A decade ago, I moved from Melbourne to Castlemaine in Central Victoria. Box and Ironbark, Peppermint and Yellow Gum country. Hilly sandstone country. The land of the Jaara people. It took me a while, but I fell in love with the place, and now its home.
But even at the start, I remember thinking ‘this is a crazy place to live in a time of climate change’. Already hot and dry in summer, its going to get hotter and drier in coming years and experience worse water stress. It’s the same story all over. Climate change is already happening, and bringing impacts everywhere. Along the inland rivers, towns are running out of water. Along the coast, at places like Inverloch, storm surge is stripping away coastlines. In Mildura, the town had 65 days last summer that were above the heatwave threshold. Parts of Australia are expected to become uninsurable because of more regular flooding. And in the mountains, our winters are already becoming more erratic. It goes on and on. Nowhere is immune.
We are all familiar with the plight of climate refugees – people whose environment or economy is so impacted by the effects of climate change that they have no choice but to move. Mostly these are seen as people in the global South – the ‘developing’ world (although Hurricane Katrina, which devastated much of the USA’s South and displaced millions, shows that this is also a reality even in the rich world).
Something that I have noticed in recent years is a growing number of people who have opted to move from choice, not necessity, who are seeking a friendlier climate. I have lost count of the people I know or have met who have bought land in Tasmania, especially in the south west or north east. Some of them don’t live there: they have bought land as a safety net in case it goes to shit on the mainland. I know people from north east Victoria, in towns like Wangaratta, who have moved to the cooler and wetter hills of South Gippsland. There are people who have swapped the dry inland slopes of Central VIC for the lusher coasts of the Otways. And I know people who have left the hill country of Gippsland and Central Highlands, tired from the relentless stress of ever worsening fire seasons.
In the mountains, it is summer that poses the risk, with fires coming more frequently, sometimes blocking off mountain communities from the outside world and causing economic impacts on towns.
I recently spotted a story on the fantastic Adventure Journal (AJ) website, which asked Have You Considered Relocating Because of Climate Change? (You can read the story here).
As I see my facebook feed full of anxious posts from friends in California I am reminded that this is a global problem. And, as fires rage in NSW and Queensland, I am also reminded that these fires are coming closer together, fire seasons overlapping, making it harder for different regions to support each other’s firefighting efforts, as they have long done. As the AJ story notes, “typically we would rely on our partners to the north to come (and help fight fires). But they are fighting a major fire up there.”
It also raises the question of how we may need to recalibrate our relationship with forested, fire prone country. Its been 10 years since Black Saturday, the fire that tore through mountain communities along the Kinglake Ridge all the way to Marysville, before racing up into the Alpine Ash and Snow Gum forests. Just a week ago, the Victorian government held a major event to do a test evacuation of towns in the Central Highlands, to prepare for the potential future Black Saturdays that lie ahead. As the AJ story notes, ‘forest-adjacent living may come with greater risk than it ever has before’. Ski resort towns in Australia have all been threatened by fire, often multiple times over a few short years. Last summer, Hotham and Dinner Plain were threatened and large areas of the Alpine National Park were closed for weeks because of fire. Increasingly, ‘green season’ tourism helps sustain mountain towns and villages. But worsening fire seasons does threaten this growth. Places like Falls Creek and Thredbo are so beautiful because they are nestled in forested landscapes. There is no doubt that we will have to continue to rethink how we can safely live in close relationship with a fire prone landscape.
In the short term we can throw additional resources to do ‘asset protection’. Last summer, government firefighters were positioned in Dinner Plain to defend the town if the wind had pushed the fire up out of the Dargo Valley. But we simply do not have the resources or crews to fight fire when it simultaneously burns across the Alps and Tasmania. In the case of the huge fires in Tasmania last summer, one recommendation from a review of the fires is for the re-establishment of a volunteer fire fighting team to help fight fires in remote and mountainous areas. The backbone of firefighting in rural areas are the volunteer brigades, yet an aging population in many places will mean reduced fire fighting capacity in some places in coming years. In Melbourne, it is the urban fringe volunteer brigades that provide ‘surge’ capacity when there are big fires across the state and additional resources are needed. Yet as the Victorian fires of last summer demonstrated, when fires burn in certain conditions, they start to generate their own weather and are simply too powerful to fight. In these conditions we can only hope to contain the spread of fires, not actually stop them.
There is no doubt that all south eastern states and Territories and the federal government will need to allocate additional resources and train additional crews to combat the fires of the future. But this is not just about technical ability to fight fire and other threats. The future is a different place. For those of us who are digging in and committing to live long term in our place, we will need to build truly inhabitory cultures that build resilience in the face of change.
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