Australia is currently in its summer season. And, for non-Australians, that translates to “fire season.”
This year, these fires have caught international attention and are being portrayed as much worse than what we've seen in the past. Yet the wildfires happening now in Australia, and those months earlier in California, are not novel and share much in common. Let me explain.
Wildfires typically break out during a prolonged drought following an earlier cycle of excess rainfall in semiarid regions. Episodic moisture spurs rapid growth of vegetation, like the eucalyptus common across southern Australia and the chaparral covering California’s deep ravines.
The eucalyptus had adapted to periodic wildfire long before the Aborigines first settled the mega-island some 60,000+ years ago. The eucalyptus (gum tree) exudes a burnable resin, its leaves are full of oil, and it sheds its bark to make great tinder – all combining to initiate and spread wildfire. Fire helps it ward off its would-be competitors.
Fire begins on the forest floor and quickly spreads to the crown where strong winds carry brands to trees ahead of the fire front. An Australian bushfire quickly expands into an inferno that defies efforts at containment until winds abate.
Pre-colonial Aborigines managed the bush and outback to their benefit, especially the land dominated by eucalyptus. They used controlled burns to limit the combustible materials and thus protect themselves. Fresh growth after the fire attracted kangaroos, which were hunted.
Extraordinary bushfires during the first half of the 20th Century (Victoria, December, 1939) caused great loss of life and property damage. Afterward, fire control agencies came into being in Australia. They instituted controlled burns, similar to the Aborigines’ methods, but complete with fire breaks and strategically located firefighting equipment.
By late 20th Century, preservationist ideology had swept over Australia. Controlled burns formerly used to tame wildfire were curtailed or banned outright, to save the lives of birds and animals. Private land owners were deprived of the right to maintain brush-free zones around their homesteads and subjected to stiff fines if they created safety perimeters.
In subsequent years, fires of increasing ferocity scorched many thousands of acres of public and private lands in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. Animals died by the millions. The unfortunate fact is that once fire breaks out, whether set by a lightning strike or through careless or deliberate acts (arson is well documented in police records), it is nearly impossible to suppress a raging inferno until the fire burns itself out.
A few months ago California wildfires once again commanded attention, scarcely a year after the deadly fires of 2018. Much the same set of circumstances attends an iconic California wildfire, the difference being the population density in affected areas tends to be greater in California.
Recurring wildfires in the Golden State became a political football. Officials in Sacramento, supported by the media, lay the blame on public utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric, ignoring their own malfeasance. The utility has been sued and forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, following damage settlements, for deadly fires set when winds toppled transmission towers and ripped loose power lines. The sparks set fire to the chaparral.
In fairness these fires were waiting for a lighted “match.” Sooner or later a fire would have ignited without assistance of a broken power line. Carelessly tossed cigarettes, abandoned campfires, and arson work just as well.
The proximate cause is dry fuel accumulating from dead vegetation, absent proper forest management. A few years of recovery pass, then the stage is set for another devastating California wildfire.
Logic suggests re-adopting proven forest management practices. Scheduled controlled burns still eliminate hazards before tinder builds to dangerous levels. Facilitating issuance of permits to clear brush on private property would save countless lives and untold property.
When I first visited Florida, recurrent brush fires were destroying homes and business properties during the winter dry season. Sections of Interstate 95 remained closed days on end as pine-palmetto scrub burned. A brush-fire in the Savannahs Preserve near Fort Pierce reduced adjoining homes to ashes before being brought under control.
That was enough for Florida officials. The Forestry and Parks commissions authorized controlled burns on state lands. Instances of destructive wildfire since have been reduced significantly in the Sunshine State.
Adopting practices similar to what works in Florida might even improve life for Californians. And if the indigenous peoples of the great island continent could make it work for countless millennia …well, you get the idea.