Society

Environment

Black Summer at Currowan
Lessons from Australia’s worst bushfires

Photograph by Bronwyn Adcock

Before the final flames were even out, in late January 2020, the premier of New South Wales called an independent inquiry into the bushfire season. The prime minister followed three weeks later, announcing a royal commission. Both leaders insisted on speed, giving reporting deadlines of just six months.

Such short timeframes were almost unheard of for such an enormous task. The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission into Black Saturday, the examination of a single day, lasted eighteen months. The rationale for this urgency was that both governments wanted final reports quickly so that practical action could be taken before the next bushfire season arrived. But beating the next fire season in any meaningful way was an impossible task. As one of the very first witnesses to appear before the royal commission – a scientist from the Bureau of Meteorology – explained, fire seasons in eastern Australia run for four months longer than they did in the 1950s, now beginning towards the end of winter. Even the quickest of actions would have us chasing our tails.

To expedite the NSW Bushfire Inquiry, Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared it necessary to hold it behind closed doors. “If you were to hold public hearings, that could be in the thousands of people who want to speak,” she said. True, perhaps; but what a dreadful state to find ourselves in – too many victims to be heard.

Not that anyone was in any doubt, but the final reports of both inquiries confirmed that what had happened was entirely beyond the realm of anything seen before. “The 2019–20 bush­fire season was extreme, and extremely unusual,” found the New South Wales inquiry. “It showed us bushfires through forested regions on a scale that we have not seen in Australia in recorded history, and fire behaviour that took even experienced firefighters by surprise.”

Fire disregarded all the rulebooks: spreading quickly at night, advancing into the wind, spawning spot fires up to eight kilometres ahead of the fire front. The royal commission heard evidence that there were more fire-generated thunderstorms this season – the pyrocumulonimbus events – than the total number recorded over the past three decades. Fire ecologist Professor David Bowman told the hearings this was “truly extraordinary, because what we would call statistically a black swan event, we saw a flock of black swans. That just shouldn’t have happened.”

Both inquiries concluded that a combination of factors laid the groundwork for this extreme season. The year 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record; the eastern seaboard was already in drought, coming off several decades of rainfall deficiencies; the positive Indian Ocean Dipole and negative Southern Annular Mode events supercharged the heat and drought; and there were frequent and consecutive days of record-breaking extreme fire weather – December was the most dangerous month for fire since records began in the 1950s.

Both inquiries also accepted unequivocally that these condi­tions are linked to a changing climate, caused by an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions. This “clearly played a role in the con­ditions that led up to the fires and in the unrelenting conditions that supported the fires to spread”, found the NSW Bushfire Inquiry. While climate change doesn’t explain everything, it stated, the conditions being seen over southeast Australia “are consistent with what climate change projections have been saying will happen”.

currowan cover

The royal commission – which examined all kinds of natural disasters, not only bushfires – found that “extreme weather has already become more frequent and intense because of climate change”, and this trend will continue. Not only will we see more extreme natural disasters more often, the royal commission said, but the nature of these events will become more complex and harder to predict, with different types of disasters potentially occurring at the same time. “Compound disasters may be caused by multiple disasters happening simultaneously, or one after another. Some may involve multiple hazards – fires, floods and storms. Some have cascading effects – threatening not only lives and homes, but also the nation’s economy, critical infrastructure and essential services, such as our electricity, telecommunications and water supply, and our roads, railways and airports.”

As profoundly shocking as the fire season of 2019–20 was, we are likely to see much worse.

Neither inquiry pursued accountability for decisions made by government and firefighting agencies in the lead-up to the fires or while they were underway. The royal commission’s final report said, “We took a deliberate decision not to find fault, ‘point fingers’ or attribute blame.” Both reports were instead framed as lessons learned for next time.

