Australia’s notorious bushfires are often international news, but close to home, they’re less newsworthy than they are terrifying for Australians with painful memories of homes and lives lost. Much of the country can become a tinderbox thanks to its location and climate conditions — and don’t jump to assume climate change is only reason, because evidence suggests that fire has played a critical role in the ecological history of Australia for thousands of years.
Many plants native to Australia have adaptations that indicate they’ve been coexisting with fire for a very long time. Some have seed pods that only open in fires, an nifty trick that allows them to wait until competitors are cleared and the soil is richly fertilized with ash before attempting to germinate. The blue gum eucalyptus, on the other hand, is practically an incendiary device — and these trees have evolved that way. The rich oil they secrete, combined with the papery bark they slough, creates a highly flammable mixture that can create extreme fire conditions in seconds as sometimes the very air itself catches fire. When the flames finally recede, green shoots of eucalyptus start appearing almost immediately.
Yet, Australia has also been inhabited by humans for thousands of years. These humans clearly had a functional relationship with the fires that raged across the continent, or they wouldn’t have been able to survive. How did they do it? Australia’s Aboriginal community, and the historical record, provide the answer: controlled burns. They employed a careful forest management practice that included burns to create open pastureland for hunting, as well as to protect their communities.
When Europeans reached Australia, they encountered a highly managed landscape, but they didn’t realize how managed it was, and how important that management had come to be, until it was too late. Members of the Aboriginal community were killed, driven away from their land and forced out of areas they’d been caring for over the millennia, in a tragic repetition of other encounters between Indigenous people and Europeans. As they retreated from their ancestral lands, though, fire licked at their footprints, because Europeans allowed trees and shrubs to grow wild, creating Australia’s famous bush.
The bush is beautiful, but how natural is it? This is a key subject of debate as conservationists, ecologists, public safety officials and other members of the Australian community argue over how to deal with fires. Blue gums are thoroughly protected in Australia, so much so that you need a permit to chop one down, even if it’s sitting on your own property. This is the result of a belief that Australia’s natural state is one of uncontrolled bush — which may well be the case for many of the plants of Australia, but that state wasn’t the case for thousands of years.
As with other Indigenous people, the Aborigines shaped the land around them, and their caretaking changed the landscape of Australia forever. The insistence on allowing the bush to grow unfettered combined with fighting all fires that appear may not be the best practice — a better option might be controlled burns to allow periodic fires at much lower temperatures. The high temperature firestorms that fixate the globe and worry Australians aren’t natural either, after all: they’re the result of fire suppression combined with uncontrolled growth in the bush, much like the severe wildfires the United States struggles with.
It’s clear that Australia needs a better forest and fire management policy, because while climate change isn’t the root cause of the region’s terrible fires, as the global climate shifts, Australia’s fire situation may become more dire.
Photo credit: lin padgham.
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