Every state in Australia has been touched by fire since the season started in September. The fires have burned over 12 million acres, an area larger than Maryland. Four hundred and eighty million animals are estimated to be killed or badly injured. Thousands of people have been evacuated. At least 24 have died.
This is just the midpoint of our normal fire season, which used to run from October to March but now is almost year round.
As I write this, my parents are living without power in an evacuation center in Narooma, a town of 2,600 people on the east coast of New South Wales. I am over a hundred miles away, unable to reach them by phone.
In the middle of this destruction, many Australian commentators in the mainstream and social media peddle a simplistic view: that the fires were caused by excess plant growth and mismanagement of public land.
Some argue (without evidence) that an environmental lobby is preventing governments and landholders from undertaking protective measures.
If only the problem were that simple.
Hazard reduction burning is a practice in which fires are deliberately lit during the cooler autumn, winter and spring months to burn through vegetation, reducing the amount of potential bush-fire fuel during the summer fire season. Once the vegetation has grown back, it must be burned again.
While the practice of large-scale hazard-reduction burning certainly has its place in the suite of land management approaches, it is also one of the most complex landscape operations to plan and carry out. The key constraint is that conditions must be just right — not too wet, or the fuel won’t burn, but not so dry that land managers lose control. (It gets awkward if the burn lit to protect houses and critical assets burns them down.)
This is the double-edged sword of global warming: A hotter, drier landscape is too dry to burn safely, even during cooler winter months. Tinder-dry fuel is them primed for monster fires that sweep across entire landscapes, even in areas where hazard reduction has been carried out.
I have worked for 12 years in bush-fire protection, modeling hazards and designing mitigation efforts like Asset Protection Zones (areas of thinned and cleared vegetation). I also design fire-resistant shelters for public schools. Not once have I been stopped from instituting safety measures.
These were not small projects, either; they covered several hundred individual sites across multiple parts of Australia.
Between 2008 and 2010, I managed a project to upgrade over 40 miles of fire trails, remote area water tanks and aerial firefighting supply ponds around Canberra, our national capital. My role was to bring together a team of engineers, scientists and parks managers to deliver upgraded infrastructure that allows fire crews to respond rapidly to fires in Namadgi National Park, Canberra’s main water catchment.
In 2010, in the aftermath of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria that killed 173 people, I was the technical leader on a team that created more than 300 bush-fire shelters. These were made to provide both a safe marshaling point for school children as they were evacuated and a shelter of last resort for the children if they were cut off by fires.
We designed and managed building upgrades for the fire shelters using a combination of vegetation clearing and engineering design. Some of the shelters I made are in use during the current crisis.
Australia uses telecommunications towers to maintain coverage during firefighting. Mobile apps such as Fires Near Me and VicEmergency provide real-time updates and warn communities about approaching fires. These towers include 150-foot-tall masts that hold the transmission aerials connected to a small hut full of delicate (and expensive) computers placed at the tops of hills, where the fire often burns the hottest.
To have any chance of survival, these towers must have surrounding vegetation cleared away from them to protect the equipment in the event of a fire. I manage teams of bush-fire assessors to define the clearance zones for this critical infrastructure.
All of these projects rely on an integrated system of engineering design, mechanical slashing of vegetation and hazard-reduction burning in the wider landscape to manage the risk of fire. After the fires die down, governments, industry and research organizations will analyze how well these approaches held up.
The calls by social media commentators for more large tracts of the landscape to be regularly burned remind me of the saying by the American journalist H.L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”
The extreme weather conditions that have driven the current bush-fire crisis have demonstrated the limitations of relying on a single management method. In a world that is heating up, there are fewer opportunities to apply hazard reduction via burning.
But we — the people who design resilient infrastructure and vegetation management plans in preparation for fire emergencies — haven’t given up.
Throughout Australia, forestry and park management agencies still managed to conduct controlled burns during 2019. Teams of on-ground workers used chain saws, brush cutters and slashers to remove undergrowth, trees and shrubs in areas where the bush land meets the suburbs throughout areas prone to bush fires in New South Wales and Victoria.
We are continually adapting modern technology to improve this, and recently Umwelt, the private company that I work for, has been using live spatial data (digital maps that can be updated in the field via mobiles and tablet devices) to measure the areas where vegetation has been cleared more accurately. This allows us to pinpoint any gaps in the protection measures for follow-up work.
These maps show the exact position of the user as well as the location of forests and houses in the landscape. Empowered by data, our teams assess risk and overlay fire prediction models across the sites they are working on.
My country is a tinderbox. The wet winters and autumns that once allowed us to do controlled burns are now largely a thing of the past, part of our extended and increasingly dangerous fire season.
In response, scientists and engineers do what we always do — we adapt, using science and professional judgment to protect our communities. We have to resist the urge to cling to a single solution and instead use the most effective combination of approaches.
A favorable wind change, some rain and the heroic efforts of firefighters saved much of my parents’ town, including their house. They are still cut off by road, but safe.