Early fires in Australia. Sshh…don’t mention the ‘cc’ words

Early fires in Australia. Sshh…don’t mention the ‘cc’ words

Bushfires (as they’re called in Australia – also known as wildfires elsewhere) have been once again burning early in the season, this time in and around Sydney. Hot temperatures, dry undergrowth and climatic shifts have contributed to a very dangerous situation very early in what by all accounts will be a very hot summer and a bad fire season.
Bushfires aren’t new.  They have been a standard part of the Australian ecosystem, and also Australian life for those who live in bushfire prone areas, since the first people came to the country.  However, what is less clear is if things are changing: if the idea that it’s a ‘natural’ part of the Australian ecosystem needs to be looked at again in terms of changing patterns of bushfire activity (as distinct from the fact that they exist). Obviously the issue of climate change looms large in all this.
The NSW fires have fueled political debates about all this, framed by the inevitable attempts at trying to understand what is going on and what has changed, if anything, and what the political response to this should be. A rather simplistic political discussion was taken on by Australia’s governing conservatives in response to a Greens senator’s call to debate what Australia should be doing about its emissions targets in the light of the fires. ‘Now is not time to discuss this’ came the voices of the conservatives.  ‘Bushfires have always been with us’ came more voices. All missing the point rather badly I’m ashamed to say…
The image below, taken in the Victorian Alps, is a harsh image.  It was taken late in the afternoon but not when the light had become that rich yellow often found. The reason it sits as an important image is that here is a landscape that is a burnt landscape. Look at the extent of the white/light grey trees, that once were eucalyptus. You can see them stretching way back through the Alps.
At one level, this image is etched by the pulse of eucalyptus forest ecology – lightning starts fires which burn the forests and by doing so regenerate the bush. It is potentially about the re-establishment of the biological diversity, and the return of fire as a facilitator of ecological growth and renewal. Yet at another level, it represents what is potentially a fundamental change to forest ecology.
Feathertop Alps fire scarsThe image highlights the gums that have been burnt and regenerated, as well as those that have been burnt and have not. It’s a sobering experience to walk this place now and compare it to that which I have walked many times over the years, and to think that now it will most likely never be again what it was previously. These last fires, which in this part of the Alps occurred more than four years ago, have burnt the area in a way that has not been seen for generations, if at all.

And whilst we might debate the extent, or existence, of climate change, the image logs a fire that burnt fiercer than perhaps has been known, one that may point to an on-going set of ecological changes which have results we are not sure of. The Alps themselves are at the forefront of these changes, as are the Blue Mountains, where the recent fires have burnt fiercely and early. The issues of adaptation, mitigation and resilience need to loom large in the politics, the economics and the cultural life of contemporary Australia. Currently, under the current political regime, it rates scarcely a murmur.  After all, the Australian Government didn’t even send a political representative to COP 19 in Warsaw, and doesn’t even have a minister for science anymore…