Australia has had a history of bushfires stretching back long before the English invasion. There seems to be little doubt that the fire related activities of Aborigines have had a substantial effect on local ecologies and the species that have survived and gone extinct.

This post consists of a number of fire related statements written as a prod to discussion.

General Statements:

  1. A number of factors contributed to the extent and severity of the NSW/Qld 2019 fires: These included:
  1. We don’t know to what extent the items listed above are a one off coincidence as distinct to a long term change in weather patterns.
  2. Fires and the way we manage fires and fire protection can have a marked effect on both the built and natural environment, the extinction emergency and weather patterns.
  3. Australian plants, animals and ecologies have evolved to deal with the effects of fire in various ways. At one extreme there are plants etc. that are killed by fire and others that need periodic fires to survive and compete. (Think plants that need fire for their seeds to germinate and the burning of other plants to give their seedlings fertiliser and a clear space to grow. Coastal heaths and wildflower zones often depend on periodic fires to thrive.)
  4. Some fire resistant plants have leaves etc. that burn strongly and destroy competing plants. Increasing the frequency of periodic burning to reduce the build-up of flammable material will favour these fire resistant species and may actually make fires worse.
  5. When spinifex burns it leaves the ground bare. It grows again starting with small clumps that are too small and far apart for a fire to propagate. After a number of years the clumps expand until they are close enough to propagate. Once this has happened a lightning strike or whatever can start an intense spreading fire over a large area.
  1. Some animals that live in spinifex country need amix of mature spinifex clumps that they can hide in and get out of the sun in during the day and less mature spinifex areas where they can feed at night.
  2. Firestick farming of spinifex involves lighting mature patches when the wind is blowing towards nearby immature patches that are big enough to stop the fire. The result over time is a moziac of small patches of varying maturity that provides hiding places in old spinifex close to feeding spaces in younger spinifex for the small animals that live in this type of country. Aborigines and hawks hunt some of the animals that are disturbed by the fire. (The fires may also encourage plants that Aborigines use.)
  3. The small fires associated with firestick farming make it easier for small animals to escape the fire and reach safety.
  4. Where Aborigines are no longer looking after the country older patches that have not been burnt link up. The result can be much larger fires that are harder to escape, reduce the total length of boundaries between older and newer growth and reduce the number of animals that the system supports.
  5. In some cases grazing practices rather than fire might be used to create the mosaic. Recently grazed areas will reduce fire intensity, slow down fire fronts and provide refuges for people and animals trying to escape fires.
  6. In the parts of Arnhem land that I was familiar with firestick farming takes a different form. The dry long grass from the wet season is burnt early in the dry season when the soil still contains some moisture. The moisture means that green shoots will sprout after the fire and attract animals that the Aborigines hunt. Burning is also done to make it easier to move around during the dry season. (Wading through long grass is hard work.)
  7. Mosaics are all very well but many animals need connected country to allow them to travel around to seek mates, adapt to climate change etc. Poorly designed connections may help fire travel around too. Bent shapes may reduce the risk by allowing fire to go only so far before it needs to change direction and burn into the wind.
  8. Other Aborigines will have had their versions of firestick farming and fire management. This will have affected the countryside and made changes to the species that thrive and struggle.
  9. Recovery can be rapid a few weeks after bushfires as species that benefit from fires take advantage of the circumstances that suit them.
  10. Since Aborigines arrived the world climate has changed to include periods of ice ages etc. It is not just human activity that has formed the Australian countryside.
  11. We can learn from the ways Aborigines used and looked after the land. However, keep in mind that what they did was about supporting their lifestyle and may, over time, have reduced the lands capacity to support people as well as reducing environmental variability.
  12. Fire has a role in the competition between grass and trees. Grass fires will kill young trees but not more advanced ones. Frequent grass fires favour grassland. Less frequent fires may allow the forest to take over what used to be grassland.
  13. Healthy trees pump moisture into the atmosphere continuously except under very very dry conditions. This moisture increases the chance of rain. The sucking up of this moisture can stop the level of the saline water table rising. Strategies aimed at reducing fire risk need to understand that trees are more than just fuel to fires.
  14. Some greener, lusher plants that don’t burn easily may help slow down or stop fires. (Think rain forest trees.)
  15. From a conservation point of view fire policy should aim at protecting iconic places and species as well as supporting environmental diversity and limiting the damage caused by bushfires.

