This story was originally published in our May/June 2022 issue as "Living with Fire." Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.
It was Australia as few had seen it before. Apocalyptic images beamed around the world of Sydney’s shimmering cityscape enrobed in heavy smoke against a sci-fi-orange sky. The harbor’s soaring white Opera House was silhouetted, sharply defined against dark clouds. For more than half a year — starting before July 2019 and lasting until March 2020 — bushfires raged indiscriminately across the landscape, marching beyond the distant bush toward tidy suburbs and teeming subdivisions.
They called it Black Summer. It was not just one fire, or even hundreds. Australia was hit with 15,000 separate fires. Even in a country with centuries of bushfire history, which has built up psychological scar tissue against nature’s flames, “no one had ever seen a fire season like that,” says Ben Shepherd, an inspector with the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service in Sydney. Fires were so wild and erratic some days that they exceeded the worst-case-scenario predictions of a sophisticated computer program used by the fire service. “That was unheard of,” he says.
Everywhere in Southeast Australia, people were on the move, outrunning fire. Beaches, once places of recreation, were suddenly transformed into sites for evacuation. With nowhere else to run, families and children with their pets huddled together, prepared to jump into the surf to escape the flames. Finally, the Royal Australian Navy and Australian Army evacuated thousands from the sand with boats and helicopters. Overall, some 8,000 members of the Australian Defence Force took part in Operation Bushfire Assist over the course of Black Summer.
In the aftermath, the international image of Australia as a land of endless beaches, magnificent coral reefs and impermeable rainforests was as scorched as the landscape itself. The fires’ toll, in all its forms, was staggering: More than 73,000 square miles burned, an area nearly three times as big as the Australian state of Tasmania. And, in a stunning estimate that scientists say is conservative, around 3 billion animals died in — and after — the fires. Some species are expected to face extinction.
Across the country, old timers can tick off the names of historic, deadly fires on their fingers like rosary beads, reciting the details from memory with a mixture of reverence and awe. But Australia’s flammability has made a virtue of necessity. With 76,000 members, NSW Rural Fire Service is the world’s largest single body of volunteer firefighters. Few nations have studied wildfires like the Australians, whose settlement history is punctuated by devastating bushfires.
Rather than cower before such a formidable enemy, Australia has endeavored to understand it. Over the years, scientists have painstakingly recreated major fires in tabletop exercises to analyze how people die in fire, how blazes consume homes and how fire moves across a landscape. The sophisticated analysis has informed firefighting policies around the world. Driven by climate change’s sobering reality, Australia and other countries that thought they understood fire are now learning to coexist with amped-up fires that come at them with increasing severity, duration and frequency.
Researchers had every intention of promptly studying and gleaning what they could from the 2019-2020 fires, but their work went the way of many COVID-era plans: It was put on hold while most Australian states enacted social distancing and closed their borders under a swift lockdown.
The events that unfolded over the Black Summer were too consequential to wait for a break in the pandemic, though. The federal government convened a pandemic-modified Royal Commission, generally called only to investigate matters of acute public significance via public hearings.
The scope of the inquiry was extensive, yielding scores of recommendations: Australian emergency responders need standardized training, improved weather forecasting and updated models for bushfire predictions. An education campaign is needed to understand the fire-alert system, which the public found to be confusing, inconsistent and disorganized. And authorities must update the national fire danger rating system to include a category for the new normal of megafires.
The report’s conclusions could offer strategies for countries around the world, where nations are facing their worst fire seasons ever. To that point, the United Nations in February released a first-of-its-kind landmark report that named a “global wildfire crisis” due to land use and climate changes. The findings, which involved more than 50 global experts, forecast a 30 percent increase of extreme fires by the end of 2050. But recent fire activity is already exceptional.
In the U.S., the fire season is now two, three or even four months longer than it used to be. California’s 2020 wildfire season saw the worst burning in the state’s recorded history, with 4.2 million acres burned and 33 deaths. The 2021 season scorched 3 million acres and killed three people, marking the state’s second-worst fire season for land impacted. Russia, too, had its most damaging fire season in the nation’s modern history in 2021, with flames consuming forests across Siberia. Some of those smoldering fires in dense peat deposits are referred to as “zombie fires,” in part because of their ability to continue burning even in temperatures as low as 75 degrees below zero.
One of the Australian commission’s findings could have resonance in the American West. The authorities called for a clearer and more robust system for evacuating people caught behind fire lines, and a hard look at where and how Australians are building. The two issues are often connected. Fire professionals around the world speak in unison about the wrongheadedness of local policies that allow more and more people to build in fire-prone areas, making evacuations frequent and chaotic.
This notion of building bans has seen pushback from U.S. officials, who are loath to prevent lucrative, taxable development in dangerous fire areas, even as they understand the jeopardy — and Americans have widely supported building restrictions in public surveys. The Royal Commission addressed the subject head on, suggesting public officials “should be required to consider present and future natural disaster risk when making land-use planning decisions for new developments.”
