The fire ‘time bomb’ is finally detonating on the world

Climate change is only part of the problem.

forest fires
Forestry management is a complicated, controversial, and region-specific art, especially as the stakes become higher as human-driven climate crises worsen.Wikimedia Commons

Victor Steffensen set his last controlled fire in New South Wales last September. That’s when he realized that disaster was imminent. “I knew that they were going to lose all that country,” he says. “It is a time bomb that has been waiting to go off.”

Steffensen is an indigenous specialist in fire management. He teaches classes about the best ways to set controlled fires to communities in five states in Australia as well as parts of Canada. He says he feels frustrated watching the megafires this year, which have, as of today, burned over 12.35 million acres and killed 24 people, as well as more than 800 million animals.

Forestry management is a complicated, controversial, and region-specific art, especially as the stakes become higher as human-driven climate crises worsen. Warming temperatures create a higher risk of drought in many areas of the world, which means that the United States, South America, Central Asia, southern Europe, southern Africa, and Australia will all be at a greater risk of wildfire in the coming years. Regular fires have been part of many ecosystems, and species there have evolved with them. Controlled burns, set by humans, can make these regions less likely to break out into unmanageable flames. Cultivating the right flora can provide similar protection; for example, avoiding dry invasive grasses that act as kindling in California. This is the kind of land management that Steffensen has been advocating for. Based on his knowledge of indigenous fire management practices in Australia, he’s found that these practices, while they can’t stop the heat and drought caused by the climate crisis, they may lengthen the amount of time that humans will be able to live in fire-prone areas if we fail to effectively end our greenhouse gas emissions.

Steffensen’s curiosity started when he realized that his mother’s family, who belong to the Tagalaka people of northern Queensland, have lost much of their traditional language and culture. He eventually met mentors and Awu-Laya elders George Musgraves and Tommy George, members of Aboriginal groups elsewhere in the country, and worked with them to record their language and traditional land management strategies.

Historically, Europeans were dismissive and even antagonistic towards deliberate fires as a landscape management tool. In fact, in 1749, Baron Hårleman, the high commissioner of agriculture in Sweden, was outraged when the already famous biologist Carl Linnaeus wrote about traditional Swedish practices of burning as a farming practice. Instead, he forced Linnaeus to expound about how livestock manure can supplement compost, according to Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies. “Even in High Enlightenment Europe, it seems that burning could not compete with bullshit,” writes author Stephen J. Pyne.

Western science remained oblivious and even hostile to fire as a land management tool at the time of the British colonization of Australia, according to Flammable Australia: Fire Regimes, Biodiversity and Ecosystems. These attitudes remained with us in some pockets of science and politics up to the present day. “Some dismiss Aboriginal practice as little more than culturally endorsed pyromania, and consequences for land, vegetation, and wildlife management as incidental and unintended outcomes,” wrote a team of scientists in the International Journal of Wildland Fire in 2003.

They go on to argue that these controlled fires are effective and well-organized. Western science eventually caught up to the traditions of Aboriginal Australians, whose ancestors first arrived on the continent 65,000 years ago. Many studies support the fact that Australian indigenous practices prevent and mitigate unplanned wildfires and support native species.

The prime minister has blamed the conflagrations on the green party for preventing proper land management such as burning and brush clearing, similarly to how the U.S. president accused the governor of California of neglect after the state’s catastrophic wildfire season. But at the end of last year, Greg Mullins, former Commissioner of NSW Fire and Rescue, sent a letter to Minister for Water Resources David Littleproud that stated the need for more resources for prescribed fires. “Fuel reduction burning is being constrained by a shortage of resources in some states and territories and by a warming and drying weather cycle, which acting in concert reduce the number of days on which fuel reduction burning can be undertaken,” he wrote. “Of all the factors which contribute to the intensity of a fire (temperature, wind speed, topography, fuel moisture and fuel load), only fuel load can be subject to modification by human effort.”

Steffensen says he has found it difficult to get a permit to carry out controlled burns in Australia. He currently does most of his work on private property and Aboriginal lands. “We've been screaming at authorities and governments to let us burn and to give us larger scale operations to demonstrate the indigenous practices, but they won't allow it,” he says. “And that's the same in every country in the world. The Western systems have locked down indigenous land management, and this is what you get in the end.”

Using controlled fires to prevent larger ones is not that simple, though. As the commissioner mentions, the logistics of controlled fires can be difficult to pull off, especially as weather conditions continue to become hotter and drier. The landscape has to be flammable enough for the burn to take off, but not so combustive that it spreads out of control. The perfect conditions might only happen a few times a year.

“The problem is that huge parts of the continent might be in that window at the same time and you can only feasibly burn small pieces of it,” says James Clark, professor of biology at Duke University. He says we have the same issue in the U.S. “Big parts of the west would be under prescription at just the same time, and there’s just no way you could do controlled burns over such a huge area.”

Steffensen says he feels encouraged as more people come to his workshops and show interest in traditional Australian land management practices. “When we first started, 27 years ago, there were no other non-indigenous people coming to our workshops,” he says. “Now everyone's coming.” He says that he has seen people from the national parks, private landholders, and even schoolchildren at his workshops and controlled burns, though he says the political leadership of the country has still shown no interest. Steffensen says one concern is that, as a result of the current fires, the government will send inexperienced people to set controlled burns, which could be disastrous for the landscape and future management policy. He recommends a three- or four-year training program in which practitioners can learn about soil types and trees, as well as how to time the fires, and many other aspects of the natural and built environment. “Before colonization, [the landscape managers] were absolutely walking libraries,” he says. “But today we have just some young guys with a drip torch in the back of a four-wheel drive that think they know how to burn, and we just go around and around in a circle.”

The future is bleak. “We know that parts of the globe inhabited by humans today won’t be habitable in the future,” says Clark. “Not just by humans, but by many species.” Clark and other scientists hope that these catastrophes will motivate people to vote for more action against climate change. “Besides the tragic bushfires, 2019 may go down in Australian history as the year in which a large proportion of the general public started to be concerned about climate change,” writes Petr Matous, a civil engineering lecturer at the University of Sydney, to Popular Science in an email. “A significant part of the bushfire discussions focused on clarifying and explaining again and again the link between fossil fuel combustion, increasing temperatures, and shifting rainfall patterns.”

He says that we also need new planning, building, adaptation, and legislation strategies that would lead to the development of more fire-resilient interface between cities and bushland for a hotter and drier future. Listening to the people who have effectively managed the landscape for thousands of years is a first step.