What should happen now? ( Dec 2019)

  1. Continue fighting fires:
    • Look for ways of increasing the resources being used to fight this lot of fires.
    • Find the generosity to provide some compensation to volunteers who have been fighting the fires and businesses affected
  1. The size of the fires means that we are unlikely to have another big one in the areas where the fires occurred. Time to think, do the research properly and come up with good plans.
  2. The response to the Dec 2019 fires needs to consider both:
  • The overall problems of fighting such a widespread and prolonged fire emergency.
  • The whats, whys and contributing factors behind what happened locally.
  • What worked locally? Action to reduce risk, make it easier to fight fire or reduce damage.
  1. There is a real risk that post fire discussions will get bogged down into a war between those:
  • Who think it is all about climate action
  • Who want to shut down or modify national parks.
  • Want to blame the Greens etc.
  • Who see opportunities to do things like harvest more trees, get some free grazing in national parks etc.
  1. Investigation needs to get down to individual fires. Some of the causes and actions will be quite local.
  2. Questions that need to be asked include:
    • What can be done to make homes and buildings more fireproof.
    • How many lives would have been saved by better shelters?
    • How many problems related to the difficulty of getting out via long roads etc once the evacuate order was issued?
    • What do we do to increase air moisture levels? (More trees? Forests stretching from the coast? And??

Looking forward to suggestions.


  1. John, a couple of sundry points.

    You said:

    Federal government reduced labour available for preparing national parks for fire season.

    My impression is that the NSW reduced labour available, while Qld increased it. I can’t quote the exact figure, but I remember premier Palaszczuk saying that Qld had done over a million hectares of hazard burning, which was more than previous years, but not enough.

    Second point, there is an African introduced grass infesting parts of the NT that grows high and burns very hot, exterminating native species. Can’t remember the name.

    Third, I heard the academic fire expert from Tasmania, can’t recall his name, say that the time had passed where you could ring 000 during a fire alert and expect to get an answer. So you need to be prepared to make your own decisions when you evacuate.

    Nor can you expect that your house will be defended.

    Local ABC issues warnings, but only on the analogue broadcasts, which not everyone has.

    I know that you can get texted warnings about thunderstorms in Brisbane. Not sure about fires.

  2. Brian:

    Federal government reduced labour available for preparing national parks for fire season.

    I removed this statement to avoid controversy over a side issue. I don’t think more preparation would have made a lot of difference given the dryness and high temperatures over such a wide area.

  3. This is what the Greens and others had to say about the fires, hazard reduction and some of the attacks on the Greens by some politicians and commentators:
    Bushfires, Hazard Reduction and Backburning
    On hazard reduction the Greens position has long been:

    The Australian Greens support hazard reduction burns and backburning to reduce the impact of wildfire when guided by the best scientific, ecological and emergency service expertise.

    Greg Mullins, former NSW Fire & Rescue commissioner said:

    Climate change is making fires and droughts worse, with the windows for standard hazard reduction measures during winter months becoming increasingly sparse.

  4. Victorian fire chief says calls for more fuel reduction burns are an ’emotional load of rubbish ‘
    “Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has moved to shut down calls for a massive increase in fuel reduction burns, as the state’s fire chief says the debate has involved “hysteria” and an “emotional load of rubbish”.