The NSW Bushfire Inquiry did address the question – widely asked by terrified Australians as the fires raged – of whether we prepared adequately for this season, including whether we had enough resources. In its findings it absolved decision-makers of any failures in planning. “The Inquiry found that NSW was well prepared for a ‘normal’ fire season, but the extreme nature of the 2019–20 season stretched resources across the State,” the final report said. Yet this seems to be sidestepping the central issue – if all indications were that it was always likely be an extreme fire season, what was the sense in preparing for a “normal” season?

According to the inquiry, the problem was not a lack of resources but one of extreme fires. “While fire fighting agencies were well prepared and resourced, as the Inquiry heard many times, ‘all the fire fighters in Australia’ couldn’t have stopped some of the fires in the 2019–20 season due to their frequency, size, speed and ferocity,” it said. Again, this seems a too-easy explanation. While it is indisputable that some of the most ferocious fire runs of the season were beyond any human intervention once they got going, and the dryness of the landscape combined with extreme weather meant a major fire season was inevitable, this doesn’t mean we couldn’t have mitigated the destruction with greater resources. Even just a small amount of extra aerial resources – a helicopter to stop a new spot fire becoming a problem for another day, another line-scan plane so residents could be warned a fire was coming, an extra Large Air Tanker to lay down a line of retardant before fire barrelled into an undefended village – could have made a profound difference for many people and their homes. It’s hard to see the federal government’s fiddling over the ordering of more planes – both in the lead-up to the season and while the country burned – as anything but colossal negligence.

Between them, the two inquiries handed down 156 recommen­dations – a vast range of actions the country needs to undertake so we’re better equipped next time. As the head of the national research centre into bushfires, Dr Richard Thornton, told the NSW Bushfire Inquiry, “To pursue the same path is tacitly to say that there is an acceptable number of deaths, injuries and property losses from bush fires in Australia each year.”

The NSW Bushfire Inquiry identified a clear pattern to the largest and most damaging fires of the season – one shared by the Currowan fire. Started by lightning in remote forests, they were not tackled early while they were still small, and quickly grew to a size where they were uncontainable.

Lightning sparked nearly 80 per cent of the most significant fires in the state – those responsible for the majority of loss of life, homes and land. By contrast, fires with anthropogenic igni­tion sources – a human element – contributed to only 6 per cent of houses lost. Why lightning was such a dominant source of ignition requires further study, but what is known is that over the past forty years in south-eastern Australia, there has been a trend towards “dry” lightning conditions: thunderstorms without rain. Meteorologists think this could be an explanation for what happened; it wasn’t that there were more storms than usual, just that they came without rainfall. Because the landscape was so dry, these strikes “caught” easily and fire spread quickly.

The fact that lightning started the vast majority of fires is also interesting in light of comments made by some members of the federal government. During the bushfire crisis, a number appeared in the media promoting the idea that arson was to blame for what was happening. Even the prime minister, at an event for the Australian and New Zealand Cricket teams on the lawns of Kirribilli House on 1 January – just hours after the South Coast was ravaged by two lightning-ignited fires – chose his words carefully to leave open this possibility. “But the fires do rage on … Whether they’re started by lightning storms or whatever the cause may be … it is something that will happen against the backdrop of this Test match,” he said. This attempt to switch the focus from the state of our environment to bad guys with matches can be seen for what it is: a diversion. The last gasps of the climate change wars.

Many of these lightning-ignited fires across the state were not spotted until they were well underway. When I tracked back to the birth of the Currowan fire, I was struck by the blind spot – the fork of lightning responsible for the fire came down around midnight, yet no one saw a thing until nearly fourteen hours later, when it had transformed into an out-of-control bush­fire that was chasing the loggers from the forest. It’s not possible to know exactly what time the fire escaped from the smouldering tree, but when it was nipping at Dave Howes’ heels it had grown to a size of around 12 square kilometres and travelled nearly five kilometres from the point of ignition. The advent of the fire seemed like an accident waiting to happen: a dry lightning storm hitting desiccated forests. Staff from Forestry Corporation were aware of the risk, which is why they were driving around the forests hunting for signs of fire, but a couple of pairs of eyes on the ground were not enough.

