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Adapting to bushfires means accepting their place in Australia

It’s just a week into the new year and here in Tasmania we are already licking our wounds after disastrous fires in the state’s south. Mainlanders are facing similar events as extreme weather conditions…

The rush to rebuild is understandable, but our attitude to bushfires will bring us more trouble in the long run. AAP Image/Rob Blakers

It’s just a week into the new year and here in Tasmania we are already licking our wounds after disastrous fires in the state’s south. Mainlanders are facing similar events as extreme weather conditions continue to be forecast for the south-eastern states. Hopes of quickly restoring a fire-free status quo are misplaced and problematic.

As a nation of people who celebrate “drought and flooding rains” it is odd that Australians can be so resistant to accepting the pressing reality of natural hazards.

Despite the inevitability of bushfires and their regular cyclic pattern, we seem each year to be taken aback by their untimely incursion into our worlds. There appears to be little time or space allowed for bushfires, as many people in contemporary Australia otherwise busy themselves with their generally quite affluent and highly urbanised lifestyles.

When disasters do strike we rush to make sense of events that were previously once dismissed as the workings of mother nature or acts of God. Now we ask what lessons might be learned. For humans, these devastating events cannot have occurred wholly in vain.

In the end, insights are drawn out and action can follow (even if sometimes seemingly too slowly). The royal commission held after the recent Victorian bushfires is exemplary. Subsequent improvements in communication and evacuation probably contributed to the lack of fatalities in this latest incident in Tasmania.

A swathe of new knowledge is also being produced, with the latest scientific research conducted for the Australian Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre and the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

Some of my research published in December last year makes the case for recognising bushfire’s persistence in the landscape. In South Hobart, there is still material from the 1967 bushfires. Such events haunt the present even though we relegate them to the past with discreet dates and days infamously tagged as “Red Tuesday”, “Ash Wednesday” and “Black Friday”. Alternatively, they are projected into an unknowable but looming future.

The Hobart bushfires are still burning as I write. Some of the latest headline stories in my local broadsheet, The Mercury, are worth a mention as they reveal valuable insights into how we understand and interact with bushfires. In particular is the need for us to make space and time for living with fire.

The usual metaphors and imagery were being unleashed by the start of the working week. On Monday the main location where the fire had erupted was described as a “battlefield” and on Tuesday there were the no doubt much deserved but now familiar references to first responders or frontline workers as “heroes”.

Such representations are accurate in part at least. There here have been major losses; our hearts go out to the families affected; and thanks are due to an array of people including many in the background as well as those directly tackling the fires.

The militarism is what rankles. The surrounding bushland is made into a new enemy to be subdued, rather than appreciated and respected as a long-standing home and source of sustenance and comfort. The environment is distanced and alienated in futile attempts to ward off the inevitable.

As my University of Tasmania colleague John Bowman states, bushfires will occur, and not least because of our own actions. I concur with him especially on his main point that we need to engage these matters in new and courageous ways.

Sadly, the reverse can happen. Returning the status quo is seen as success. The need to restore power and house people is always pressing after a bushfire, but can lead us into repeating past mistakes. For example, efforts to replace overhead powerlines and poles were reported in The Mercury on the first day of the emergency. The problem is that such infrastructure is often the cause of bushfires. Its rapid resurrection can also pre-empt the exploration of any possible alternatives.

The arrival of loss assessors and insurance agents was reported in the papers on the Sunday. Assurances of payouts would be welcomed. But as the rebuilding for a quick recovery is railroaded into town, is enough time taken for people to have a say in their futures? Will we seize the opportunity to make changes for the better by reinventing how (and where) we dwell in the landscape?

That same day’s issue of The Mercury had an article that referred to one typical home there made of “fibro and tin”. Such cheap construction is unsurprising: Tasmania’s south-east has a mix of pensioners, single parents and unemployed (alongside wealthy retirees and second home-owners). Society’s most disadvantaged, including social tenants in old housing stock on the urban periphery, are especially vulnerable to disaster. Others have provided cautions about rebuilding after disaster. The question here is do we want to set in stone, once again, the fates of already marginalised people?