The Commission’s prescriptions aren't so drastic considering the devastation in the wake of Black Summer: 33 dead, including nine firefighters, and 3,000 homes destroyed. In a blow to the country’s agricultural sector, nearly 100,000 beehives suffered heat and smoke damage or were destroyed entirely. The health of rivers and lakes, watersheds and soils has also been compromised. All in all, there was damage to national parks, World Heritage areas, wetlands of international significance, threatened species and even entire ecological communities.
Australia’s iconic wildlife are renowned, and for a reason. Most of them are found nowhere else in the wild. Some 80 percent of Australia’s mammals are endemic, a unique signature of a continent that has been adrift for tens of millions of years. Plus about 90 percent of the reptiles and frogs and nearly half of Australia’s birds exclusively call the continent home.
So when images of singed koala bears and kangaroos running for their lives began flickering on screens across the globe, international concern for the plight of animals quickly made itself known. Messages and calls flooded into academic and scientific offices in Sydney and Melbourne, asking the same question: What becomes of the animals, now that they have been burned out of their homes and their food sources have gone up in smoke?
Wildlife specialists sounded alarms well before the fires broke out, arguing that the crisis for Australian wildlife was already critical, with a large number of species stressed by drought and profound habitat change. In 2018, the federal government convened senate hearings about the national “faunal extinction crisis” for animals found nowhere else on the planet.
Professor Chris Dickman, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, calls Australia’s endemic species the country’s “unique evolutionary cargo.” Dickman became the go-to expert for journalists around the world trying to explain how the fires were fraying the nation’s delicate environmental web. He told anyone with a microphone or pen that while telegenic teddy-bear koalas died or lost habitat, so too did snakes, bats and rare spiders. “It was not just the cute and the cuddliest animals that we lost,” he says.
While the fires were burning in 2019, early estimates reported several hundred thousand dead animals. That quickly rose to several hundred million, then a billion in January. The estimates ultimately reached nearly 3 billion animals with the publication of a World Wide Fund for Nature-commissioned report, led by wildlife researcher Lily van Eeden and overseen by Dickman.
Hordes of mammals, reptiles, birds and frogs were killed or displaced, the report found. Wildlife experts could not think of another single event in modern times that had such a profound impact on a nation’s animal species.
Learning from Aboriginal Fire practices
No one in the Australian fire service is saying their methods don’t work anymore, but they know when they can use some help. Some is near at hand, among the country’s Aboriginal communities.
The continent’s original inhabitants have been using fire as a tool and a cultural touchstone for tens of thousands of years. They set small, low-intensity fires to drive game during hunts, regenerate soil and vegetation, clear land to expose food sources and detect the whereabouts of Australia’s many deadly snakes.
Native people understood how to use fire to fight fire, setting controlled blazes to clear out flammable vegetation to protect settlements from out-of-control fires. Indigenous tribes of North America have long used similar practices.
Don Hankins is a pyrogeographer at California State University, Chico, and Plains Miwok traditional cultural practitioner. Hankins has worked extensively in Australia, studying Aboriginal fire practice and its many applications.
Research has shown that cultural burning likely improved biodiversity and habitat, Hankins says. He cites the example of the Martu people in the Western Desert, who were among the last Aboriginal groups to make contact with European Australians in the 1950s. When they were taken from their land and moved to missions, fire, often caused by lightning strikes, took over the landscape.
“When they came back 15 years later, they found that five native species had been lost from the region — two of them extinct,” Hankins says. Research in the Western Desert later revealed between 10 and 20 native species actually went extinct after the displacement of these foraging tribes, and dozens of others went into sharp decline. When the Martu returned in the 1980s, they reintroduced their fire practices in key areas and witnessed the land healing and wildlife returning, findings documented in the journal Human Ecology. Australian fire officials are now working to incorporate such practice into their policies.
That’s happening in the U.S., too, with regular exchange between Aboriginal leaders and North American Native tribes. In northern California, the Karuk and other tribes host traditional burning training programs alongside the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.
Nearly all of the Karuk tribe’s ancestral land is managed by the Forest Service and has over decades changed from tanoaks and madrone tree species to forests choked with Douglas fir plantations, a source for commercial timber.
The Karuk depend on acorns as part of their diet and used to build smoky fires, fumigating stands of tanoaks to kill insect pests and keep the trees healthy, says Craig Tucker, the natural resources policy consultant to the tribe. “In the summer, when the salmon on the Klamath River became stressed by heat, Karuk used a layer of smoke to drop the temperature in the river,” Tucker says.
But even as U.S. officials say they are keen to try traditional burning methods to reduce wildfire threat, reality poses many road blocks, such as a shrinking window of time with fire season now two and a half months longer than in the past. This combines with the West’s stubborn drought and decades of regimented forest management policies that can hinder prescribed burning efforts.