Large sheets of flame spread across various areas of the Australian countryside, as what some call a “devastatingly early” season of wildfires continues to burn the land (1).
As of last week, more than 1 million hectares of land have been blackened in the country (1,2), with the state of New South Wales (NSW) experiencing the most severe fires (1,2). In this state, as of last week there have been 6 reported deaths and 720 homes lost (2), with fires raging across huge distances: “at one point firefighters were battling a fire front around 6000km long” (1).
This article will look at the wildfire situation from a permaculture perspective. While I will explore causes and possible solutions, the very real trauma experienced by the people, plants and animals affected by the fires is also important. My thoughts and feelings are with those whose homes or family members are lost; those people who are in hospital being treated for respiratory illness from excessive inhalation of smoke; those terrified animals fleeing from a seemingly endless wall of flame; and those trees burning into ashes by the thousand. As in any traumatic situation, in order to fully heal and change, it seems important to accept feelings such as loss, pain and grief in order to be able to move forwards (see for example 3,4).
Are The Wildfires Unusual?
In a country with a largely arid climate, wildfires are a common and natural occurrence; i.e. fire would probably occur without human input, and the ecosystem benefits in some way from the fire itself. For example, there are many plant species adapted to fire, and even some, such as some varieties of Eucalyptus, whose germination process is precipitated by fire (5), and the ash of burning organic matter makes for richer and more fertile soil in the wildfire’s wake (6). In The Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison pointed out that many Aboriginal tribes in Australia regularly made controlled fires in small areas as part of their agricultural management (7), and similar techniques are used by traditional societies around the world, such as ‘swaling’ in Britain (8).
But many agree that this year, there is something special about the fires. They began too early, they blaze too wildly, and they are creating too much toxic smoke.
A Burning Matter
As the Guardian, a UK newspaper, reported last month, the number of hectares burned so far in NSW alone is the third-highest in 50 years. So in terms of actual land burned, there have been two times in the past when it was more affected. However, in terms of the nature of the fire, this year can be seen to be fundamentally different; since it is not only dry brush which is burning, but also other, “wetter” forest ecosystems such as rainforest, eucalyptus forest and banana plantations. According to Ross Bradstock, director of the University of Wollagong’s Centre for Risk Management of Bushfires,
“Natural features in the landscape which often impede fires, like these wetter forest communities, are just burning. There is likely to be long-term ecological and other environmental consequences.” (1)
Factors Leading To The Wildfires
There are two factors which are in some way connected to the extent of the fires which seem to be fundamentally linked.
Part of the reason why so much “wet” forest has been burning seems to be below-average rainfall this year. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology reported large areas of the country, in particular in the Eastern states of NSW and Queensland, as experiencing “rainfall deficiency” at a “severe” or “serious” rate; with many areas within those states reported as having the “lowest rainfall on record” this year (9).
Another factor to be considered is deforestation. In NSW, around 20,200 hectares of forest were reported as being cleared for crops, pasture or thinning in the year 2016-17 (10). This was an increase of around 7000 hectares compared to the previous year (10). At the end of 2017, that state established the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Trust, apparently to “help protect and conserve our environment, plants and animals” (10). However, this law has since caused more environmental concerns (10, 11) as it allows for “greater intensity of logging, ‘including in areas that have been protected for decades’” (10).
Looking at the above factors from a holistic perspective, it seems clear that they are probably related. As rainwater harvesting expert Brad Lancaster points out, trees are one of the most important factors in helping to create and regulate rainfall, as the small dust particles released from trees into the air are what eventually fall as raindrops (12). This is one reason why rainfall in the treeless desert is so sparse and why it is so regular in tropical forests – otherwise known as rain-forests.
Therefore if we wish there to be enough rain to mitigate the destructive aspects of wildfires, it seems essential that we also allow there to be enough trees to regulate this rainfall.
Less Trees = More Fire
This is not a problem isolated to Australia. As I reported on this website earlier this year (13), the annual rise of wildfire destruction in parts of South-East Asia, and the resultant smoke-filled air known as “seasonal haze”, is in part exacerbated by excessive land-clearing in those countries, which means that the ecosystem is already unstable and liable to erosion and drought even before the fires begin (for more on this see my article 13).
Water is a precious resource everywhere but especially in Australia, where there is often so little of it around, it can be seen to require careful conservation.
