My memory of the 2020 fire season is extraordinarily visceral. My nose stung and my throat dried when I stepped outside; faint ash settled along the decaying windowsill of my sharehouse room, and the distinct purple-yellow haze of daylight during that summer still plays in my mind.
What made it even more memorable was the snippets of chaos I’d receive on the phone whenever my mother got enough reception to call me from the South Coast, where my family were evacuated multiple times to a rural town showground. Cattle graziers bunkered down with holidayers while water tankers arrived under armed guard. My feed was filled with photos of a nearby beach town where people huddled on the sand, watching their houses crumble in flames off the nearby cliffs.
The scale of environmental damage that fire season was exceptional. By 11 February 2020, the 2019-20 fires had burned 7.4 million hectares of temperate forest, mainly in New South Wales and Victoria. It produced more carbon dioxide in a few months than Australia usually does in a year. The emissions are unlikely to be wholly reabsorbed since new forest regrowth (which can act as a substantial carbon sink over time) is impeded by increasingly prolonged droughts, changing the aridity of previously temperate geographies and recurrent extreme fire seasons.
Carbon emissions projection for 2020 fires, showing these will far exceed any possible atmospheric carbon removals from post-fire recovery (ie. natural carbon capture by new regrowth forest).
Source: DISER Modelling
Fast forward to 2023, and images of record-breaking wildfires across the Northern Hemisphere have punctuated the news for months. The conditions that created chaos up north will soon arrive in Australia, with the Bureau of Meteorology recently announcing an El Niño event that will bring dry conditions, hot winds and extreme fire risk for the first time since 2015-16.
This will likely produce the loss of homes, schools and businesses as it did during 2019-20. Yet despite this state of affairs being heralded as the “new normal”, it does not seem that current governments have, at least in public fora, turned their minds to the mammoth task of planning for the future — in both an environmental and housing sense.
Amid increasingly extreme climate conditions and a growing population along our coastlines, how do we prepare for recurrent and inevitable fires?
Ben Dowling has been a professional full-time firefighter with NSW Fire and Rescue for 32 years, based in Nowra for the past 20 years. He worked at the Emergency Operations Centre in Nowra at the start of the 2019 fires, coordinating firefighting along the coast down to Batemans Bay and substantially inland. When he was off the clock, he stood by at the homes of friends and family, on guard to help them defend themselves. After the fires ended, he went to rural communities in Southern NSW to conduct building impact assessments, sometimes the first person to visit the properties since they were ravaged by fire.
In his view, the structural and geographical risks of poorly planned housing will be a significant and evolving harm factor heading into future fire seasons.
“At every level,” Ben said, “the 2019-20 fires were significantly more difficult [to fight] and more severe [than anything he had seen in the last 20 years]”. The El Ninõ extreme drought conditions in the months prior generated epic proportions of dry undergrowth and starved older canopies of water — the perfect recipe for what Ben identified as “crown fires”, where undergrowth and the entirety of larger trees all burn, generating a massive wall of heat that is particularly effective at destroying buildings and razing forests.
Crown fires were one of the ways that the season’s fire behaviour took even experienced firefighters by surprise, as noted in the 2020 NSW Bushfires Inquiry report. High rates of spotting and arid windstorms pushed embers sometimes 10-20km in front of the main fire fronts around the state. Ben reflected that “you had [those conditions] occurring across the state, and all resources were severely stretched”. Firefighters, most of whom belong to the volunteer Rural Fire Service, worked around the clock in apocalyptic conditions with no pay.
Ben says there would always be criticism as to the readiness of fire responders after the fact. Still, the response in 2019-20 was “reasonable given the experience and history of NSW being fairly well prepared”. However, he believes that in looking forward, supplementary to mere funding and resourcing questions, there are deeper issues with how Australians live that will make us vulnerable to disastrous fire seasons far into the future.
Our national geography causes “warm air to heat up in the central deserts and then get blown down across temperate forest areas that border with dwellings along the coastline”. Hazard reduction like back-burning can be effective for short-term undergrowth reduction in dense bushland areas but can also impede the consistent growth of older canopy, which burns slower. Backburning is often carried out on the peripheries of suburban or regional areas with the goal of safeguarding populated areas. Ultimately, though, “this hazard reduction is not going to stop a mega-fire,” Ben said.
As booming housing developments sprawl across Australia’s coast into previously untouched bushland (bordering protected ecological zones like national parks), Ben noted that if “we keep encroaching homes right up into the forest,” we create “the problem [of vulnerable housing] for ourselves”. Labor’s “Commitment to Affordable Housing” promises 1.2 million new homes in the next five years. If they aren’t apartments, these are often easily reproducible stand-alone dwellings in the outer suburbs of larger metropoles. They are more likely than not to use timber frames, as opposed to the less flammable double brick or steel. During building impact assessments, Ben reflects that these timber-framed houses are generally “not designed to withstand th[e] kind of bushfire activity” seen most recently in NSW and Victoria.
The solutions to this problem are not simple propositions. As Ben said, they involve a “wholesale rethink of how we live in coastal environments, rather than doing consistent [short-term] hazard reduction”. Housing developments should repurpose existing buildings or go up instead of out. Residential buildings must not rely on newly logged, flammable timber products but recycled non-combustibles like steel. We should improve urban living arrangements so that people can live comfortably and with dignity while being close to each other, their communities and work. There must be a recognition of and strategic commitment to living amongst nature, not on top of it. Such logic will help us plan housing that is resilient to fires and other natural disasters like flooding and extreme heat.
In the meantime, Ben encourages everyone to inform themselves and their community about fire response plans and, if you can, volunteer for the RFS.
All views expressed by the interviewee are personal opinions and do not represent the positions of the organisations with whom they are affiliated or by whom they are employed.