    Key points:
    Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce and others have called for more planned burns in the wake of the bushfires
    But the Country Fire Authority’s chief officer says the “hysteria” over planned burns is “an emotional load of rubbish”
    The Premier says the window during which planned burns can be safely attempted is becoming smaller each year
    The recent bushfire crises across south-eastern Australia have prompted calls on social media and from former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce for more land to burnt off during the cooler months to reduce bushfire fuel in summer.
    Mr Joyce has attacked Greens politicians for what he says is a failure to support hazard reduction burning during winter, despite such burns being part of Greens policy.
    Some residents emerging from the East Gippsland township of Cann River, which was cut off by bushfires which have devastated the region, have today told the ABC they believe more planned burning should have been done.
    Cann River farmer Graeme Connley said residents had been given “no say” in planned burning in their area.”
    Done poorly fire reduction burning can drive extinctions and make some areas more prone to big bushfires.
    Some science and sensible discussion is required.

  5. Indigenous fire practices have been used to quell bushfires for thousands of years, experts say.
    Interesting article on how Aborigines used fire to reduce bushfire risk while supporting the environment.
    “How is it different from regular hazard reduction burns?
    According to Mr Costello, hazard reduction burns, conducted by state-based fire authorities, are generally focused on reducing fuel load or types of debris and vegetation that can feed a fire.

    A man blowing on sticks to make fire
    PHOTO: Oliver Costello said more investment was needed for cultural burning to become part mainstream fire management. (ABC News: Supplied)
    He said this approach focused on preventing property loss but could often be a “blunt instrument”.

    “It’s just so focused on fuel reduction,” he said.

    “I’ve seen a lot of hazard reduction that isn’t appropriate for that area.

    “It can be way too hot; it can scorch areas that shouldn’t be burned, [but] some isn’t too off the mark.”

    Can it be used everywhere?
    Mr Costello wants to see the practice used all over the country.

    “We want to uphold our cultural lore, we want to make our sick country healthy,” he said.

    For Mr Lapsley, who led the emergency management response after the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires, there needs to be a national uptake of these practices.”

  6. I know it’s anecdata but I’ve seen two or three reports that in areas which have been culturally burned (even in past years) structures have survived the latest fires, often to the surprise of their owners.

  7. CANT LISTEN TO THE SCIENCE CAN THEY Post-bushfire logging makes a bad situation even worse, but the industry is ignoring the science.
    Just as the trees are sprouting green shoots and the first signs of forest recovery are beginning to emerge, the forest which survived the fire is threatened by post-fire logging.
    Multiple independent, peer reviewed studies show logging forests after bushfires increases future fire risk and can render the forest uninhabitable for wildlife for decades or even centuries.
    Yet logging of burnt areas is exactly what logging industry lobbyists are pushing for right now.
    Logging industry, Nationals call for burnt timber salvage
    The Victorian timber industry is begging for timber to be salvaged from burnt East Gippsland national parks and forests.
    On January 15, the Australian Forest Products Association sent a briefing note to MPs with an “interest in forest industries” that outlined “the massive bushfire recovery harvesting operation that must occur in the coming weeks and months to recover as much of the burnt trees for timber as possible — within environmental, safety and market constraints — before they deteriorate and become unusable”.

  8. By the way, after Black Saturday serious (adverse) effects on water quality in streams and rivers in Gippsland were observed. Turbidity, ash, etc. Not sure about the chemical composition, but native fish species struggled (as recently reported in NSW streams).

    If large scale logging operations commence in burnt forests, can we anticipate MORE ash to wash into streams, along with charred soil, and increased erosion from forest tracks when heavy rains (eventually) arrive?

  9. And lots of the Black Saturday* ash found its way into our shallow, estuarine Gippsland Lakes, which have been vulnerable to (toxic) blue-green algae blooms for several decades. Generally attributed to farm fertiliser runoff, but several factors are at play.

    *several other very large bushfires have occurred in Alpine, and East Gippsland, and North-East areas in the last 15 years or so: not just those on Black Saturday.

    Lakes Entrance and Bairnsdale have faced black skies. National Parks have burned.

    But it has seemed to take an evacuation of Mallacoota to draw media attention.

    How shallow are those who employ journalists??

