Bushfires in Australia and the Aboriginal Climate Adaptation Solution

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Bushfires in Australia and the Aboriginal Climate Adaptation Solution

As bushfires continue to rage across New South Wales, as of the writing of this blog, it has ravaged 150 properties, killing three people, and leaving 100 more injured including 20 firefighters. More than 60 bushfires are still active and are being controlled by around 1300 firefighter ( McGowan, et al., 2019, November 11). 

Shane Fitzsimmons both premier and commissioner of the Rural Fire Service, declared a catastrophic fire danger warning for large areas of the state including the greater Sydney area. He says fires are starting extremely quickly, easily and spreading very, very quickly, McGowan et al. added. 

Climate Change and Bushfires

“Climate change is making a bad situation worse,” says David Bowman in his opinion article “The causes of unprecedented bushfires are complex but climate change is part of the puzzle” (Bowman, 2019).

Bushfires this year has come early, around 6 weeks before summer season formally starts. However, ‘out-of-control’ bushfires has already begun in eastern parts of Austalia and has already claimed two lives ( Lucas & Harris, 2019).

Bowman (2019) expresses further:

  • Bushfires involve fuel management, firefighting techniques, landscape planning, building design and environmental history.
  • Bushfires are an ancient presence in Australia, and for more than 40 thousand years Aboriginal people have skillfully managed fires to sustain biodiversity and reinforce vegetation boundaries, like the edges between forest and grasslands.

What contributes to bushfires?

The article, “What are the links between climate change and bushfires? – explainer” mentions the following factors that contribute to bushfires:

  • Dryness, temperature, fuel load, wind speed, humidity that are contributing factors to bushfires.
  • The temperature of Australia has increased at 1 degree Celsius since 1910 according to the Bureau of Meteorology. And IPCC says that it is the greenhouse gases concentrations in the atmosphere that caused the increase in temperature. Hot weather increases bushfire risks.
  • The increasing amount of dry fuel loads like the forest and scrub is linked to increased amounts of carbon emissions because carbon acts like a fertilizer to plants and increases its growth.
  • Higher temperatures accelerate evaporation and extend the growing season for vegetation in many parts of the Australia which results to increased evaporation which takes place when water is drawn out from the soil and evaporates from the leaves and flowers. This results in drier air even if it had the same amount of rain.
  • Weather patterns show that starting 2019 up to 2020, summer has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. It has recorded its hottest month in January 2019, third hottest July, and hottest October day in areas.

The “What are the links” article shared a link to the research article, “Understanding the variability of Australian fire weather between 1973 and 2017,” which is a study on understanding more the bushfire phenomenon, the seasonal fire weather history for 44 years at 39 weather stations, analysis of the study points to the strong relationship between climate drivers like El Niño, climate change and the Australian bushfire season.

To help us understand more, the Bureau of Meteorology has published the video, “Understanding Fire Weather.”

Indigenous burning, a solution to prevent massive bushfires?

The ideal approach to bushfire management would be to reinstate these Indigenous burning practices, but drastic changes over the last 200 years make it an impossible dream in many settings (Bowman, 2019).

In Kimberly, Australia, the council uses the indigenous fire management program to control wildfires.  “Highly skilled Indigenous rangers use traditional knowledge and techniques together with modern science and technology to fight fire with fire (“Indigenous Fire Management,” 2019).

“Indigenous Fire Management” (2019) says that this traditional use of fire management has been largely halted due to colonisation and removal of Aboriginal people from traditional lands, so the traditional burning was stopped. Large and uncontrolled wildfires have emerged usually in the dry season and impacts grazing pastures, infrastructure, and other assets.

How Indigenous fire management is done?

“The knowledge is held within the landscape. Once we learn how to read that landscape and interpret that knowledge, that’s when we can apply those fire practices,” explains Aboriginal community member Noel Webster (Korff, 2019).

Korff (2019) explains more about Aboriginal fire management:

  • It involves the lighting of ‘cool’ fires in targeted areas during the early season between March and July.  The fire burns slowly, creating fire breaks, and not all areas are burnt rather it creates a ‘mosaic’ of the burnt and unburnt country.
  • This method removes fuel for larger fires when the season is very hot and also maintains and protect habitats for mammals, reptiles, insects and birds.

Bowman discusses further on his article, “Aboriginal fire management – part of the solution to destructive bushfires.”

This photo was taken at Elands, NSW on 11 November 2019. Photo courtesy of Jarr Hickstar

Australia’s commitment to climate change

If climate change has a role in the occurrence and escalation of bushfires, then it follows that Australia needs to undertake climate change adaptation and mitigation projects.

With Australia as the world’s largest exporter of coal, its commitment to meet to reduce carbon emissions by 26 to 28 per cent is doubted by many.

PM Morrison said that addressing climate change is “balancing our global responsibilities with sensible and practical policies to secure our environment and our economic future” (“Is climate change to blame,” 2019).

“Is climate change to blame” (2019) quotes Dr. Richard Thorton, chief executive of the Bushfires & Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre: “We find it very difficult in general to attribute climate change impacts to a specific event..but what we do know is that the average temperature in Australia is now running about 1 C above the long-term average.”

“It’s not every weather event that is the direct result of climate change, but when you see trends…it becomes undeniably linked to global climate change,” says Prof Glenda Wardle, an ecologist from the University of Sydney ( (“Is climate change to blame,” 2019).

In the future, Dr Thornton expects that Australia’s bushfire will become extreme and occur more frequently because of the increase of temperatures (“Is climate change to blame,” 2019).

For us who are reading this article and who might be watching within the comfort and safety of our respective places, the news updates about the bushfires in Australia that are happening now or in the past, we can only imagine the hardship that people, animals, the flora and fauna, the environment, are going through. Also, we all know that losing life and property could be one’s worst and haunting nightmare.

Will we be seeing a consistent and sustainable solution in the near future? Should the Australian government and people consider developing more climate adaptation solutions and strategies as the bushfires continue to occur every now and then?

Sources:

McGowan, M. et al. (2019, November 11). NSW fires. Almost 600 schools closed today. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/nov/11/nsw-fires-premier-declares-state-of-emergency-amid-most-devastating-bushfires-ever-seen
Lucas C. & Harris, S. (2019, October 11). Climate change partly to blame for early bushfire season. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/oct/11/climate-change-partly-to-blame-for-early-bushfire-season
What are the links between climate change and bushfires? – explainer. (2019, November 10). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/nov/11/what-are-the-links-between-climate-change-and-bushfires-explainer
Bowman, D. (2016, February 23). Aboriginal fire management – part of the solution. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/aboriginal-fire-management-part-of-the-solution-to-destructive-bushfires-55032
Understanding Fire Weather. (2019, August 28). Bureau of Meteorology [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jt1PCnSiqQI&feature=emb_logo
Indigenous Fire Management. (2010). Kimberly Land Council. Retrieved from https://www.klc.org.au/indigenous-fire-management
Korff, J. (2019, November 3). Aboriginal fire management. Creative Spirits. Retrieved from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/aboriginal-fire-management
Is climate change to blame for Australia’s bushfires? (2019, November 11). BBC news. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-50341210

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