The northern hemisphere summer has been terrible. Heat waves have killed many thousands, from Iran and India to Portugal and France. Flash flooding has closed the Grand Canyon, while ‘Lake’ Mead, a massive dam on the Colorado River, is almost empty. Across the northern hemisphere, from Siberia and Alaska to normally temperate countries like England and even Ireland there have been devastating wild fires.
Droughts, which are exacerbated by a warming climate, are making wildfires more frequent, destructive, and harder to fight in many places. Firefighters in temperate countries are often not equipped or trained in dealing with landscape scale fires. There are not prepared for potentially months long seasons. In one month, wildfires tore through Portugal, Spain, France, England and Germany, which had all seen record-high temperatures. Greece and Turkey also burnt. This challenged the fire fighting capacity in each country. For instance, in mid August, a wildfire broke out in France’s Gironde region. The fire grew to more than 15,000 acres in a short time and 8,000 people were evacuated. Local firefighting capacity was overwhelmed. Firefighters from a number of countries, including Sweden and Italy, were mobilised to support local efforts.
[Header image: Geoffrey Browne]
It’s the same story right across the north:
Alaska is burning this year in ways rarely or ever seen, from the largest wildfire in its typically mainly fireproof southwest region to a pair of fires that ripped through forests and produced smoke that blew hundreds of miles to the Bering Sea community of Nome.
Blazes have burnt 5.6 million acres so far in the U.S. this year, putting 2022 on track to match or exceed the record-setting 2015 fire season.
In the western USA, states like California have experienced increasingly larger and deadlier wildfires as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years. Scientists have said weather will continue to be more extreme and wildfires more frequent, destructive and unpredictable.
And the signature of climate change is obvious:
“The frequency of these big seasons has doubled from what it was in the second half of the 20th century,” said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center. “And there’s no reason to think that’s not going to continue.”
These fires bring many lessons for Australia
In the USA, more frequent fires are causing loss of vast numbers of mature trees, threaten areas of old growth, and are leading to ecosystem collapse in some areas. As with Australian vegetation, many forests regenerate naturally after fires, but if the blazes get too intense or frequent, they can leave behind barren landscapes that linger for decades before trees come back.
In recent years, fires that burned too hot for forests to regrow naturally have far outpaced the government’s capacity to plant new trees. That has created a backlog of 4.1 million acres (1.7 million hectares) in need of replanting.
And apart from more frequent and intense fires, insects and other manifestations of climate change are damaging forests. Massive areas of conifer forests in the northern hemisphere that have been killed by beetle infestation have become dried tinder boxes just waiting to burn.
The Australian angle: in the mountains of south eastern Australia and Tasmania, fire sensitive communities, and alpine ash and snow gums face the prospect of ecological collapse because of climate change driven fire regimes.
And snow gum woodlands are threatened by mass scale die back caused by beetles’ leading to large areas of dead trees.
Loss of carbon.
Living trees are a major “sink” for the carbon dioxide that’s driving climate change when it enters the atmosphere. That means replacing those that die is important if we are to have a hope of keeping climate change from getting even worse. It also has implications for our climate change response if we plan to count protected forests for their ability to store carbon. We will need to be able to protect these trees so their carbon remains trapped. This is becoming increasingly difficult. For instance, as a result of fires, six forest projects in California’s carbon trading system have released between 5.7mn and 6.8mn tonnes of carbon since 2015. Companies across all industries are increasingly turning to carbon credits to compensate for their emissions. Last year, a particularly fierce US fire season ripped through forest projects that had generated offsets bought by companies including BP and Microsoft.
The Australian angle: The fires of Black Summer contributed around 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent to the atmosphere. While much of this carbon will be reabsorbed as forests recover, more frequent fire means more loss of regenerating forests, and hence more loss of carbon dioxide. Most of the area affected by that season’s fires lies within national parks and conservation areas. A further significant portion is in State Forests managed for timber production. This in turn impacts on future timber supply.
And in places like Victoria, the state government has sanctioned logging of both burnt and precious unburnt forest that managed to survive the Black Summer fires. ‘Salvage’ logging is widely understood to be the most damaging form of logging operation.
So far this year, there have been about 145,000 lightning strikes in Alaska and adjacent areas of Canada, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management’s lightning-detection network. This has led to many hundreds of fires.
As the planet’s temperature warms, the frequency of lightning strikes is expected to grow with it. This is because of higher land temperatures, dryness in the low troposphere and moisture and instability in the mid-troposphere.