Remote sensing technology – sensors attached to drones, balloons, aircraft and satellites, to detect fires in real time – could have led to this fire, and many others, being spotted earlier. The NSW Bushfire Inquiry found that while the RFS does use remote sensing technology – for example, the line-scan planes that fly over a known fire – “several of the remote sensing agencies and companies it consulted were surprised that more sophisticated data fusion and automatic decision-making tools were not avail­able”. In Australia, both the public and the private sector has been pioneering this kind of technology for decades; it just hasn’t been widely harnessed to fight bushfires. The inquiry stated in its rec­ommendations, “Automatic sensing of fire for big fire-risk seasons could, and must, be much better, especially given Australia’s strong capabilities in the field.”

I had many what ifs about the journey of the Currowan fire – points in time where I wondered if the trajectory could have been changed. One related to these earliest hours: if it had been spotted earlier, for example by drone or satellite, could it have been stopped?

Probably not, I have since learned. This is because unlike other fire-prone countries – notably Canada and parts of Europe – Aus­tralia doesn’t have the systems or resources in place to aggressively attack remote forest fires as soon as they start. In these jurisdic­tions, what’s called rapid initial attack is the norm – specialised aircraft fly in to water-bomb the fire as soon as it is detected, followed up by remote-area firefighters who are winched in by helicopter with tools such as rakes and shovels to extinguish what’s left of the fire.

Research shows that upfront investment in rapid initial attack increases the likelihood a fire will be controlled sooner, a smaller area will be burnt, and money – potentially millions of dollars, in the long run – will be saved. Over recent years, firefighting agencies in both Victoria and South Australia have introduced protocols to encourage the rapid initial aerial attack of fires in high-risk areas. At the time of the 2019–20 season, New South Wales had no such protocol in place. The NSW Bushfire Inquiry heard evidence that some incident controllers recognised midway through the season the strategic flaw in not tackling new ignitions early. It was creating a snowball effect, where an unchallenged forest fire would escape and enter populated areas, requiring a heavy investment in resources, which meant there were not enough resources left to deal with the next remote-area fire, allowing it to grow until it too threatened homes.

Attempts to change course, though, were hampered by a lack of access to the specific kind of aircraft used elsewhere to launch these aggressive first attacks. Australia doesn’t own any. A fleet of these amphibious water-scooping planes were belatedly ordered from Canada in mid-December 2019 after our prime minister announced his one-off cash injection for aerial firefighting, but this was the order that couldn’t be filled because the fleet was grounded by icy conditions. One of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry’s recommendations was that the RFS trial this initial aerial-dispatch model and identify the best and most cost-effective mix of aircraft.

The state did use remote-area firefighters during the season. The RFS has a program it runs with National Parks in which specially trained firefighters are deployed by helicopter into inac­cessible locations. Among the successes was the saving of a grove of endangered Wollemi pines deep in the Blue Mountains. But sometimes the fire was too extreme to send anyone in, and there were only two helicopters configured for this task.

Evidence given to the royal commission also highlighted a perverse disincentive for state firefighting agencies to water-bomb remote area fires aggressively while they are still small. Federal funding to the states only kicks in once there is an imminent risk to lives and property. This means that if a fire service wants to use aircraft to attack a small fire in a remote area to stop it becoming a megablaze, they’ll wear the entire cost themselves – but if the fire escapes and approaches homes, the Commonwealth will pay up to 75 per cent of the costs.

A common perception I heard from many on the South Coast – especially the farmers and bushies who watched the Currowan fire spread – was that fire authorities were “just letting it go”. In some ways, I think they were correct. Not in any conspiratorial sense that the fire was deliberately allowed to grow, but in the sense that the country wasn’t really equipped to do anything but let it go.

This is an extract from Currowan by Bronwyn Adcock, published by Black Inc.

Bronwyn Adcock

Bronwyn Adcock is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Griffith Review and The Saturday Paper and on the ABC.

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