenomena for Australia. What is different now is that there is an underlying 1℃ increase in average temperatures since industrial times began – the result of climate change – which means that the variability of normal events sits on top of that. So climate change alone doesn’t create a bad fire season, but can make the weather conditions conducive to very large and destructive fires.
Weather records are routinely being broken and all indications are that temperatures will continue to increase.
We cannot be sure what this means for extreme hazards like bushfire. This is an area in critical need of further research into weather prediction, land planning, infrastructure development, population trends and community awareness.
Firefighting resources are finite
The distribution and readiness of firefighting resources are also considered when calculating fire potential.
In Victoria’s East Gippsland, for example, forests have been extremely dry for many years. If a fire were to start under bad conditions, there is a high likelihood it would grow too large for local resources, and they would need to call for extra support from elsewhere.
Curious Kids: how do bushfires start?
Fire seasons are lengthening and overlapping across states, and indeed across the globe. So we need to think of new ways of dealing with bushfires, floods, cyclones, and heatwaves. The old ways of sharing resources such as aerial firefighting equipment, and fire fighters between Australian states and other countries, may not always be possible. So we need to discover better ways to manage all our resources.
Be prepared, and get your kids involved
Research has identified significant trends of vulnerability linked to demographic changes, such as a growing and ageing population. For example, the population of those aged over 85 is predicted to double in the next 25 years. The general population is also increasingly shifting into traditionally hazard-prone areas such as forested or coastal rural areas.
Our research is consistently showing that many Australians, especially those in high risk areas, are not sufficiently ready for fire and have not established fire plans well ahead of time. For example, people may underestimate the risks to life and property if the fire danger is not rated as “catastrophic”. The research showed many properties were under-insured and some people overestimated the response capacity of fire services.
So, make sure you’ve got a plan, talk about it with your family and ensure you have back up plans B, C and D. Include your children in planning to help them prepare, and don’t forgot about your pets and animals too.
Backed by the research, emergency warnings to people under the threat of a fire have been transformed in recent years. But do not wait for a warning, as it might be too late. Everyone should be aware of their surroundings.
The latest outlook report is the work of the Bureau of Meteorology and fire and land management agencies around the country, brought together by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.
For more information on how to prepare and be ready for the fire season, consult your local fire service website.
Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia
Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.
This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.
Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.
The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.
We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.
Tree loss can increase fire risk
During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.
There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.
In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.
Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.
Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.
Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.
Farmers on the frontline of environmental risk
Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.
Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.
Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.
In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.
Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.
Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia
Peat means different things to different people. To many Irish people, it means fuel. To the Scottish, it adds a smoky flavour to their whisky. Indonesia’s peatlands, meanwhile, are widely known as the home of orangutans, the palm oil industry, and the persistent fires that cause the infamous Southeast Asian haze.
Indonesians, and other people with ties to these peatlands, have a range of perspectives on the value of peat – both commercial and otherwise.
Here we explore them through the eyes of four fictitious but representative characters.
The smallholder in rural Sumatra
Peatland is my land. As migrants from Java, my family now have our own house and our own crops. In some years there have been terrible fires, with smoke so thick we can’t even see the end of our street, and all of our food crops burn. But in other years, the rice and corn grow well, my family eat fish every day, my wife smiles, and our children grow tall.
In Java we had no land of our own, and I worked as a farm labourer. Here in Sumatra we have our own peatland. It is different from Javanese soil but we work hard to tend our crops, watering them in the dry season and protecting them from fire.
A big palm oil company has trained me and 50 other men from our village in firefighting. We have uniforms and water-holding backpacks, and I have learned about when the fire will come. They are helping us to protect our palms, and their own palms, of course. My palms are still young, but in a few years I will sell the palm oil fruit to the company, and then my boys can go to high school in town – as long as the palms don’t burn, God willing.
Floods are a harder problem. How can I protect my land? The government dug canals to drain the peatland before we came, but they are not big enough to hold all the water that comes from the heavens and the floods come more and more often.
The official in Jakarta
Peatland is our burden. Indonesia has fertile land, rich oceans… and then there are the peatlands. It is always either too wet to use, or so dry that it burns.
Other Southeast Asian governments want us to end the fires and haze single-handed, but Indonesia isn’t the only one to blame; peatland fires are a regional problem.
We are caught between domestic and international pressures. Develop our peatlands to lift our people out of poverty, or preserve them for orangutans and carbon storage. Of course, the Indonesian people are my priority.
When I studied agriculture at university in Brisbane in the 1990s, my classmates were a little fuzzy about where Indonesia is, let alone what happens here. Now, when our ministry visits Canberra, I feel sad to see “Palm Oil Free” displayed prominently on supermarket products. Westerners don’t understand that not all palm oil is grown on peatlands, that it is a healthy oil and a highly efficient crop perfectly suited to tropical conditions.
