The future of fire

Created date

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - 7:54am

The year is 2020. Australia is hotter, drier and far more fire prone than ever before. What effect is this having on our water supplies, agriculture, changing rural populations, health systems, and the elusive carbon balance?

This 2020 scenario is presented by the Bushfire CRC as it considers the issues that the fire industry may confront in the near future. It was developed as a counterfactual for the economic analysis of the proposed CRC Fire – Environment and Society. It is what the world may look like without the research proposed for the new CRC.

It is the year 2020 and few communities in fire-prone areas around the world believe they are successfully managing the forests, woodlands and rural areas, and the inherent fire threat associated with them.

Decision makers are being presented with seemingly intractable dilemmas: changes in philosophical and organisational approaches to rural areas over the last 50 years; the expansion of urban populations into the hinterland; increasing migration of humans around the planet and growing uncertainties associated with global warming.

In Australia, rural fire, park and forest management agencies are confronted by growing urbanisation, partially driven by increasing immigration levels, an accelerating ‘tree-change’ phenomenon, drought and global warming, increasing strains on forested water catchments, the collapse of volunteerism - and a growing stridency in the questioning of the agencies’ ability to manage fire risk adequately.

Climate change develops pace

It was not until the mid-2000s that scientists and politicians started to jointly address the predictions of looming global climate change. Assertions made by scientists around that time have proved remarkably accurate, such as initial temperature departures seeming relatively small and their suggestion that a 1°C increase in mean temperatures was equivalent to many southern Australian towns shifting northwards by about 1000 kilometres.

The longer term predicted averages for the climate have proven to be generally correct and southern Australia is now characterised by successive bad fire seasons, each appearing to be worse than the last. In the past few years, we have seen the longer term trend in southeastern Australia fire danger characteristics resulting in:

• The length of the fire seasons increasing with the season now being weeks longer than in 2000;

• The cumulative Forest Fire Danger Index now being some 120 points higher;

• There having been a 100% increase in the number of days with the Fire Danger Index in the ‘extreme’;

• The ‘window of opportunity’ for the use of prescribed fire narrowing by several weeks.

And the human landscape

These climate changes have all been occurring at a time of considerable demographic change, with the last of the baby boomer generations leaving the work force and pursuing retirement, their preference frequently being to relocate to ‘Arcadian’ settings. This trend is especially evident along Australia’s east coast, and north and south of Perth. The exodus from the cities has seen a sharp increase in the average age of these new population centres and a considerable strain in the ability of governments to provide community and other services.

In turn, these ‘urban refugees’ are generally in relatively good health, are ‘cashed up’ and have urban-evolved expectations of what local service providers should be capable of. At the same time, the newcomers have little or no awareness of, and often little interest in natural hazards like fire. They consider fire to be someone else’s problem.

The long-tested and evolved bushfire strategies that are based on rural populations being largely capable of protecting themselves (staying to defend their properties) have been found increasingly faulty in recent years. In the face of looming adversity many of these ‘tree changers’ are choosing to abandon their properties in times of fire. This is creating an increasing demand on the local rural fire services.

Meanwhile, Australia’s cities are, even by international standards, large. In contrast with much of the rest of the world, a majority of Australia’s population has lived in cities for a century or more. The growth in size of our cities has accelerated over the last 20 to 30 years partly as a response to lower housing costs on the urban fringe and partly as people sought the environmental amenity and space not available closer to CBDs.

In Australia’s case, the growth in the size of its cities has also been boosted, since the late- 2000s, by increasing immigration encouraged by governments to meet the workforce demands caused by the retirement of ageing baby boomers. Much of the outer urban growth has been in ‘ribbons’ creating an urban-rural interface twice the length of that of earlier in the century. In 2020 less than 10 percent of the population lives in truly rural areas and the number of farmers is now well below 100,000 - although agriculture remains a very important part of the national economy.

The vanishing volunteer

In the face of these changes, the fire and emergency service agencies are no longer able to rely on a flow of young volunteers to staff the rural brigades or the SES. Many of the young in these areas have migrated into the now booming cities or growing coastal areas, attracted by the opportunities to combine work and lifestyle. Conversely, retirees moving into rural and semi-rural areas do not have a history or culture of formal volunteering and perhaps no background in working with the land or with fire.

