“People may be asked to make a life and death decision this summer.”
That’s the warning to Australians from University of Tasmania fire expert Professor David Bowman who is concerned about fire conditions this year after watching the catastrophic grassfires in Hawaii on television last week.
His key concern is that global weather is rapidly changing and Australia’s response to fighting fires is becoming outdated.
“The deeper question is: Why are we fighting these fires anyway?” he says.
“We should have landscapes that are quite safe, but we’re far away from having that. We should have houses that are safe, and fire shelters that are safe.”
Last week, Professor Bowman argued in an article for The Conversation Australia is “sleepwalking” into a “fiery future”. There are only 108 days until summer, and he believes we're running out of time to prepare ourselves for what could be a life-threatening season of bushfires.
No technology could have stopped Maui fires
Elaborating further in an interview with Yahoo News Australia, he said something about the Maui fires that should be chilling to all Australians ahead of summer.
“There was no firefighting technology known to humans that could have stopped that thing once it started. It just had to play out,” he said. “Therefore, you have to think about preparation, you’ve got to think about fuel management. And the big thing of course is sheltering in place, and not evacuating.”
The fast spread of the fires was caused by a series of extreme weather events. First among them was a flash drought — a relatively new term for a sudden, extreme dry spell that causes the type of evaporation from the environment you’d normally expect in a year. The burning of this fuel load was then fanned by the distant winds from a hurricane.
Do you know what happens after we suffer a triple La Niña?
Australia has been suffering through a rare triple La Niña and that’s got the former NSW Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins concerned.
Of the four recorded instances, three of them (1957, 1977 and 2001/2002) resulted in disastrous bushfires that destroyed hundreds of buildings.
“History says after a triple La Niña we always go straight back to a hot dry summer with bushfires and usually an El Niño in the mix,” he told Yahoo. “But now we know that climate change is exacerbating extreme weather. Look at Maui, nothing like that has happened there before.”
Firefighters have 'reached their limits'
While he's retired as commissioner, Mr Mullins is still a volunteer firefighter and he’s “deeply worried” about the fire season ahead of us. Conditions haven’t allowed for hazard reduction burning through the cooler months to tackle the proliferation of undergrowth near homes, and the recent lack of rain has dried things out.
If Australia is impacted by heatwaves like the northern hemisphere experienced over summer, the country could face a “catastrophic” fire season.
“We’ve got to plan for the worst and hope for the best. But the trouble is, you don't know what the worst looks like. No one in Maui’s fire department in their wildest dreams would have thought they’d see a fire like that,” he said.
“People who aren’t in the ‘fire industry’ don’t realise how bad it’s getting and that we’ve reached the limits of adaptation. It doesn’t matter how many aircraft or fire trucks you have, we can’t handle those sorts of fire anymore.”
What is Australia getting wrong?
Rural communities used to be in charge of responding to fires themselves, but over time governments have shouldered more responsibility and centralised operations.
But simultaneously there simply aren't enough resources in Australia to control extreme fires once they start burning, particularly when they are affecting multiple locations like we saw with Black Summer.
According to Professor Bowman, this shared responsibility is now itself a problem. “Responsibility shared is responsibility not taken. Because if there’s ambiguity in responsibility it’s economically more efficient to assume that somebody else is shouldering the responsibility,” he said.
He believes many Australians don’t even realise that when faced with a fire it’s their responsibility to evacuate themselves. He’s also concerned that most homes are not set up to reduce the risk of fire through reducing undergrowth, clearing gutters, or preparing evacuation plans.
“The fires services assume that everyone is doing that, but I know that they’re not,” he said. “It’s the focus of my life, but I’m busy and I’m letting things slip.”
From Ash Wednesday in 1983, to Black Saturday in 2009, Australia has experienced several extreme bushfire bushfire disasters in recent years. After each one an inquiry would be held and the country would then slowly implement the changes.
But now this incremental response to bushfires is failing because climate change is making them more frequent and severe.
“We’re trying to build our craft to escape a bad problem. But the problem is getting faster than the progress in building the craft,” Professor Bowman said.
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