Our ministry is working hard to ensure that Indonesia develops our peatlands sustainably, restoring and rewetting degraded areas and working with the local people to find economic uses for wet peat. My son wants to follow in my footsteps and work on peatlands too, and has applied to study sustainable development at university in Singapore.
So while peatlands are currently a source of national embarrassment, many minds are focused on transforming them into the goose that lays the golden egg for Indonesia.
Read more: Sustainable palm oil must consider people too.
The businessperson in Singapore
Peatland is good, profitable land. For too long we have considered it wasteland – too wet, too far away. But technology from peat-rich countries like Finland and Canada is helping us to use tropical peatlands for people.
My pulp and paper company has half of its plantations on peatlands, which produce more than a third of our pulpwood. My silviculture (forest management) team works closely with my environmental manager and PR team to ensure that our plantations are grown according to best practice, and that our shareholders and clients know it.
The community benefits in the regions around our plantations are easy to see. The village that my parents came from has electricity now, and big modern houses have replaced the old wooden ones. We have paved the road and our taxes support the government’s new health centre and primary school.
We are not a big company like Asia Pulp and Paper, which can afford to retire part of the estate on peatlands, but we do try to abide by the 2011 moratorium on new plantations on peatlands, despite repeated scepticism from environmental groups. Anyway, the moratorium is a Presidential Instruction, and so is flexibly applied.
The Indonesian government doesn’t want any more fires, and neither do we – we don’t want our plantations to burn! But the new regulations that require rewetting the peat are a big challenge for us. What will grow in wet peatland?
I lie awake at night worrying about my company’s future. What species can we diversify into? Should we move away from pulp and into bioenergy? Are we putting enough money into R&D? Should I spend more on lobbying? My son is studying for an MBA in the United States, but will there still be a profitable business for him to join when he graduates?
The orangutan carer
We rescued Fi Fi from an area that used to be peatland forest but has been cleared for palm plantations. With no food and nowhere to make a nest, Fi Fi and her mother gradually got weaker and weaker, until workers at the plantation noticed and called us. The mother died before we could help her.
That was nine months ago, and I’ve been caring for Fi Fi around the clock since then in a babysitting team with my friend Nurmala. Fi Fi loves cuddles, milk and fruit, just like my children did at her age.
It is a good job, and we have a great team. Everyone is passionate about protecting the orangutans and the forest. We would like to be able to release Fi Fi once she has learned all her forest skills. Orangutans can look after themselves from about seven years old. But they need a lot of space.
Peatland fires, logging and oil palm planting destroy more forest every year, so places for Fi Fi to be released are hard to find. My brothers and sisters are all happy to stay living near our family home, and when I’m not here looking after Fi Fi, I always have my nieces and nephews on my knee.
I love to have them close, but when the dry season fires come and the haze is so thick I can’t even see my brother’s house across the street, I sometimes wish they had flown a bit further from the nest. Last year we were in and out of the health clinic for a month with my niece’s breathing problems.
I spend all my time caring for precious little ones – both human and orangutan – but the issues themselves are too big for me to fight.
A way forward?
People are central to the problem of tropical peatland fires. In their natural state, tropical peat swamp forests are too wet to burn. Drainage, installed by people for forestry, palm oil, roads, mining and other development, lowers the water table and dries out the peat. Many peat fires smoulder for months, from the start of dry season in July until the monsoon returns in November.
These fires have a wide range of negative effects: on local health, regional economies and the global carbon cycle. Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, has created a new Peatland Restoration Agency, and announced policies to restrict burning and draining of the peat beyond a maximum water table depth of 40cm below the surface. However, action is still disjointed and ministries are, at times, working at cross purposes.
The truth is that only when enough people value wet peatlands will the fires be prevented. Wet peatlands are great for orangutans and the global climate, but how about local smallholders, government officials and business investors? Saving peatlands will require creating value for these people too.
What crops can be profitably grown with a water table high enough to prevent burning? How can smallholders tap into a carbon trading market? Rather than cutting trees to send their children to school, can they earn more money by protecting the carbon stored in peat? Can villagers be empowered to make a better living from ecotourism than illegal logging?
Humans are integral to Indonesia’s tropical peatlands. And they must be at the centre of the solutions too. Otherwise the fires will keep burning – and none of the four people whose stories we’ve heard want that.
The first images of the impact of fire on the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area were accompanied by claims from Tasmanian Greens Senator Nick McKim that state and federal governments had ignored warnings from climate scientists that this would happen, and that the fire service had been slow to act.