The Australian angle: Lightning strikes are one of the main causes of wildfire in Australia. In places like south western Tasmania, more frequent lightning is driving a surge in fires in remote areas which need to be fought from the air and with specialist ground crews. During the 2019/20 ‘Black summer’ thousands of lightning strikes went on to become massive fires that threatened towns like Dinner Plain in the Alps and Mallacoota in the far east of Victoria.
Drought is coming for all of us.
In many places across the northern hemisphere, officials described “explosive fire behavior” as fires raced through bone-dry vegetation caused by the worst drought in decades.
The Australian angle: Much of Australia has now enjoyed several mild summers and good spring rains. This is resulted in massive vegetation growth, especially in grass dominated landscapes (the summer of 2021/22 was dominated by fires in South Australia rather than in forests to the east).
It’s too early to know what’s in store for us this summer. But if it does dry off in spring, we could face a dangerous summer of fires, across huge areas of land – agricultural and forested – which could stretch our ground and air firefighting resources.
It’s always about social justice.
In a fire, it will be the poor, the renters, the people living in mobile housing, and those who cannot afford insurance or ‘hardening’ of their homes to resist fire, who will suffer the most.
The Australian angle; we know there is widespread homelessness as a result of the Black Summer fires of 2019/20. There are many people still living in caravans and sheds because they can’t get permission to rebuild, can’t afford to, or can’t get builders and materials. In the USA, where poorer families and communities have been disproportionally impacted by loss of homes, community – rather than individual responses – to fire will become more important. For instance, in the small California town of Paradise, which was burnt in 2018, the town is seeking a community response (acquiring public open space around the town to provide recreational resources for the community and also a strategic fire break rather than relying just on individuals to be able to ‘harden’ their houses against fire).
Longer fire seasons means less help when we need it.
During the 2019/ 20 Black Summer fires, around 1,000 people came to Australia to assist in fighting our fires. We routinely send crews, specialists and our aircraft to help with efforts overseas, especially North America. As fire seasons get longer in both hemispheres, it will place greater pressure on local crews, stretching resources and making it harder to support each other across national borders. What happens the next time we experience a season like Black Summer and North American crews have just come out of a long season?
Increasingly we are using volunteer firefighters to assist with other natural disasters (for instance the clean up after recent flooding in northern NSW). Many volunteer brigades are aging. We need to change how we recruit and expand our volunteer firefighting base. We also need to prepare for the year when no support can be sent from the northern hemisphere.
We presently lease most of our large aircraft (Large Air Tankers or LATs and large helicopters) on the international market, generally from North America. Australia only owns one LAT, yet we need at least 6 in an average fire season. As norther seasons get longer, the cost of leasing will continue to grow. This poses a significant threat to our firefighting capacity in a season like the ‘Black Summer’ of 2019/20.
So what do we do?
We know that longer and more intense fire seasons in the northern hemisphere will start to affect firefighting here as it becomes more difficult to share resources between the north and the south. Here are a few ideas on how we can be ready:
A publicly owned air fleet. The bushfire royal commission interim report recommended that Australia invest in a “modest, Australian-based sovereign [very large aerial tanker/large aerial tanker] capability” as the climate emergency means that northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons are running together. Australia is currently reliant on the United States for large aerial firefighting aircraft – only two large air tankers are currently permanently based in Australia.
It’s time to establish a publicly owned air fleet of Large Air Tankers.
A national remote area firefighting team. As fire threatens World Heritage Areas and national parks across the country, it is time to establish a national remote area firefighting team, which would be tasked with supporting existing crews in the states and territories.
Create opportunities for urban people to volunteer as firefighters
Existing volunteer services rely on attracting members who live close to fire stations so they can deploy quickly. This means that the vast majority of Australian citizens cannot become volunteer firefighters. We propose that new remote area volunteer teams be established which could focus on attracting and training younger people in major cities and regional centres who could then nominate for deployment in major campaign fires.
Support our volunteers to make their contributions sustainable
We need to prepare our emergency services – both career and volunteer – for the increasing demands of climate-driven disasters. As flooding, fires and heatwaves become more common it is clear that the load on existing volunteers will become unsustainable. We will need to transform how we respond to these disasters, with potential changes to resourcing for volunteers and their employers.
First-responders are being overwhelmed by the size, intensity and frequency of unprecedented extreme weather events. It is essential that there is a review of budgets for all first responder organisations to ensure they are sufficient to the reality of the climate driven disasters of the 21st century.
Stop making the situation worse. Of course, we need to do everything possible to play our part in avoiding future climate change. That means a rapid transition to 100% renewables and storage, and major uptake of energy efficiency in our homes, buildings and businesses.