Years ago I drove up the Hume highway through the aftermath of the Victorian fires of 2009. All the epicormic shoots had burst forth, empty branches with bottle brush stems. At least, here, the eucalypts could demonstrate their resilience and evolution to a fire ecology. I’d written reports to select committees on the effects of some of the fire management changes that were being suggested in the late 2000s. All procedure and hierarchical box-ticky thinking, never mind local wisdom and the reduction and readiness that good fire management requires. The Australian ACT reforms were responsible in large part for the 2004 Canberra fires. A complete debacle very much exacerbated by the corporate management styles that had swept through the public sectors of the world because of the delusions of some mechanical policy makers.
We’re going to see more fires. They are inevitable. I wrote this below some years ago after 2009 Victoria Fires, with all the lessons of the 2004 Canberra fires giving pause to those in suits who think in a cultureless space without regard to the wisdom of the local.
We’re still doing it. Mad management styles where the central administrators rise and the thinking locals leave. Where you don’t listen, you direct. Blindly. With arrogance. With a belief in certainty and control.
And so they fail.
Fire in the landscape is like weather: unpredictable, able to shift from an easily manageable drizzle to a full blown tropical cyclone, or worse. The most horrifying nightmare for any rural firefighter is when a bushfire turns into something that resembles nothing less than a huge twisting tornado sweeping all before it in a path of destruction, while able to leave unscathed a chicken coop not metres from where it passes. Only it’s something more than a wind-fed tornado. What rural firefighters call a “blowup” adds fire to that wind.
A blowup is extreme fire behaviour, and the biggest man-killer. It is fire as weather, a spinning vortex up to 400 metres wide, several thousand metres in height, and with the wind strength to rip trees out of the ground and send them into a convection column. You can imagine how far such columns can disperse burning material once they exit the top. They can toss burning logs all around them.
Smaller blowups act like fast moving fireballs, accelerating up valleys, one of the reasons rural firefighters avoid spending time in saddles on ridgelines.
If one blowup is a nightmare, a series of them is hell unleashed. That is what hit the Australian state of Victoria on Black Saturday, February 7th, 2009, fed by 47 degree temperatures, humidity of six percent, drought conditions, and wind speeds of more than 100 km per hour. Add to that mix a hill country terrain with high fuel loads and valleys that can funnel uphill and you have perfect conditions for blowups. More than 180 dead, hundreds of houses destroyed, comparisons with the firestorm of the German city of Dresden in World War II, stunned looks on the face of a Prime Minister, the town of Kinglake mauled, with its more prosperous hillcrest houses particularly badly hit.
A crown fire, where a fire moves from the ground to the forest canopy, is bad enough. It burns at a greater intensity than a ground fire, and can travel at walking or jogging pace. A blowup fire-whirl can travel almost as fast as the wind. That’s why there were stories of cars being outrun by the fires.
Once a blowup starts, there is only one response. Flee very fast, preferably sideways. You cannot stand in front of a tornado with much chance of surviving. You’d have considerably less chance of surviving a blowup. The descriptions of houses literally exploding in wind and flame is a blowup in action. If it can do that to a house, imagine the effect on people.
Firefighters have been sucked into these blowups. Some have even survived. The Mann-Gulch tragedy in Montana 1949 saw the death of 12 of a crew of 15 smokejumpers, the US Forest Service’s elite airborne firefighters. They were immortalised in Norman Maclean’s Young men and Fire. One ranger, Robert Janssen, survived. He was picked up by a blowup, dropped unconscious in its vortex, and revived only metres from the flame. He described the experience as being surrounded by a vast uproar trying to break the sound barrier; sounds were tapering off, and becoming silent. It’s not an experience many would want to repeat.
Fires are still burning in Victoria as I write this, but they’re manageable by comparison with Black Saturday. Now is a time of taking stock, of asking how it got so bad, and what could be done to prevent such an event occurring again.
After the 2004 Canberra fire the coroner was scathing of the fire authority. They had done what the last New Zealand government was proposing to do, to amalgamate rural and urban fire authorities under the leadership of the boys in the towns. In so doing, they missed the point that rural fire is not just about putting fires out, it is obsessed with preventing extreme fire conditions in the first place, communicating with rural communities, preparing where you cannot prevent through ensuring access to likely areas. If you get an extreme wildfire, you’ve lost a big part of the battle. Rural fire management will actually use managed low-intensity fire as a tool to reduce the risk of less manageable high-intensity fires that have the potential to blowup.
After Canberra, the coroner found that warnings from rural people were ignored, firebreaks and access was overgrown, fuel loads in forests were at dangerous levels, and the cooperation with rural communities had declined. The tactics for fighting the fire demonstrated a lack of understanding of bushfire behaviour, with fire fighters sent to initial outbreaks leaving no reserve for the inevitable surprises. During the inquiry the fire authorities did themselves no favours by pleading ignorance of material being raised by the coroner, and accepting no blame. They were as arrogant afterwards as they had been beforehand. In that situation, luckily, only four people died.
This Victorian firestorm was different. The conditions were extreme, even beyond extreme if that can be possible. We will have to wait for the coroner’s report, but the response of firefighters is unlikely to be cited as a causal factor. You cannot look upon those who give their all without an emotional response. Well, perhaps some can. But they are not us.
The effectiveness of prevention and risk reduction is likely to get the greatest scrutiny, and that in itself could create a culture change, particularly in urban communities. If there is anything that would have lessened the risk of blowup fire conditions it is fuel load. Reducing that fuel load requires disturbance of what many presume are pristine environments whose value is in the ideal – or delusion – that natural environments are static and undisturbed.
Rural communities have a much greater appreciation that disturbance, variability, and change are not only what defines any environment, they are also necessary to maintain the health of that environment. This runs counter to the popular urban myth that any change or harvest is bad. And so we get the conditions of the highly destructive Yellowstone National Park fire of the 1988, and Black Saturday, because fuel builds up until we get conditions ripe for the perfect firestorm.
These upland Victorian landscapes used to be periodically disturbed by grazing and cool ground fires. That human-induced disturbance was removed by well-meaning people. It may be time to bring active management of disturbance back into these landscapes. And keep the bureaucrats away from the rural fire authorities and their much needed local knowledge and specialist skills.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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