Bushfires sear the need for change into nation’s consciousness

Ian Bushnell21 January 2020
2003 Canberra Bushfires

Canberra, 2003. A pivotal time for the national capital. Photo: File.

We have just passed another bushfire milestone in the ACT. It’s 17 years since that fateful January day in 2003 when the unthinkable happened and 500 homes and four people perished in the flames that roared down from the mountains.

Many still live with the trauma of that day and the beat of a helicopter or a whiff of smoke can be all it takes to trigger it.

It also is fair to say that there is now pre-fire Canberra and the much-changed post-fire Territory we have today, flowing from the coronial inquiry that followed.

From bushfire zones to fire resilient architecture to pro-active fire strategies and better communications between emergency services, the ACT is much better prepared for another threat to our urban edge.

Little did we know that the 2003 conflagration was just a harbinger of what was to come. First Black Saturday in Victoria, and now the longest, most widespread bushfire season in the nation’s history, fed by drought, record temperatures and persistent hot, dry winds.

Like 2003, this season is a marker for the nation, and climate change is on all but the most recalcitrant denialist lips.

The science told us it would get hotter and drier, and bushfire seasons would get longer and more intense, and they did.

Now the talk is of adaptation and mitigation, with Federal Science Minister Karen Andrews saying the time for debate about whether climate change is real or not is over.

It’s a pity her Prime Minister, when Treasurer in 2017, cut funding for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, and there remain lingering doubts the government will be keen to focus on “practical” measures that neglect the overall context of global warming and the need to eventually cut greenhouse gas emission to zero if the world’s climate is to stabilise.

Or worse, pander to sectional interests calling for more logging, land clearing and dams.

Whatever happens, things will need to change and many probably do not realise the scale of that change Australians are facing goes beyond bushfires.

But that’s where it will start.

For those who say we will recover and rebuild, the first thing to accept is that some may not be allowed to return to where their homes once stood, or at least be allowed to rebuild as they once had lived.

The tree change culture has been incinerated along with its properties, and councils, banks and insurance companies will be making new risk assessments about housing developments, where people seek to live, and how they should build.

For many it will simply be too costly to rebuild under a new regime demanding higher insurance premiums and fire-resilient building materials and designs.

Solar farm

The future: a large-scale solar farm. Photo: Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

It is likely firefighting will move from a mostly voluntary activity to a more costly, professional set-up backed by the military and more hardware such as the air tankers the Prime Minister belatedly ordered.

There will be more hazard reduction of one sort or another, hopefully including Indigenous practices, to keep fuel loads down, and village and even town perimeters may never be the same.

The huge clouds of smoke choking settlements from villages to major cities mean measures to safeguard health and property will also be required.

But the fires are just the manifestation of the changing climate and the resultant heat waves are themselves a major health hazard. Along with the smoke, it means major populations a long way from a fire front will need protection through upgrades to our housing stock so homes can be kept cool, ventilated and sealed.

The big one, of course, is climate change, or global heating as many are now calling it, and adaptation without tackling the core issue would be utterly dishonest.

For Scott Morrison to say he accepts the science and emission reduction is part of the government’s plans may be technically correct but his stubborn refusal to budge on targets and policies to increase emission cuts, such as putting a price on carbon, when scientists say time is running out to rein in the climate is simply negligent.

As the ACT is showing, government action can make a difference and provide leadership to accelerate the shift to a green economy and transition away from fossil fuels, including assisting those affected by the change, such as coal miners.

The money is moving there but without policy leadership the shift can be stalled, as shown by a 56 per cent fall in large-scale clean energy projects in Australia last year, the lowest level since 2016, according to Bloomberg.

Not only does the government have a responsibility to cut emissions and be an example to the rest of the world, it is crucial that it position Australia for the post-carbon economy, which offers great opportunities to a country blessed with a bounty of sunlight, wind, education, technology and, yes, minerals.

The prescient Ross Garnaut’s new book Superpower sets out is a path forward for the new economy, and he is but one of many with a similar vision.

Let this awful fire season be a line in the ash, marking the point where Australia decided it could and would make a difference, and secure its future in the process.

Original Article published by Ian Bushnell on The RiotACT.

What's Your Opinion?

32 Responses to Bushfires sear the need for change into nation’s consciousness

Lisa Ashurst Lisa Ashurst 4:45 pm 22 Jan 20

Except that 84% of these fires were deliberately lit...don't think that can equate with climate change

Doc Crock Doc Crock 6:16 pm 21 Jan 20


Andrew Bradley Andrew Bradley 10:55 am 21 Jan 20

When our governments talk about our emissions and the targets being met I believe it's time to include the C02 emitted by fires as well. If this was done I'm sure we would fall well short. It's the responsibility of the authorities to reduce emissions right across the board. To take full responsibility.

    Lisa Kremmer White Lisa Kremmer White 10:59 am 21 Jan 20

    Andrew Bradley I wonder if that would shock them into action? Possibly but probably not.

Karin I'Anson Karin I'Anson 9:24 am 21 Jan 20

Excellent article .