    BTW, parts of the report of the Royal Commission into the 1939 (Black Friday) fires, are available online. Consequences included the establishment of the Forestry Commission, and later the CFA, if I’ve read correctly.

    After Black Saturday I went looking for information about Ash Wednesday (1983) and Black Friday (1939). A fire expert had asked in about 1984 , “I wonder what the typical timescale of fuel regeneration, ready for the next disaster in Victoria, is?”
    By 2009 with Black Saturday, we had a rough estimate: about 35 years.

    (2009 – 1939)/2 = 70/2 = 35 approx.

    You can rephrase the question as: “how often will we get that fatal combination of dryness, low humidity, blazing hot days and fierce, hot winds combined with heavy fuel loads [in the forests and near roads, and near towns and houses]?”

  10. Ahh yes John. Another example of the care and respect with which Capitalism approaches the environment.
    There’s been a fire? All the trees must be dead. Forget what we said about native vegetation needing fire to regenerate, there’s a profit to be made!! All we have to do is give our mates in government a taste of the action.

  11. Too right zoot, them Marxist Countries don’t harvest trees before or after fire due to their superior environmental attitude. The science is settled.

    Well said, great point.

  12. Too right zoot, them Marxist Countries don’t harvest trees before or after fire due to their superior environmental attitude.

    Err, no.
    Countries with nominally Marxist governments generally have an appalling record when it comes to the environment. China’s air quality springs to mind.

  13. Jumpy: Yep: “The science is settled” and it says don’t log just after fires unless you hate the environment.
    Zoot: The irony in this case is that the post fire harvest will be used to make wood chips at a marginal profit (Read the article.)

  14. Well John, luckily for the Reef if you try to log now in Queensland you’ll bog your machinery, IF you can get it to site.

    Cheer up, it’s not all terrible.

  15. zoot, 8.29pm, 29th January.

    An interesting and pertinent observation, Mr z.

    Marx and Engels wanted the proletariat to become rulers, displacing the bourgeoisie, and (as I recall) believed this would happen through sheer force of numbers – because the proles would become the numerically largest class as industry expanded.

    Rule by the majority, who had been the lowest paid.

    In the Leninist tradition, this inevitable transition had to be
    1. speeded up, by
    2. revolutionary insurrection,
    3. led by the vanguard Party of the Workers (and in his case, the Peasants and Soldiers), which
    4. {ahem, what a surprise} would be led by Lenin, and would
    5. {ahem, this is where some comrades differed} establish the Dictatorship of the Proletariat {ahem, seeming to mimic the Tsarist regime in many of its features} led by the Party, which
    6. seemed to morph into the Dictatorship by the Party, led by
    7. a supreme and all-wise Leader {Dear Leader, Light of the World, Great Helmsman, faithful Fidel, Brother Number One, etc.}

    ending up with the picture painted so clearly by George Orwell in “Animal Farm” where the onlooking animals couldn’t distinguish between their Leaders and the Farmers from nearby non-revolutionary farms.

    If the People don’t have a say, the People can’t demand cleaner air, safe drinking water, national parks, etc

  16. David Lindenmayer, Professor of Ecology from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU College of Science, wrote the article John linked to.

    He also participated in an interview with Phillip Adams on Funding species survival. Apparently there have been cutbacks in funding from the Morrison ‘government’ (Liberal/National Party party with taxpayers money).

    We are currently spending about a tenth of what is needed.

  17. If I may continue my sermon….

    Those are empirical observations and judgements of events and outcomes. But Katl Marx had a good point when he wrote

    Hitherto philosophers have described the world. The point, however, is to CHANGE it!

    So, what was the wrong path taken by the Leninist Parties?
    Was it the lack of democratic accountability (“bourgeois democracy, liberal waffle, etc.”)

    Or was it Revolution itself that led almost inevitability through coup, force of arms, clandestine planning, secrecy, and the chaos of insurrection (and/or) civil war….. to a miserable outcome??

    The congregation may care to reflect.

