As climate change effects in Australia (and elsewhere) begin to intensify, one of the most notable, and deadly, is the increase in frequency and intensity of bushfires.
It’s important to say that more subtle effects will have been underway for sometime. Local populations of species will have become extinct in some places, will have expanded into others. There will be, as a result, species ranges slowly moving south, moving up mountains, moving towards coasts. There will be acceleration of losses and shifts when disasters like droughts, floods, fires, strike particular habitats.
Some populations will achieve more speed than others – larger birds and marsupials for example, some invertebrates that can float in water or air, plants that have very effective seed dispersal, micro-organisms that can travel via water or dust clouds, and so on. But the great majority of organisms will struggle to move quickly enough, and many whole species are going to rapidly become extinct.
Important to note that we are not talking evolutionary adaptation here. That takes thousands of years, climate change is happening over decades. Consequently, even species that can readily move are soon going to find themselves trapped, unable to move further south over water perhaps, or running out of altitude on mountains. They don’t have time to adapt.
Which brings us to fire. Following the recent horrifying bushfire in southern Tasmania there were yet again complaints about the “lack of fuel reduction” nearby. Look, I get this, really I do. Fire is my greatest fear every Summer. I dread the sight of a column of smoke nearby. I imagine, all too graphically, what a fire would do to us.
But this “fuel reduction” thing is nonsense of course. Either someone would need to have predicted 6 months earlier exactly where the fire was going to strike and burnt accordingly. Or, every square inch of forest in Australia would have to be burnt constantly.
Indeed the latter is essentially the demand of “fire managers” and their populist politician friends. Their alibi, when challenged by conservationists, is supplied by a small string of writers. Bill Gammage has done an illustrated Flannery, Tim Flannery popularised Jones, Rhys Jones publicised Norman Tindale. All four writers promoted the view that the Australian environment was not only “adapted to fire” but actually needed it, and that consequently the Aborigines had regularly burnt the whole country and we should copy them.
For some reason media and therefore the public love this nonsense, and there is never any mention of the fact that this flimsy hypothesis has been challenged over and over again in last 50 years.
When the most recent of the four, Bill Gammage, began working on his much awarded book, he sent me a paper which formed the core of his book. I wrote to him (in 2003) as follows:
Thank you for sending a reprint, that was thoughtful of you. You argue your case like a lawyer. Trouble is lawyers are obliged to present all the evidence in favour of their client, not look at it in all possible ways. You seem not to have read my book yet. You would find it interesting I think.
The problems with your case, as I see it are in summary: 1. There is no question that Aborigines knew their own patch intimately. How could they not? I know my patch pretty intimately after a few years, and I am not relying on it for food. But knowing where kangaroos are likely to be, or when the yams are ripe, is not the same as causing the kangaroos to be there or the yams to ripen.
2. You must assume that natural features have natural causes until you can prove otherwise. To revert to the legal metaphor it should be a question of innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent. Rhys Jones deliberately turned the burden of proof on its head for a very good reason – it is much harder to prove a negative than a positive. That is, apparently ‘anomalous’ patches occur for all sorts of natural reasons (of soil type, topography, rain, evaporation, biogeography, natural fire history etc). Eliminate all those and what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. But you do have to eliminate them first.
3. Vegetation doesn’t depend on fire so much as fire depends upon vegetation.
4. You can’t rely on nineteenth century theories about ecology and anthropology. You also can’t rely totally on apparent observations, and certainly not on the context of observations. Not only were observers prisoners of their prejudices (as are we all) but they were prisoners of the political agenda of the day and of the lack of knowledge of Australia’s people and biology.
Does it matter, other than as a fascinating debating point? Yes it does, because people of ill will use theories about the past to justify actions they want to carry out anyway. The attack on the environment of Australia is now so serious that letting people who want to put cattle in the high country, and burn every inch of Australia every year, and get rid of national parks and wilderness areas, support their demands with notions about what Aborigines did, is really very dangerous.
So there you are, alibi destroyed. But does that matter, I hear you ask? Whatever Aborigines did, if the bush is “adapted to fire” shouldn’t we burn it?
Yesterday tv coverage of one of the recent nasty local fires ended with the obligatory comment about the bush recovering, a comment illustrated by the obligatory shot of some shoots emerging from the blackened trunk of a gum tree. But the ability to recover has nothing to do with being “adapted” or “needing to be burnt”. All species of plant can recover after disasters – if they couldn’t then long before now the planet would be as lifeless and empty as Mars. There can’t be a square metre of land that hasn’t at some stage been affected by the fast or slow disasters of fire, flood, glacier, tsunami, landslide, drought, tornado, volcanic eruption.
After the disaster some plants, not actually killed, begin regenerating. Others, surviving as seeds, begin germinating if not buried too deeply. Others, unable to survive the catastrophe themselves, will gradually return to the area via wind or birds or flowing water, or just by gradually expanding back onto the ground from surrounding areas. Different species have different abilities to do all these things, and, in addition, some can grow on bare or disturbed ground, some can not. So we have what is called a “succession” – some species arrive early (often the ones we call weed species, or those which have the capacity to become weeds), their growth modifies the environment and others begin to colonise, then finally, after the passage of a lesser or greater number of years, depending on the nature of the disaster and that of the original ecosystem, the plant community will look much as it did before it was destroyed. Although it is worth pointing out that it is very unlikely to be identical either in the totality of species present, or in their relative proportions.
Fine, good, comforting to know that however bad things look good old Mother Nature will recover. But note that I haven’t distinguished between any of the natural disasters in this regard, and that’s because there is nothing special about fire – plants are no more adapted to fire than they are to flood or tsunami. No one (I assume) in their right mind would call for the forests to be regularly flooded, or landslides triggered, nor welcome tsunamis or cyclones, just because later recovery is eventually possible? Also, and this is very important, no matter how fast and complete recovery might be after a single event, a repetition of the event in a short time would snuff out recovery and will certainly alter the composition of the new ecosystem. If you germinate all the seeds of a species, and then kill them all off before they can mature enough to set new seed, the species is gone. Again, it doesn’t matter what kind of a disaster, if it is repeated at short intervals (like, for example the recent massive floods in Queensland, just 2 years after the previous ones) the environment will be irreversibly damaged.
So we come full circle. If you want to strategically burn small areas to (possibly) help provide protection for particular places, then go right ahead. If you regularly burn all the bush any time in Australia you will change the ecosystems for the worse. If you do it when climate change is already impacting on the bush through fire, drought, flood, heat, then the damage you inflict will be infinitely greater. This is not a good thing.
PS – for other writing about fire on this blog click on the “Fire” and “History” tabs above.