Why does Australia burn?
When the first Europeans, a desperate bunch of convicts and soldiers, first settled in Australia in 1788 they found a landscape and inhabitants both intimidating and threatening.
The first settlement near what is today Sydney was blocked to the east by ocean and to the west by a rugged mountain range about 50 kilometres away.
It took 25 years before three explorers made the first successful European crossing of this hostile mountainous landscape carpeted with eucalyptus trees. (There they found herds of wild cows that has escaped the settlement and crossed the ranges long before them).
The mountains were first named the Carmarthen Hills after hills of the same name in Wales. But the locals quickly changed the name to the Blue Mountains because of the distinctive blue haze that surrounds the mountains.
Today we know the blue comes from the oil-bearing Eucalyptus trees, also called gum trees. The tops of the trees are filled with finely dispersed droplets of oil, which combine with dust particles and water vapour to scatter short-wave length rays of light which are predominantly blue in colour.
This eucalyptus oil, well-known for its medicinal qualities, is flammable and last week the Blue Mountains were on fire. Once again Australia was on fire.
Why does Australia burn?
Australia has a long history of fire. It is an increasingly dry country where almost all of the world’s 700 species of eucalyptus can be found. Over 50 million years eucalypts have adapted extremely well to the harsh climate. They are the country’s emblematic tree; as ‘Australian’ as the koala and the kangaroo. They can be found in the driest, highest and wettest parts of the country. Some are only a metre or so high and hug the sandy salty soils along the coastline. Others like the Mountain Ash, the world’s tallest flowering plant, can reach a height of more than 115 metres.
Not only are eucalypts drought resistant, but most species have acquired traits which allow them to promote and thrive in fires.
One of the most common species is called the Blue Gum. Fire-fighters call them ‘gasoline trees’. Blue gums like many gums depend on fire to both open their seed casings and kill other competing plants. They don't just burn; they explode, sending firebrands and seeds shooting in all directions. Living next to one of these trees is ‘like living next to a fireworks factory staffed by chain-smokers.’
Many eucalypts are serotinous which means they need an environmental trigger, in this case fire, to release their seeds from their hard casings called gum nuts. The Mountain Ash often dies in intense heat, but not before showering the ash-rich ground with thousands of seeds.
Other species have developed lignotubers, a specialized root/crown structure located beneath the soil surface that contains many food-storing cells and shoot-forming structures. They act as protection for tender shoots, and provide food for shoots emerging after a fire.
Other species are known as epidormic sprouters. The shoots or buds remain dormant, protected under the bark. When the tree is damaged by fire, the shoots quickly burst through the bark.
The volatile and highly combustible oils that are produced in the leaves burn nearly twice as hot as the wood.
The bark of the many gum trees slowly peels off in long streamers that drop to the ground, providing additional fuel. This attracts ground fires up into the leaves, creating fast-spreading crown fires that race across the top of forest canopies.
The fallen leaves and peeling bark compost extremely slowly and cover the forest floor adding extra combustible fuel.
Coupled with droughts, heat-waves and strong dry winds, Australia’s bushfires can morph into something far beyond what one imagines is a forest fire.
If you look up the term firestorm in Wikipedia you will find reference to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, aerial bombings of Dresden, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a list of recent forest fires in Australia.
A firestorm is a conflagration (a great and destructive fire) which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system which both fans the fire and feeds it oxygen. It is capable of creating fire tornadoes and temperatures of more than 1000 degrees Celsius.
Trees can explode into fireballs four times their height. Fire can race across the tops of the tree canopy feeding off the leaves and oil particles (the blue haze). It can send burning wood and leaves more than 15 kilometres ahead over roads, rivers, creating multiple new fires.
In some cases there are no flames, but instead a wall of intense heat. A school friend Jenny said it was like someone opened the door of an oven. During the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 she was outside, hosing the roof of her family house, preparing for the fire to come. There were no flames, but as she looked down she could see the flesh on her hands melting.
The Guardian Australia made this award winning documentary about a Tasmanian family that survived an intense firestorm in January this year.
Here is another chilling video account from the St Andrews fires in 2009.
The Black Friday fires of 1939 destroyed almost 20,000 square kilometres (about the size of Israel or the US state of New Jersey) and killed 71 people.
In 1983 the Ash Wednesday fires claimed 75 lives. On that day there were 180 fires, fanned by winds of more than 100 km/h per hour, burning in Victorian and South Australia.
The Black Saturday fire of 2009 killed 173 people. Temperatures reached 46 degrees Celsius and north-westerly winds were over 100 km/h. This followed an intense heat wave and almost two months of little or no rain. Four hundred fires were recorded on that one day.
The fires are becoming more frequent, more intense and increasingly deadly.