Who, in the long run, will have to pay for such decisions? It won’t necessarily just be the insurance sector which has a key role in disaster management and housing recovery but currently appears under-utilised as a mechanism of climate adaptation. Indeed, we all might well get caught up here in a case of still worse outcomes following on the heels of yet more bad timing.

Fire continues to be rendered strange and threatening, deemed out of place, and afforded little time by most Australians. In the context of a slowly evolving landscape and rapidly changing climate, true adaptation will require us to accept the reality of bushfire as a constant presence in our lives.

In realising that we must exist alongside it, we will perhaps more easily sit a while with the havoc it can cause. That way, we might yet live longer as we learn more and continue to improve how we prepare and respond.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Sebastian Poeckes


    The point about the inevitability of fire in the Australian bush is well taken. However many of the decisions made by individuals and organizations fly in the face of that reality. For example, for many years the former Forests Commission, Victoria made advice available which highlighted the dangers of building in certain locations and suggested ways to make houses surrounded by forest less vulnerable to fire. Driving around the areas devastated on Black Saturday it was clear that few of the property…

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    1. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Sebastian Poeckes

      Sebastian, articles in Australian papers are reporting that many of those affected by the fires are furious and upset because they were denied permisssion to burnback in the previous two years, since thebig wet. Do you, therefore, think government has much culpability ( and liability) in this regard?

    2. Sebastian Poeckes


      In reply to John Phillip

      John, as I said above, I don't believe that the control burning that is going on is being directed to the right locations. Have you seen the Dandenongs recently? A disaster waiting to happen. However, control burning in densely populated areas like those on Melbourne's outskirts is not straight-forward. Weather conditions need to be right and sufficient forces in place to guard against breakouts.

      Frankly, most property owners wouldn't have a clue. Control burns in those areas are always going to be fraught.

      If governments have any culpability it's in respect of allowing people to build in totally inappropriate areas. There was a chance after Ash Wednesday to do something along the right planning lines, but governments then and now have proven to be gutless when faced with people's views that they should be allowed to do anything they want on their own land - no matter how inappropriate.

  2. Murray Webster

    Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

    I agree with you Sebastian.

    A point I would like to make: researchers at the Long Term Ecological Research site at Warra down in the Huon, tell me that Tasmania is overdue for a 'mega' fire. Even more scary is that the 1967 fires rank as a 'medium' fire. The last mega fire was 1934.

    1. Perpetua Turner

      Ecologist, Honorary Research Associate

      In reply to Murray Webster

      True Murray. Further more, research within and arround Warra LTER, has found that the 1898 wildfire was also a very major conflagration. These fires burnt approx. 1 bill ha, and you are hard pressed to find any stands remaining in the southern forests dating from 1898 because of the large area the subsequent 1934 fires burnt. The 1934 fires have major starting points in the button grass plains of the south-west, thus with predominant winds the flames were pushed into dense forest and took hold. In the southern forests the 1967 fires did rank as 'medium' and did not burn as much area as fires from 1934 in this area. We can learn a lot from history.

  3. Peter Ormonde


    When you fly over a smouldering "burnt-out" town several things jump out at you - well at me anyway:

    (1) The gardens are not burnt. The surrounding trees are not burnt. It is the houses that are burnt - and then selectively and apparently at random.

    (2) The agent of transmission is air born - it doesn't (always or even often) creep along the ground and jump from tree to tree - it's like mortar fire - a bombardment of sparks and twigs and embers.

    (3) The houses burn easier and faster than…

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  5. Meagan Tyler

    Lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University

    I think the inevitability of bushfire in Australia line is actually oft repeated, although it is more often put as something like "bushfires are just part of the Australian landscape". There is an issue with emphasising this though, as 1/3 to 1/2 of all fires are deliberately lit. A point made in an article last week: Of course, given the climate and conditions SOME bushfires will be inevitable - but not all of them are. While I take your point, the push for recognising "inevitability" may simply reinforce the lack of research and prevention programs dealing with arsonists.