More generally, Australia’s population has continued to age and the demographics of those living in the bush shows this dramatically. Volunteering in many areas, especially in fire and emergency management, is in crisis due to age, attitude, expectations and knowledge and, in part, as a consequence of the changing ethnic composition of the Australian population. In many locations, the local volunteer fire service has closed its doors leaving communities to rely on distant services or to hope simply that the next bushfire will not affect them.

Meanwhile, many of the businesses in the ‘food bowls’ of Victoria, the Riverina and the Murray Irrigation Area generally have experienced declines in produce yields and quality. This, in turn, has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of farmers prepared to remain on their properties through the long years where their fields are unproductive. As a result, some rural areas are increasingly characterised by absentee farming with occupation occurring only when seasons are good – a trend that is exacerbating the rural decline. The impact on the economy of these areas has been dramatic with significant parts of Australia now being dependent on imports of the fresh fruit and vegetables that used to be grown locally.

The ‘lot’ of rural fire services is not a happy one. With extended fire seasons the load being carried by the declining ranks of volunteers is reaching breaking-point - volunteer burnout is now common. Moreover, even those volunteers who remain willing and able are experiencing employer resistance to the growing demands on their goodwill.

Our abandoned bushlands

With the timber industry, and most other commercial activity now absent in our native forests and woodlands, the media headlines are now a faded memory. So too are the relatively healthy park and forest budgets, the skilled workforces and the year-round approach to land management.

Courageously, the land management agencies continue to battle to get more prescribed fire into the landscape, to help mitigate the increasing fire danger. Adding to their budgetary and workforce woes however, the numbers of days where prescribed fire can be used safely have diminished considerably. Meanwhile the risk of escapes from prescribed fires grows and significant, consequential property damage results in demands for compensation from effective landowners and the resultant political pressure to avoid controversy.

Land managers are also trying to understand, and to manage the climate related pressures on ecosystems, with many species now moving to the edge of their evolutionary range. The role of fire in these uncertain ecological times has an added degree of complexity.

Meanwhile, in trying to manage the increasing recurrence of bad fire seasons, governments have sought to bolster the combating agencies, through the injection of ever-increasing budgets for suppression. Last year, in response to sustained media criticism, and facing increasing difficulties with North American leasing arrangements (as there is now a significant overlap in the fire seasons of the northern and southern hemispheres) Australia purchased a fleet of heavy water-bombers – a decision that is already impacting on local agency budgets.

To add to the agencies’ woes the workforce vacuum left by the retiring babyboomers has seen a severe shortage of skilled and white-collar labour and resulted in spiralling wage growth. These trends, in turn, are leading to difficulties in attracting people into the land management and emergency service agencies, as wages cannot match those being offered by the private sector.

With these combined impacts, it is becoming clearer that the traditional models of land management and fire service delivery are breaking down and we must look to radical and sustainable alternatives.

Where has all the water gone?

With the population of Australia pushing 26 million, the availability of water, particularly in places like Adelaide, Perth and many rural centres is becoming critical. Debates around the viability of water intensive farming practices are becoming more divisive. This is particularly the case along the length of the Murray River. Increased variability of rainfall across the whole of southeastern Australia has seen times where the river has almost stopped and on other, rare occasions, where it has flooded. It is during these times of peak flow that the cotton farmers and other irrigators have taken large volumes of the water from the river, as a buffer against the dry times. So even with the occasional big flow, the mouth of the Murray has stayed closed now for the best part of a decade. Salt levels in the river are escalating, and the water is becoming almost unusable from the Victorian border downstream.

Flows into the Murray-Darling have been significantly affected by the southeastern Australian alpine fires of 2003, 2006, and the biggest and hottest yet seen in 2013. This most recent fire has seen the catchments of the Ovens, King, and Murrumbidgee Rivers severely burnt – as expected, subsequent flows initially increased, but were heavily laden with sediment from the extensive post-fire erosion, and siltation of many town water supplies followed. Within a few years, however the regrowth in the catchments made its claim on precipitation and, whilst the average rainfall may only have decreased by 10-20 percent, the impact of the new growth has seen stream flows into the lower Murray drop to 10 percent of long term averages.