Fire has been part of the Australian landscape since the dawn of time. Australian Aborigines have used fire as a hunting tool to flush out kangaroos and wallabies. The Aborigines arrived in Australia about 50,000 years before the downtrodden English. When the Union Jack flag was raised for the first time in 1788, the human population was somewhere between 300,000 and 750,000 in a land more than 180 times the size of Switzerland. Today the population is more than 22 million of which almost 90 per cent live in urban areas, making Australia one of the world's most urbanised countries.
Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos, Joseph Lycett, convict artist 1820
In the last 50 years human habitation has spread into the beautiful, but potentially dangerous Australian bush. Fires that were once started by lightning are now started by cigarette butts, matches, campfires, motorbikes, welding sparks, farm machines, electricity power lines, military exercises, and of course arsonists. Following the fires of last week two boys, aged 11 and 15 were charged with deliberately lighting two separate fires. The largest fire of last week which destroyed 46,000 hectares started after an explosives training exercise run by the Australian Departments of Defence. Two hundred houses were destroyed in the fires of last week.
Fire is an ever present danger. Australians that live in the bush always have their bushfire survival plan close at hand. During summer the news services will announce the fire danger rating for the next day. Lighting a fire on a total fine ban day can result in jail.
Almost two thousand volunteer fire-fighters, many from different states battled the Blue Mountains fire. Most able-bodied man and many women who live in forested areas of Australia are trained volunteer fire-fighters with state-run organisations such as the Rural Fire Authority in NSW and can be called on at any time.
But perhaps we all share the blame for the increasing number of fires: climate change. Australia is the pin-up model for climate change scientists. Australia is getting hotter and drier and at the same time experiencing massive flooding. Its climate map is increasingly being taken over by red, orange and yellow zones.
In January this year the temperature reached an unprecedented 52 degrees Celsius, prompting Australia's Bureau of Meteorology to add a new colour to the top of its scale; an incandescent purple.
Most catastrophic fires historically happen in January and February, the middle to end of a hot summer. The Blue Mountains fire of last week was an October firestorm which is unheard of.
The executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, said last week the Australian fires prove the world is "already paying the price of carbon".
"The World Meteorological Organisation has not established the direct link between this wildfire and climate change yet, but what is absolutely clear is that the science is telling us there are increasing heat-waves in Asia, Europe and Australia," she told CNN.
"These [heat-waves] will continue. They will continue in their intensity and in their frequency."
The newly elected conservative Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, responded with the colloquial rebuke, “she’s talking through her hat”, which means to talk nonsense or talk about something you know nothing about.
“Fire is part of the Australian experience … it has been since humans were on this continent,” Mr Abbott said.
“Climate change is real … but these fires are certainly not a function of climate change, they are just a function of life.”
Former US vice-president and environmentalist Al Gore likened the Prime Minister’s comments to those of the tobacco industry which claimed that smoking does not cause lung cancer.
Climate change doesn’t sit high on the Australian government’s agenda. On coming to office one of its first actions was to abolish the carbon tax and the Climate Commission led by internationally renowned academic, activist and writer Professor Tim Flannery. The commission had been established to provide public information on the effects of and potential solutions to global warming.
Eucalyptus is a novel by Australian novelist Murray Bail. The book won the 1999 Miles Franklin Award and the 1999 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It tells the story of Ellen Holland, a young woman whose "speckled beauty" is legendary. Her protective father's obsession with collecting rare species of Eucalyptus trees leads him to propose a contest - the man who can correctly name all the species on his property shall win her hand in marriage.
The Gumnut Babies by Mary Gibbs is a popular old-fashioned fairy tale that follow the adventures of two Gumnut fairies Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.
Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree – children’s song
intimidating – frightening feeling that make you feel uncomfortable
rugged – not smooth or flat
haze - air that is difficult to see through because it contains very small drops of water, especially caused by hot weather
flammable – burns easily
emblematic – represents a symbol
drought resistant – able to survive longs periods without water
thrive – to continue to be strong and healthy, flourish
combustible – can burn easily
bark - the outer covering of a tree
peels off – to come off in strips or small piece; to peel an orange
streamers – long narrows pieces
trigger – make something happen quickly
casings – protective cover
gum nuts – hard woody fruit of eucalyptus trees
ash-rich ground – fertile ground after a fire
shoot – a new part of a plant
tender - fragile
gasoline - petrol
firebrands – small pieces of burning wood
droughts – extreme dry periods of no rains
heat-waves – long periods of extremely hot weather
chilling - frightening
since the dawn of time – since the beginning of time
to flush out - to force a person or an animal to leave the place where they are hiding
welding sparks – small hot metal pieces that are created when welding
arsonist – a person who commits the crime of deliberately setting fire to something