This summer’s bushfires have destroyed homes, precious ecosystems and, tragically, lives. Fires in South Australia and Western Australia killed two and six people, respectively. On Christmas Day more than 100 properties were destroyed in Victoria, and ongoing fires in Tasmania’s wilderness have claimed ancient, fire-sensitive vegetation.
Our key strategy to address this is to evacuate fire-prone areas extensively on days when fire weather is likely to present a risk. In essence, we are leaving our homes to fend for themselves, and rightly so. Homes can be replaced; lives cannot.
We know the cost of fire. In a warming world, it is very likely we will see more frequent and more extreme fires. To adapt to these future fires we will need to change how we approach fire management and the safety of our homes.
Fortunately there are good examples in contemporary Australia of how we might do so.
Land of fire
Before European settlement, Australia was a fire-adapted continent from the southern tip of Tasmania to the tropical north.
Its indigenous citizens understood fire both as a threat and as a tool. Indigenous people regularly used fire to modify the vegetation so that fires could not reach an intensity that would damage to trees, animals or indigenous settlements.
Unfortunately, most of Australia looks nothing like it did back then. The bush in many parts has reverted to a thick impenetrable scrub with fuel loads that can support fires so severe that agencies have no way of stopping them.
On Black Saturday in 2009 173 people were killed in Victoria. But of the 400 fires that started, only a handful could not be stopped by fire agencies, and it was these fires that caused most of the destruction.
The key reason that fire agencies are overwhelmed is a combination of weather and ignition circumstances. Crews and aerial support scramble to reach fires that have started in remote locations before they rapidly develop to a size where it can no longer be stopped. In catastrophic conditions such as those on Black Saturday this need only be a fire of about one hectare.
We can assess the severity of a fire using the Forest Fire Danger Index (or FFDI). The FFDI is a measure of weather factors and is the basis of the national fire danger rating system. Fires running with an FFDI higher than 50 cannot be safely suppressed by fire agencies in a forest. Fires under these circumstances represent over 90% of our life and house loss.
Learning from indigenous experts
In a recent documentary produced by SBS Insight, Line of Fire, I joined indigenous fire practitioner Victor Steffenson to discuss traditional fire management. Victor regularly visits communities from Victoria to Western Australia and as far north as Cape York to pass on what he has learned from his elders.
“We live in a country that needs fire, and what has happened is that we have stopped evolving with fire,” he said.
“If we’re going to deal with fire as a nation, we need to empower the communities that live in those regions to be able to put the right [fire] management in place.
“And so teaching how you can burn where fire behaves like water and trickles through the country and it doesn’t burn everything.”
But most of us have a major problem with this concept. We have grown accustomed to the idea that fire should be excluded from our landscape, except when it is “prescribed” to reduce fuel.
We have made our houses out of combustible materials and surrounded them with more combustible things, and interestingly, the thought of having even a low intensity fire spread onto our properties would immediately have us reaching for the phone to call our insurance provider.
When did things start going wrong? Well, pretty much from the start of mass urbanisation. Our builders replicated houses from their country of origin, fenced the landscape (with fences that needed to be replaced after fire) and built open sheds full of items that could easily burn. Fire was no longer welcome on the landscape.
Living with fire
How do we change our ways of thinking to embrace fire a useful tool and accepting that it is an inevitable process and an integral part of our landscape?
We need to rethink our bushfire planning regulations by focusing on the fuel loads under the trees rather than the trees themselves.
We also need to rethink our bushfore building reguations. The current Australian standard for buildings in bushfire prone areas – AS3959 – seeks to protect a combustible home with a fireproof facade. Instead we need to build our homes entirely from non-combustible materials as is described in a new building standard from the National Association of Steel Framed Housing.
By focusing on combustibility we can ensure our houses are completely resistant to the arrival of embers and low intensity fire. Expensive materials that are highly resistant to fire are not needed because intense fires are managed in the landscape. By striking a balance like this we can achieve a flexible low cost outcome for those living in bushfire prone areas.
For example, for our communities in the far north, fire is a yearly occurrence (in savanna grasslands). The people living next to these grasslands have an intrinsic knowledge of fire. Rather than having continuous grass against their houses they maintain a buffer either by using fire or other means.
If we focus on building houses and landscapes that cannot be damaged by low intensity fire, we will then be able to invite regular “cool burning” fires back into the landscape – including our back yards.
In so doing, fuel loads will not reach a level that will bring intense fire to our houses, even under “code red” weather conditions. Our houses would no longer require extensive provisions to resist intense radiant heat or being engulfed by flames.
The regular use of fire as management tool by our communities and incorporating indigenous knowledge in our fire management practices would present a key opportunity to create and pass on knowledge and understanding throughout different generations.
The Line of Fire will be featured on SBS Insight on Tuesday night.