Last summer’s fires burnt through communities right along the east coast of Australia and across large sections of the High Country. The sheer scale and ferocity of the firestorms made many individual fires unfightable. Many covered long distances in short periods of time, racing across the country. In some instances, like at Mallacoota in Victoria’s far east, they literally pushed communities to the beaches and into the water.

The fact is that these are the fires of the ‘present future’ – the climate change fuelled era that we are already passing into. This means ever worse fire seasons which, in turns means greater impacts on the people, businesses and communities that live or rely on increasingly fire prone landscapes. As noted by fire historian Stephen J Pyne, we now live in the ‘pyrocene’ – the age dominated by fire.

As was shown by last summer, the economic costs of fire seasons can be devastating. But there is something else going on that is obvious – on a personal and emotional, even spiritual, level. Many people are struggling with post traumatic shock, and many now hold a deep unease about the places they call home. Many people now openly express fear of the bush, and the fires that will come, summer after summer.

Many people who were hit by last summer’s fires are still displaced or living in temporary housing. Some will find they need to leave and go somewhere else, somewhere away from regular fires. Some will lack the resources to rebuild under new, stricter building codes, and could fall into dislocation or be forced into temporary housing for long periods of time. For those who stay, what will the long term impacts be on our relationship with the bush?

Yes, Australia is a fire prone continent. But there are many places that ‘aren’t meant to burn’ – cool temperate and subtropical rainforests as obvious examples, which are now being consumed by fire. And the concept of the home or community nestled in a forested landscape becomes increasingly fraught. Can these type of communities survive, or will we need to change our relationship with vegetation and fire so profoundly that the physical makeup of our communities will be different? Will we become scared of the Bush?

Will we still feel at ease living among the tall trees? Think of all the townships that are dotted along the roads and the railway line that snake west from the Sydney Plains into the Blue Mountains. They are all tucked in among forests. Or Marysville, Noojee, Harrietville, the ski resorts, or any number of small towns nestled in forests throughout the hill and mountain country of south eastern Australia. And as fire becomes ever more common in Tasmania, what about cabin communities like Miena on the Central Plateau or tourist meccas like the Cradle Valley and Derwent Bridge areas?

This change in relationship is already playing out: the rebuilt Marysville in Victoria is a very different place to the town that was largely burnt to the ground in the Black Saturday fires of 2009, with the edge of the surrounding forest pushed back away from the town. 

This story from The New York Times written by Damien Cave captures the sense of foreboding that many people feel after last summer’s fires. Describing reactions by people on the south coast of NSW, that sense of living in a changed landscape is palpable:

‘A landscape once so welcoming and majestic now feels forever threatening.

“The fires were so big, no one knows how to cope with the enormity of it,” said Julie Taylor Mills, one of many anxious property owners rushing to prepare for another summer of dry, hot and frightening weather. “We’re all scared and only just starting to deal with it.”

Angus Barnes, the operational officer for the Rural Fire Service on the South Coast, based in Moruya says “people have started seeing the bush in a very different way.”

Damien notes that this is not just a phenomena here in Australia: it is being felt globally:

‘From the American West, where hundreds of thousands of acres are now burning, to Australia, SiberiaPortugalBrazil and Indonesia, the world is being forced to change how it lives with fire. Some call it “nature’s revenge.” As the earth warms from the burning of fossil fuels, wildfires are becoming larger, hotter, more frequent and far more destructive’.

There are various reactions being displayed:

  • Some people say ‘we need to learn to live with fire’ and change how we build houses in fire zones.
  • Others fear the bush, clearing remnant forest and destroying the understory in an effort to keep fuel at a minimum.
  • Others turn to increased hazard reduction burning and possibly Cultural Burning to reduce risk.

But regardless of our approach, the fact is that we need to deal with the reality that places we love might be burnt so hot and so frequently that they will become unrecognisable, at least for the next few years. Some systems, like rainforest or snow gums or alpine ash forests could well be changed beyond recognition. Climate grief and Solastalgia are words that are slowly entering the public discourse. The transformation of the landscapes we know because of fire, and the fear this creates, is another aspect of this grief.

Tasmanian landscape photographer Grant Dixon, is keenly aware of the scale of these changes. ‘There is real potential for the Tasmanian alpine environment as we now know it, its ecological communities and its ephemeral snow cover, to disappear under the onslaught of human-induced climate change’.

A friend, who is currently living in the bush near Coffs Harbour, said ‘I can tell you people out here are still rightly terrified about the bushfires and what lies ahead’. Other people I know tell me they think about the fires from the first flush of spring weather. They are changing their summer plans, fearful of being away from home. Others say they will leave in summer to try and avoid the stress. 

Looking to a fire based future

We are in an era of fire. This will not change. But our relationships with our flammable landscapes can get stronger rather than be weakened by fear of fire.

We don’t want to turn away from indigenous landscapes: they are part of who we are and help define us and our communities. But there are practical things we can do:

Work to protect homes and communities from fire. This is already happening as building codes are updated after fire. We need to harden existing homes to fire, prevent ember penetration and ignition. This is relatively easy and not necessarily high in cost. Cover vents, clean gutters, hardscape perimeter, retrofit to use non-flammable materials on the exterior, etc. This work will beyond the reach of low income people, so we need government programs to help facilitate this work.

We need to involve the community in preparing landscapes for fire. If we leave it just to paid fire crews, they cannot be expected to understand the nuances of our local landscapes, the refugia for animals, the areas most prone to erosion, the areas where the endangered species congregate, and so on.

As to the long held belief, promoted by industry, that it is a problem in our forests, that logging-management-thinning can solve it — well it does not hold up to scrutiny. More ‘business as usual’ logging or land management will not solve the dilemma we face.

I think the people who will see this through are the people who dig in deep and commit themselves to their particular place. This is the work of generations. I accept that my future involves fighting fire, and planning for fire, and watching the land recover from fire. Each day I walk through my local bush and think about what the right mix of fire or fire exclusion might be, for that hill or that gully. I do think that if we watch and listen for long enough, we will know what we need to do.