My fear is the Gov will try to continue with the slight of hand , they have started . To mouth the rhetoric of believing in climate change ; whilst ignoring the structural economic and climate change strategies we need to address the issues into the future .

Angus Moody Angus Moody 9:16 am 21 Jan 20

Whilst I am sorry for the many people who have incurred losses during the fires, the blame lies squarely at past Labor Governments, especially the Bob Carr Labor Government.

It was Bob Carr who closed the National Parks and refused to allow any clearing of the excess growth.

This just added fuel to the fire that was already toxic.

As for these people who are crying out about ‘climate change’, get over it. It’s a non-issue and remains a non-issue.

And to those people, I had to stand outside for hours at a time in 40 degree temperatures, combined with dense smoke.

Lastly, may I urge everybody to please give to your local RFS.

    Phen Jones Phen Jones 9:54 am 21 Jan 20

    Bob Carr was last in government 15 years ago!! It is actually your beloved LNP that have cut firefighting budgets by 74% and reduced the number of Fire Risk Managers in NP's from 34 to just 10 for the entire country!!! A decade of such devastating cuts by the LNP have removed adequate resources for fire management right across the country. Additionally, the impacts of climate change has reduce burn windows and limited the degree of risk reduction. Stick to the facts not your party line.

    Matt Neenan Matt Neenan 10:31 am 21 Jan 20

    Angus Moody thanks for clearing that up. Not. Climate change is the issue. It will get worse and i hope you live long enough to regret your current position

Dave Stewart Dave Stewart 9:08 am 21 Jan 20

To whom it may concern, especially those interested in #C02.

Over time, decaying leaves release carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In fact, the natural decay of organic carbon contributes more than 90 percent of the yearly carbon dioxide released into Earth's atmosphere and oceans.

    Phen Jones Phen Jones 9:43 am 21 Jan 20

    You clearly do not understand the Carbon cycle, the problem arises from excess CO2 released from outside of the natural carbon cycle – by burning fossil fuels. Although our output of 29 gigatons of CO2 is tiny compared to the 750 gigatons moving through the carbon cycle each year, it adds up because the land and ocean can not absorb all of the extra CO2. Fortunatly about 40% of this additional CO2 is absorbed (into the oceans and biomass). The rest however remains in the atmosphere, and as a consequence, atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in 15 to 20 million years . A natural change of 100ppm normally takes 5,000 to 20,000 years. The recent increase of 100ppm has taken just 120 years.

    Matt Neenan Matt Neenan 10:30 am 21 Jan 20

    Ignorance is bliss for some.

    Dave Stewart Dave Stewart 11:15 am 21 Jan 20

    Steve Jackson You are saying C02 stays permanently in the atmosphere.?

    Dave Stewart Dave Stewart 11:16 am 21 Jan 20

    Steve Jackson Link me directly to your information and that scientist.

    Phen Jones Phen Jones 2:38 pm 21 Jan 20

    Dave Stewart As I said, and your question confirms this, you do not understand the basic fundamentals of the Carbon Cycle (nor other basic scientific principles it would seem). There is always CO2 in the atmosphere, but the degree and rate of CO2 level increase is accelerating at an alarming rate. This increased degree and rate is induced by human activities. As I have already pointed out, atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in 15 to 20 million years. A natural change of 100ppm normally takes 5,000 to 20,000 years. The recent increase of 100ppm has taken just 120 years. I am not interested in providing 'links' for climate skeptics as it is pointless to provide science to those that do not have an understanding of its basic principles, quite frankly I have more productive uses of my time. Suffice to say, you clearly use regular google and popular press to attain information, perhaps try Google Scholar instead.

Mary Grealy Mary Grealy 9:03 am 21 Jan 20

Yes, yes and yes. I worked in the Department of Environment when it had "climate change" attached to the departmental title - great innovative projects and common sense advice to government - all axed but the Liberal National Party - all that thinking and knowledge is still available - not to mention all the great academic studies and practical innovation from business and industry worldwide. We did have a great renewable energy fund as well - gutted now but still doable with the right leadership. We may feel like we are on our knees but we must be buoyed by the knowledge that we can do this - we were heading in the right direction before all this became too political and leadership stopped leading us through the realities of climate change!

    Lisa Kremmer White Lisa Kremmer White 10:58 am 21 Jan 20

    Mary Grealy thank you. We need, now more than ever, to believe we can make a difference and to have hope that it will happen.

Neale Oxley Neale Oxley 9:00 am 21 Jan 20

Was Scummo outside in Canberra yesterday? Just thought his upstairs boss was sending him a message. Hail Cesar!

Neale Oxley Neale Oxley 8:57 am 21 Jan 20


Ah, Australia...

The devil wanted a place on earth

Sort of a summer home

A place to spend his vacation

Whenever he wanted to roam.

So he picked out Australia

A place both wretched and rough

Where the climate was to his liking

And the cowboys hardened and tough.