This need was seemingly recognised by the national government, when, following the so-called “Millennium Drought” (14), a law known as the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was introduced in 2012 (15). The Murray-Darling Basin is a river basin stretching across 2500 kilometres in most of NSW and parts of Queensland and South Australia (14). The Plan’s aim was to balance the water table somewhat with the aim to “remove 2,750 gigalitres of water from irrigated agriculture, and return that to the river system.” (14)
From a permaculture perspective this aim seems to be very positive for long-term regeneration of the ecosystem in the Basin. However, many see the Plan as having directly contributed to wildfire destruction of their land or homes, with around 2,000 people reported as having converged on Canberra this month urging the government to “Can the Plan” (16).
The protest seems to show the lack of integrated systems thinking going on. If alternative irrigation or water-harvesting methods were offered along with the plan, those farmers currently seeing a lack of water would probably be feeling abundant instead.
Top Down or Bottom Up?
There are many ways in which state intervention could help with the wildfire situation. In terms of dealing with the fires as they happen, having a state-funded, organised fire service could be very helpful. Other solutions which would be made easier by government support could be tighter restrictions or even prohibition of logging and deforestation in Australia, and state-supported water-harvesting education and equipment.
However, as in permaculture we like “Small and Slow Solutions” we have to also remember that even without government support, we can help ourselves and our communities. Perhaps the government in our local area is not supporting tree-planting, but we can re-wild our own land. Even if we do not “own” land, we can be a part of community tree-planting initiatives (see for example 17). There are lot of permaculture resources for Disaster Management, including those which provide information on specific plant species which can be integrated into a system in order to act as firebreaks (7, 18).
Acceptance And Adaptation
We can begin to put into action these and many other small solutions while allowing time for healing to happen. There appears little doubt that we are currently in an era of extreme and unpredictable meteorological occurrences. While it is sometimes helpful to try to find the reasons behind climate change, what seems more important is to be able to adapt to whatever changes are occurring, as and when they do. In order to do this effectively we need flexible and resilient systems in place, both physically on the land and within our own minds.
The wildfires are a very clear reminder that impermanence is a part of life. If we can accept the destruction and move on, there could also be a great opportunity for transformation and the birth of new life from the ashes.
1. Morton, A; Evershed, N; Readfearn, G, 2019. “Australia bushfires factcheck: are this year’s fires unprecedented?” Guardian, 22/1/19. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/nov/22/australia-bushfires-factcheck-are-this-years-fires-unprecedented
2. Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/19. “More than 720 homes lost in NSW fires as Sydney told to brace for huge losses”. https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/more-than-720-homes-lost-in-nsw-fires-as-sydney-told-to-brace-for-huge-losses-20191211-p53iv5.html
5. World Atlas, 2019. “What are the adaptations of pyrophytic plants?” https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-are-the-adaptations-of-pyrophytes-or-fire-resistant-plants.html
6. Dove, LL, 2019. “How does a forest fire benefit living things?” How Stuff Works, 2019. https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/how-forest-fire-benefit-living-things-2.htm
8. Exmoor National Park, 2019. “Swaling”. https://www.exmoor-nationalpark.gov.uk/living-and-working/info-for-farmers-and-land-managers/swaling
9. Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2019. “Drought: Rainfall deficiencies and water availability”. http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/drought/#tabs=Drought
10. Cox, L, 2019. “Land clearing up more than 50% in NSW even before new laws introduced”. Guardian, 3/6/19. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jun/03/land-clearing-up-more-than-50-in-nsw-even-before-new-laws-introduced
11. Cool Australia, 2019. “Forest Fact Sheet”. https://www.coolaustralia.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Forests-fact-sheet1.pdf
13. Ashwanden, C, 2019. “Hazy Suggestions”. Permaculture News, 10/6/19. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2019/06/10/hazy-suggestions/
14. Australian Government, 2017 [archived]. “Natural Disasters in Australia”. https://web.archive.org/web/20171112120245/http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/natural-disasters
15. Vidot, A; Jasper, C, 2019. “What is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and why are we still talking about it?” ABC News, 18/1/19. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-11-21/what-is-the-murray-darling-basin-plan/8043180
16. Sullivan, K, 2019. “’Can the Plan’ convoy heads to Canberra calling for end to Murray-Darling Basin Plan”. ABC News, 2/12/19. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-02/can-the-plan-convoy-converges-on-canberra/11751398
17. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2019. “The Value of Community Orchards”. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/frut-tree-grafting/