Australia is a fire continent. Imagine California on the scale of the 48 contiguous states, but drier, more routinely kindled, and with winds that can transform the southeastern quadrant into a veritable fire flume. From time to time, more often than most places, its simmering fires boil over into seeming tsunamis of flame. It even boasts, in eagles and hawks, the only other species outside of humanity known to carry a firebrand.
What makes Australia a firepower, however, is that it has a culture to match. It has institutions to study, fight, and light fire. It has a literature of fire, a folklore of fire, and a fire art that is continuous from Aboriginal bark paintings to modernist musings. It has special bushfire collections at the National Museum of Australia and Museums Victoria. It has a fire politics; on three occasions conflagrations have sparked royal commissions, and from 2009-2017, 51 official inquiries.
Bushfires have never been far from Australian consciousness because flame and smoke are never far from quotidian life, whether Outback stations or the city-states that demark European settlement. That so much of Australia's firefighting capacity depends on volunteer brigades keeps the social connection especially close. Other countries, other continents, have abundant fire, a few have a fire science, and some display patches of fire art. Hardly a handful have them all, and perhaps none in anything with the range and cultural depth of Australia.
With European settlement the worst fires acquired names and became historical milestones. Red Tuesday (1898), Ash Wednesday (1983), and Black everything else. The Black Saturday holocaust of 2009 completed that calendar. It was not enough: there are scores of others, some nationally significant, many of regional memory, from the Dwellingup fires (1961) and the Black Christmas fires (2001) to the Alpine fires (2003) and now the yet-unnamed megafires of 2019-2020. Call them the Forever fires, for they seem inextinguishable, burning with implacable insistence and smoke palls that extend their reach far beyond the flames' grasp.
Australia and bushfire are old acquaintances. But the past 20 years feel different. The bad fires are more frequent, more eruptive, and more damaging. The Black Saturday fires struck with the cultural force of a terrorist attack that seemed to question the very premises of a first-world society on a land capable of such fury. The Forever bushfires deepen that query. Those two events are geodetic markers by which to triangulate the future of Australian fire.
But there are two other fires that provide a wider panorama. One is overt, the fires that burn living landscapes, the bush. The other fire is covert because it burns lithic landscapes. These are once-living, now-fossilized biomass like coal and gas that we combust to power our industrial economies.
Those two fire realms are interacting in ways that are proving ever more entwined and threatening. That so many of the Black Saturday (and California) fires started from powerlines is an apt metaphor for the way the two realms of fire can interact. The knock-on effects are not restricted to global warming or ocean acidification. They affect how people organize landscapes – their agriculture, nature reserves, transportation grids - all aspects of geography that influence the character of bushfires.
Initially, the two fires compete, as industrial societies try to abolish fire in the bush as they do in the built environment. Sixty years ago, as the consequences of that experiment became apparent, American critics forecast a ruinous fire future and inspired a revolution in federal fire policy to restore good fire and so dampen bad ones. This was underway before climate change acted as a performance enhancer. The pervasive effects of a fossil-fuel economy were enough. Now, it's payback time. Instead of competing, the two fires are colluding. We have been burning our combustion candle at both ends.
Australia's predisposition to fire makes it an early flash point for what we might aptly term the Pyrocene. But many of the same phenomena are appearing in America – unstoppable fires, fire deaths and fire refugees, smoked-in and incinerated cities, damaged watersheds and postburn floods, economic crunches from lost tourism, bankrupt utilities, and snakebit insurance companies. Wildfires moving from exurban fringes to city cores. Extended states of emergency. Prolonged and painful cleanups. Political anger.
Those locales that have a history of fire will exhibit the most flame, but the combustion miasma will seep into sites seemingly immune. Paradoxically, places like California long frequented by fire are better prepared to cope with the coming crises. Those like Gatlinburg, Tennessee not accustomed to conflagrations lack institutions and infrastructure and will struggle.
Even if fossil fuels ceased overnight, greenhouse gases will take a good while to work their way out of the atmosphere, so the climatic effects will linger. This puts the immediate focus on coping with landscape fires. There is plenty to do – harden communities, get more good fire into the countryside, design to accept that landscape fire is not a freak apparition from the fringe but an informing fact of modern life. Wild, feral, or prescribed, there is much more fire to come. Another paradox – we can expect a lot in the coming years – is that the more we stop burning lithic landscapes the more we will need to burn living ones.
These are the two fires that are triangulating the deep drivers of combustion not just for Australia but for the Earth. Add the impacts together and it would appear that we are creating the fire equivalent of an ice age. The Forever fires will stop at the Pacific shores. The Pyrocene will persist long into the future.