He dried up the streams in the canyons

And ordered no rain to fall

He dried up the lakes in the valleys

Then baked and scorched it all.

Then over his barren country

He transplanted shrubs from hell.

The cactus, thistle and prickly pear

The climate suited them well.

Now the home was much to his liking

But animal life, he had none.

So he created crawling creatures

That all mankind would shun.

First he made the redbelly

With it's forked poisonous tongue.

Taught it to strike and rattle

And how to swallow it's young.

Then he made scorpions and lizards

And the ugly old horned toad.

He placed spiders of every description

Under rocks by the side of the road.

Then he ordered the sun to shine hotter,

Hotter and hotter still.

Until even the cactus wilted

And the old horned lizard took ill.

Then he gazed on his earthly kingdom

As any creator would

He chuckled a little up his sleeve

And admitted that it was good.

Twas summer now and Satan lay

By a prickly pear to rest.

The sweat rolled off his swarthy brow

So he took off his coat and vest.

"By Golly, " he finally panted,

"I did my job too well,

I'm going back to where I came from,

Australia is hotter than Hell....

Lisa Kremmer White Lisa Kremmer White 8:20 am 21 Jan 20

Exactly. We must prepare for the worst, but we must also act to avoid the worst. We cannot do one without the other. Sadly, I don’t trust the LNP government to take real action on climate change.

    Julia Walsh Julia Walsh 8:27 am 21 Jan 20

    Smirko is claiming our emissions are coming down yet he does not account for the fires which will not be balanced by regrowth due to the drought and groundwater depletion

    Mary Grealy Mary Grealy 8:57 am 21 Jan 20

    Julia Walsh yes exactly - the fires are a symptom of a much greater problem we can't deny any longer!

    Karin I'Anson Karin I'Anson 9:12 am 21 Jan 20

    Totally agree

Melanie Rogers Melanie Rogers 8:11 am 21 Jan 20

Its complicated. The threat is great and this is only a lull. The talk of recovery is needed for some but not at the expense of resources leaving areas still under threat. When this started for us no one was here, it took 4 Jan and loss of life for resources to arrive and Australia to wake up. Please dont be complacent.

Vivian Harris Vivian Harris 7:56 am 21 Jan 20

Thank you Ian for a great article

Gina Woodward Gina Woodward 7:30 am 21 Jan 20

After??? We’re still in it and will be for months... bushfire season isn’t over 😓

    Joe Stephens Joe Stephens 8:19 am 21 Jan 20

    Gina Woodward in Far East Gippsland the bushfire season is largely over because there is little left to burn.

    Gina Woodward Gina Woodward 8:21 am 21 Jan 20

    Joe Stephens not lucky them given what has happened, but it’s only one area. We were told by our RFS that the fire here will burn for at least another month... and there are many areas still that may cop it as the season moves south...

Jenny Drenkhahn Jenny Drenkhahn 7:22 am 21 Jan 20

do you really think we are yet "after" this bush fire season?

    Valeria Molony Valeria Molony 7:32 am 21 Jan 20

    Jenny Drenkhahn you are right. The fires are still burning and all you need is a hot day with winds and it starts again. We didn't have enough rain to stop it.

    Bron Lee Bron Lee 7:47 am 21 Jan 20

    Even if they stop its time to prepare for the next season. This was just a practise run with live ammunition. So many lessons and we really need to have a deep understanding of the science this time. The winds are more erratic and destructive. There's reason why we dont have just bushfires now. We have crown spreading firestorms that dont descriminate about what's on the ground. We cant even call them by a week day name. They go for months all over. Why is that? Look beyond the 'fuel load' arguments and we might actually learn enough about the other causes to get somewhere.

    I am intrigued by what the scienctists are uncovering and I'm encouraged by the fire authorities listening to them. There are still so many things we need to piece together in order to come up with effective strategies. There will be a next time and they will come more frequently even over what was recently burnt. Evidence is a powerful thing so gather as much as you can. Your stories help with that.

    Bron Lee Bron Lee 7:56 am 21 Jan 20

    Valeria Molony actually not even hot days. The earliest bushfires this year started in July. Were off in August and spreading in September. Some from reduction burns gone wrong or smouldering roots igniting trees weeks later Most from lightening and a handful from arsonists. The wind and the dryness of the forest the biggest factors. I'm keen on learning more about the wind. Its what stands out in all the stories. What is making the wind stronger and more eratic? There are theories and it has little to do with fuel loads. Think of what you have to do to a campfire to get it taking off. You already have the dry twigs, leaves but it doesn't take off. What do you do next? Dont say pour metho onto it. That's cheating. You supply oxygen by doing what exactly to the campfire? To me there is a clue. We are enabling oxygen to do its work by.......?????

    Angela George Angela George 8:55 am 21 Jan 20

    Jenny Drenkhahn frightening to think that there’s a contention that this bushfire season is over when there’s still fires burning and just waiting in the wings to take off again given the right (or perhaps that should be wrong?) conditions. I hope this doesn’t indicate a rush to forget the lessons again that we should never have forgotten in the first place...