A situation has been reached whereby in some seasons farmers have refused to allow firefighting agencies access to water as this commodity is now more valuable to them than the assets that the fire service are seeking to protect.

That elusive carbon 'balance'

Following the release of the Garnaut Report in 2008 the then Rudd Government (in conjunction with the government of New Zealand) established an active carbon trading system in the Australasian region. The system placed a higher than expected cost on carbon, particularly for Australia’s heavy energy users. At the time it was hoped that offsets could be created through changed land and fire management practices – however, these are yet to emerge due to a lack of an agreed system that is able to link carbon abatement with fire and land management practices.

Meanwhile, increasing fire danger is seen as a threat to the original simple carbon offset schemes. With the first of the offset forests being burnt during wild fires in 2007 on Kangaroo Island it is clear that simply planting trees is not the whole answer. There is a theoretical opportunity to manage fire differently to minimise overall fire-related greenhouse emissions; however, the techniques and capability do not yet exist to be able to accurately quantify the relevant emissions, and a scientific and a related philosophical debate continues.

As described earlier, land managers continue to try to increase the area in the southern states that they treat with fire each year, albeit at a time that sees the annually available burning ‘window’ shrinking. There also remains widespread community unease about the use of prescribed fire. For ‘tree changers’ smoke is not part of their idyllic vision and land managers are increasingly accused of adding to climate change.

Smoke is also considered a factor in exacerbating the ever-increasing rates of asthma and associated respiratory ill health in the community, particularly among those retirees who have moved to the bush for lifestyle reasons. Major new hospitals, with specialist units to deal with this growing epidemic, are being demanded in regional areas, and land and fire managers are again mindful of the threat of damages claims. In the north of Australia, late, dry season fires continue to burn, emitting large qualities of greenhouse gasses and damaging large areas of prime grazing land. The impact of introduced weeds, especially grasses in central and northern Australia has had a dramatic affect on the biodiversity as the fire regimes changed to suit these new species. Fires are now burning hotter and with more regularity than was ever seen before.

And the current headlines

Australia’s media has recorded a number of headline making, urban-related fire events in recent years. These used to be relatively uncommon, but now seem to occurring with concerning regularity. Whether it was the major fire in the newly completed Brisbane tunnels earlier this year, or the fire that trapped hundreds in the Telstra Dome in Melbourne two years ago, these events seem to be on an increase. As these kinds of events have placed the fire fighters at an ever-increasing risk, the Fire Fighters’ Union has been asking, “Why do we keep placing our men and women into these death traps? Why is there not technology that can replace these firefighters in such dangerous conditions?”

Nothing has highlighted these concerns as much as deaths of fire fighters in a seemingly innocuous fire in a factory. In this case, there was a severe breakdown in the communications within the Incident Management Team. The fire had stretched out over a number of shifts, and handover had not been handled well. Interagency issues emerged related to cultural differences. Although the fire occurred in 2013, the Coronial process is still going today – despite calls from AFAC and from fire agencies for many years for the system of inquires to be radically changed.

Along with these matters, it is becoming clearer from studies that the lives of some firefighters may be being significantly impacted upon by their past exposure to toxic materials – materials that seem to becoming more common with the introduction of ever more complex materials in furnishing and buildings. The fire services have been rocked by several recent landmark court decisions against them, resulting from exposure to toxic fumes, of their personnel, through the late 1970s to early 2000s,– exposure both from changing building and furnishing materials, and of smoke from prescribed fires. Reparation costs are currently tipped to be in excess of $1 billion over the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, another government inquiry across two states is now seeking answers as to why devastating bushfires were allowed to get into the catchments of major domestic water supplies. The subsequent water yields available for one capital city are expected to be reduced by an average of 40 percent over the next 35 years.

What can be done?

Some or all of these scenarios may seem to overstate (while some understate) the problems we will all face in the near future. But today, Australia needs to think about the way it will respond if these situations evolve. Avoiding this scenario, or worse, will require new knowledge through scientific research so we can live safely in the future with fire. By Dr Richard Thornton, Research Director, Bushfire CRC, Professor John Handmer, Bushfire CRC researcher at RMIT University, and Mike Leonard, Bushfire CRC.

(This article first appeared in the Summer 2008/09 issue of Fire Australia magazine)