    Rev. Ambi

  18. Rev Ambi of the high horse: “So, what was the wrong path taken by the Leninist Parties?
    Was it the lack of democratic accountability (“bourgeois democracy, liberal waffle, etc.”)
    Or was it Revolution itself that led almost inevitability through coup, force of arms, clandestine planning, secrecy, and the chaos of insurrection (and/or) civil war….. to a miserable outcome??”
    They weren’t fighting for democracy they were fighting for the dictatorship of the proletariat which morphed into a dictatorship of the leaders of the proletariat.
    Democracy done well gives a wider range of people a say and veto power. Needs complex electoral systems and robust checks and balances to protect democracy from the likes of Trump who think they should be above the checks and balances.

  19. I agree, John.

    The Bolsheviks weren’t fighting for democracy.

    But many of the Russians at that time wanted democracy, as a route to peacetime improvements of their lot.

    Lenin, Trotsky, and the top Bolshevik leadership staged a coup against the weak, vacillating war-time post-Czarist government led by Kerensky. The Bolsheviks used force of arms, and the workers’ Soviets to bolster their position after the coup.

    1917 in Petrograd was a coup, as plain as the coup staged by General Pinochet and the armed forces of Chile against the (elected) Allende Govt.

  20. Marxism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

    And individual rights and freedom and protest and property and free speech ( unless it is Marxist speech) and universal ambition pathways and popular innovation.
    It simply relies on macro economic centralised control over micro economically dispersed proletariat control.

    Which ties nicely back to the topic of the thread.
    Individuals each being allowed to mitigate bushfire risk that is site specific rather than a one size fits all “ plan “ from Canberra that’s formulated by alleged “ experts “ and bureaucrats.

    Marxist truly believe that humans are too f*****g stupid to save themselves or vote correctly.
    They are anti democratic to the core.

  21. Marxism is fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

    No it’s not. But its implementation in the real world has emulated “Animal Farm” in way too many instances, which is why nobody here has ever advocated Marxism as a political system.
    Your strawmen are a fire hazard. Please stop building them.

  22. Said the Marxist, admitted racist with no argument.
    Get back to twatter trolling dude.

    Another nothing from zoot…..

  23. I’m only a Marxist if you’re referring to Groucho (I guess you didn’t understand the joke) which you obviously weren’t, or do you have E…Vid…Ence to the contrary? It would be a revelation to me.

  24. Jumpy: If you are going to rabbit on about Marxism you need to distinguish between what Marx said as distinct from what the likes of Stalin got up to.
    Wikipedia had this to say:

    “Karl Heinrich Marx (5 May 1818 in Trier – 14 March 1883 in London) was a German political thinker who wrote about money (economics) and power (politics). Marx thought that if a place that works together runs on wage-labor, then there would always be class struggle. Marx thought that this class struggle would result in workers taking power. He believed that no one should have power over another, that everyone should be equal. His most famous book was the Communist Manifesto. He wrote it with Friedrich Engels in 1848. The book is about the ideas and aims of communism. His ideas are called Marxism.

    His most important work is Das Kapital, or The Capital. It is commonly known in English as simply ‘Capital.’ He spent many years working on the three parts of the book. Das Kapital describes how “capitalism” works and the problems this creates, such as division of labour, alienation and exploitation. The book has led to many arguments between those who agree with the book and those who do not. Marx’s ideas have been thought of as responsible for socialist revolutions (like the Russian Revolution).

    Marx’s most popular theory was “historical materialism’, arguing that history is the result of material conditions, rather than ideas. He believed that religion, morality, social structures and other things are all rooted in economics. In his later life he was more tolerant of religion.”

  25. Jumpy might be interested in Andrew West’s interview with Australian philosopher Jessica Whyte who has written a book The Morals of the Market on the origins of neoliberalism.

    Apparently it was not as individualistic as people have thought. However, it was anything but democratic. The original thinkers thought the ‘free’ markets should rule even if they had to be introduced and maintained by the authoritarian force of the state against the wishes of the people.

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