Australian Bushfires and Parks

What do we do if smoke haze becomes the new norm? (Dean Lewis)

Australian Bushfires and Parks

An article by Richard O'Byrne, World Urban Parks

Posted on 20.01.2020

I am in London, away from home in Melbourne, in order to meet a 4 day old chap called Sebastian.
Sebastian is delightful, and he and his parents are all going well.

Within 24 hours of my arrival, at least three Londoners had heard our Australian accents, and spontaneously spoke to me in emotional tones about the bushfires in Australia. One of the first questions was “Is your house safe?”. I was able to assure them that my inner urban house is 200km from the nearest fire, although from time to time smoke has made Melbourne’s air quality one of the worst in the world.

But it made me realise that some Europeans have no idea of the geographic scale of Australia, and the way fire is part of our ecology, and also how its impacts are exacerbated by climate change.

I thought I would write some notes to give non-Australians a perspective on the fires, and to discuss how the fires may provoke questions in Australia about management practices in parks close to urban areas.

The 2019/2020 fires in Australia
The current bushfire season in Australia is the worst on record. With many more months of summer ahead, it is far from over. Some of the fires in inaccessible country may run for weeks without any rain.

In summary, the impact of the fires so far (mid-January 2020) has been:

  • 16 million hectares of forest, park and farmland burnt
  • 28 people dead
  • Over 2,200 houses destroyed
  • Over a billion animals are estimated to have been killed as a result of the fires

Over 100 significant fires have occurred in all states and territories, with the exception of the Australian Capital Territory (the national capital Canberra). Some of these fires have joined to form mega-fires. And speaking of Canberra: even though there has not been a significant fire there, Canberra has the worst air quality index of any major city in the world during these current fires, coming in worse than Sarajevo in Bosnia Herzegovina, Lahore in Pakistan and Delhi in India. The air quality index has measured up to 2843. A reading 200 is considered hazardous.

The fear created by these fires in our National Parks is causing wider issues for our urban parks.

Geographic Scale

Australia is a huge country, with nearly 800 million hectares in land area (the United Kingdom is 24 million hectares, about 3% of Australia). Australia’s population of almost 25 million is heavily concentrated on the eastern seaboard (where the fires are), but is still much less densely settled than the UK and Europe.

Sydney is approximately the same area as Greater London at about 1.6 million hectares, but at 5.4 million people, only two thirds of the population.

While the area burnt to date in the current Australian fire season is a massive 16 million hectares, this is only 2% of Australia’s land area. But what is critically important is the location of the fires in relation to the farmland, forests, parks, wildlife and settlements which are threatened.

Bear in mind that the sheer size of Australia means that there are huge variations in climate and weather across the country. While recently Melbourne and Sydney have been suffering drought and 40 degree days, areas near Darwin in the north received over 500mm of rainfall in a single day.

Australian ecology

Australia is the second-driest continent (Antarctica is technically the driest). About a third of the landmass in the dry centre is regarded as desert, and a further third is semi-arid. The eastern and southeastern seaboard and the south-west corner of the country are generally wetter, more fertile, with a more temperate climate.

Figure 1: Australia’s climate regions

The land and vegetation are well adapted to bushfires. Notably most of the 700 eucalyptus species will survive bushfires, or at least readily regenerate. Other species including some orchids actually depend on fire for regeneration.

For millions of years, dry lightning strikes have regularly ignited fires, and for at least the last 60,000 years, aboriginal people have used fire to manage the landscape and wildlife. This pattern of burning was frequent, smaller, cooler fires, creating a patchwork of burnt and unburnt areas.

Our story of Australia and the way we visit and relate to our parks may be significantly different in the future. We need to develop a widely-communicated narrative to help manage the future of our parks constructively.

Unlike many of us, 4 day old Sebastian can expect to live into the twenty-second century. He will turn 80 in 2100. I wonder what sort of world he will see. I really want it to be one where he and his grandchildren can still appreciate a wonderfully diverse landscape and wildlife in Australia. We in the parks industry have a great deal to do to make that future assured.

Richard Byrne
World Urban Parks





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