The bushfires are a national catastrophe for the city and country. How are we going to live like this?

‘The magnitude of these fires alone, apart from their human and environmental consequences, simply shows us that we now confront a new, more flammable world’ Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images
‘The magnitude of these fires alone, apart from their human and environmental consequences, simply shows us that we now confront a new, more flammable world’ Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

The fire situation in eastern Australia continues to rapidly escalate.

At this stage we cannot predict when this will come to an end, but with losses of lives and property mounting on the south coast of NSW, eastern Victoria, South Australia, southwestern WA and Tasmania, we now have a nationally significant catastrophe that affects city and country alike.

The magnitude of these fires alone (about 5 million hectares and rapidly rising), apart from their human and environmental consequences, simply shows us that we now confront a new, more flammable world: a coupling of people, ecosystems and fire that is now irrevocably transformed.

As a society we should admit that our current policy, operational, knowledge-gathering and research capacity is inadequate to deal with such a new, fiery world.

How do Australians in our most populated regions live in a future defined by heat, drought, powerful wind and lightning storms that lead to inevitable uncontrolled fires?

The answers must lie in the intersection of the resilience of human communities, our experience and love of place, with the natural environment.

Yet understanding this intersection demands resolving the various contribution of climate change, land management and community preparation and resilience.

How many lives, properties, threatened species, ecosystems and their services, did our current management and response capacity actually save? What was the return on human and financial investment in fire preparation and emergency? Are existing administrative arrangements in firefighting and emergency management appropriate? What is the right balance between community/individual responsibility vs. centralised command and control?

What is the role and sustainable capacity of volunteer fire management? What can Indigenous fire knowledge bring to bear in stem these blazes? How can biodiversity and ecosystem services, like water and carbon storage, be protected?

Comprehensive answers to these questions are not simple to acquire, because of the interlocking nature of the process involved. But to effectively adapt to the challenges the future compels us to deal with them on a scale never attempted before.

The temptation to make sense of this unprecedent crisis, and identify a way forward, is to repeat the same model of inquiry that has played out over the last century.

Every major bushfire season in Australia has been followed by inquiries and their recommendations, that have led, haltingly, to improved capacity to fight and co-exist with fire threats.

However there are a plethora of recommendations that have failed to gain traction in the complex administrative and political ecosystems that reinforce the status quo.

For instance, while the Stretton Royal Commission, that followed the 1939 fires in Victoria, established the foundations of modern, organised fire management capacity, its successor, the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has had a lesser impact.

Critical recommendations concerning planning, land use and management lie discarded after failure of implementation. As with most inquiries, the feasibility, cost-effectiveness and capacity of governments and citizens to implement its recommendations were beyond both the scope, resources and timeframe of the last Royal Commission.

The legacy of a State-centric approach to land, fire and emergency management, so often viewed as a strength by many abroad is now a conspicuous weakness when it comes to the challenges of a world transformed.

In sum, all the old bets are off.

While laudable initiatives such as the post season summit proposed by ex-fire chiefs or politicians have been proposed, these will be inadequate to derive viable solutions until basic questions about the bushfire crisis are thoroughly explored and answered.

The scope and scale of the ongoing national catastrophe requires a significant and non-partisan investments in national capacity to research, investigate, understand and innovate to meet the challenges ahead.

There are no short-term fixes or answers to be had in response to the challenge. Setting out to protecting old orthodoxies, and thereby eschewing more innovative solutions, will lead us down a well-trodden path that is incapable of comprehending and adapting to our new circumstances.

There needs to be robust and evidence-based debate, encouragement for trying new approaches, and fostering diversity of opinion, outlook and experience.

There is an urgent need to develop a nationally co-ordinated, but not centrally controlled, approach to resolving the key questions posed above.

This initiative should fully harness the intellectual capacity of our management, research and training institutions, focusing their immense technological capacity for analysis of the fire, human, climate and environment nexus.

Without such an approach unprecedented amounts of information yielded by the events of 2019/20 will evaporate, the hard lessons will be skipped, and the vulnerability to another fire crisis will remain.

Simply stated, as a nation we are being transformed by drought, heat and fire, to adapt Australians must transform our understanding of these fundamentals, in order to plan, cope and live in a more flammable world.

Professor Ross Bradstock is the director at the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong. David Bowman is the professor of pyrogeography and fire science, and the director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania.

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