Some 70 fires were started by lightning on January 13 and a further 14 on January 27. They have so far burned around 100,000 hectares, 17,000 of which are in the southwest Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Remote area specialists were sent in early and more flown in from New Zealand. The Tasmanian Fire Service was well prepared, and has stated repeatedly that the government has promised whatever resources they need. However this event suggests more emphasis is required on remote area specialist fire fighting.
That’s the policy change this event might precipitate.
Fires in the wilderness
Fires in wilderness are not just a matter of out of sight, out of mind. Left to burn, they can have a devastating impact on the environment, and indeed on people.
On January 2, 2003, one of us (Andrew) on the 6:40 am Qantas flight from Canberra to Melbourne counted 42 tendrils of smoke curling benignly above the tree canopy in the crystal clear air of the Australian Alps, after overnight lightning strikes on the drought-parched bush. Sixteen days later, in much more severe fire weather, some of those fires had joined up and tore into Canberra, destroying 500 houses, killing 4 people and injuring 490.
On December 1, 2006, lightning started fires in the Victorian Alps that went on to burn for 69 days, the longest running in the state’s history. Rangers in the Victorian Alpine National Park counted dozens of small fires the next morning but as the terrain was inaccessible, they had to wait until either it rained or the fires reached country in which they could fight them. That Great Divide fire went on to burn 1.2 million hectares of mainly national park.
By 2013, 85% of the Australian Alps national parks in Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory had burnt in the space of a decade, seriously compromising the ability of sub alpine forests to regenerate and increasing the likelihood that they will be replaced by more fire tolerant vegetation from lower altitudes.
Both the Canberra and the Great Divide fires may have had different histories if water bombing helicopters and highly-trained and well-equipped helitack crews had been deployed the morning after the lighting strikes. While water bombing can never control an intense wildfire, used early with on-ground follow up from elite firefighting crews, it can stop them before they get to that stage.
Similar arguments have been made by experienced firefighters in the Institute of Foresters of Australia in calling for an independent inquiry into why the fires that caused such devastation to Wye River and Separation Creek on Christmas Day were not tackled more aggressively in more benign conditions, soon after they started from lightning strikes several days earlier.
This is not to be confused with the calls for more large water bombing aircraft, the Very Large Air Tankers, described by environmental historian Stephen Pyne as “primarily political theatre and only secondarily part of fire control”.
And it would take more than money and kit. It would first require a change in policy, a different attitude to land management and a different attitude to risk. With growing evidence of more frequent extreme fire weather, that change is likely to be good insurance.
Politicians of all stripes are very good at finding hundreds of millions of dollars after devastating disasters, but in times of concern over budget deficits, they appear less willing to find tens of millions for prevention and first response measures. The approach we are advocating here is having more nimble (to use a fashionable word) capabilities in aircraft and highly trained personnel, supported by state of the art scanning, sensing and communications capabilities, to be able to hit fires in remote bush very quickly, while they are small and tractable.
We need a major rethink about wild fire, a story that played out over last century in Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. In the first decades of the twentieth century, naturally lit fires were jumped on as soon as they started. With growing environmental awareness in the 1960s and 70s, the policy changed to letting nature takes its course. That might have been fine, all other things being equal. But they weren’t.
Human intervention resulted in wildly fluctuating populations of elk and deer as wolves were removed and the deer and elk ate the country bare to such an extent the beavers up and left. Rivers changed course, cutting into valleys that formerly featured beaver dams, flooded meadows and riparian woodlands of poplar and aspen.
So the deer and elk were shot, and a series of wet years led to a massive build-up of fuel. Drought followed, and then in 1988 a series of wildfires burned 320,000 hectares over three months, 36% of the park.
It took that dramatic event for the attitude to land management and wildfire to be turned on its head. Wolves have been reintroduced, some beavers have returned, and while this story is still unfolding and there will still be wildfires, they are less likely to be as extensive and as damaging.
In Australia, the debate continues on what role land management has played in recent fires.
Time for change
Like the Port Arthur massacre which brought about gun law reform, the black box flight recorder and safety belts, it takes tragedy to bring about major changes in policy and practice. Abstract warnings in the form of models, predictions and forecasts are never enough on their own to produce major shifts in funding or attitudes.
A dramatic event is unfolding in Tasmania’s Central Highlands right now. Maybe it could be handled differently next time.
That depends on two things. First, the value we as a community place on the fire-sensitive vegetation that has survived in Tasmania in the absence of fire since the Cretaceous, over 65 million years ago, a major reason for south west Tasmania being listed on the World Heritage register.
And, second, the federal and state governments accepting their responsibility to protect those values by providing air support, training and resources for remote area fire fighters.
This article was updated on February 2.