16 Jan Enhancing Capacity for the Long Game
Climate change must be part of the bushfire discussion
In August 2019, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre released Australia’s bushfire outlook for the coming season, showing large areas of eastern Australia facing above-normal fire threat. The Nation has looked on in disbelief as these warnings have become reality – the red flags on the map turning to black. For this, on behalf of the Mosaic Insights team, we express our deepest condolences to all that have been affected by the fires, and our immense gratitude to those who are fighting fires and supporting communities as this difficult journey unfolds.
In order to stop repeated cycles of bushfire crises we must go above and beyond the processes and infrastructure already in place, and as Dr Richard Thornton – CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC – emphasises; implement the recommendations from past inquiries and be honest about the recommendations that have yet to be put in place because they were “too hard” to put forward. However, we may have to confront even more challenging questions.
In short, climate change must be a part of the bushfire discussion.
We need to continue to develop responsive mechanisms to deal with longer fire seasons, but we must also reframe the way we live in, and live with, our environment.
‘Forward thinking’ for adaption and transformation in socio-ecological systems
While it is vital to protect people, property, and livelihoods from natural disaster in the near term, addressing climate capacity for future generations is often seen as an “over the horizon” issue. Yet during this past month when many Australians are facing the reality of catastrophic bushfires, it is becoming clear that without a rational assessment of bushfire trends the risk to Australians will only increase. Despite fire being integral to the growth and regeneration of many forest ecosystems￼, even these natural processes are being thrown out of kilter. A prime example of such can be seen in our altered fire regimes threatening many terrestrial ecosystems, such as seen in recent elevated mortality in plant populations.
Transitioning our cities, as well as our rural towns into climate resilient communities requires our leaders to not only look to – but also invest in the future. This includes an attention to the rights of distant others and future generations who have been largely excluded from debates about resilience. It also requires questions about resilience of what systems, and for whom. To become focused entirely on the immediate stressors affecting us at present is an understandable plan of action. However, more so now than ever, we need to openly discuss the necessary sacrifices in order to change the climate trajectory for the future. As we begin to move forward toward the rebuilding phases of the 2019/20 crisis, we should take the opportunity to support rigorous risk assessment of settlements, and ask “what needs to be changed to make this safer and more in touch with our unique landscapes?” Particularly in topographies that create complex bushfire risk, such as the example of the assessment of Wye River and Lorne after the 2015 fires, which highlighted a need for extraordinary planning in order to ensure safety.
It is an understandable response that many affected by the recent bushfires will rebuild on the land they own – and (usually) insurance will provide the mean for this to occur. However, if we are to compare to issues of building in flood zones with rising sea levels, we must also sincerely look at how we rebuild in bushfire-prone regions. Of course, many who lose their homes may not rebuild within these ravaged communities, it may just be too difficult for a multitude of reasons. It is known that communities that experience community fracturing due to disaster are severely impeded in terms of social resilience, and therefore, are much less prepared for future disasters.
Perhaps the most fracturing effect bushfires have is on community cohesion. Preparing for fire can become a relentless (and exhausting) part of the existence of communities living in fire prone regions. However, no amount of preparation will ever truly prepare us for a fires devastating effect – be it on the environment, property, wildlife, or mental health. Yet, with each increasingly intense bushfire season we still open our mouths, and say: “We never expected…” and “I never imagined…”
We are still in the same place
We don’t want to be the same place in 20 years, still asking the question: what do we wish we had done to address this issue back in 2020? These debates, understandably, are not at the forefront of people’s minds around Australia – many are grieving, and not yet started on the lengthy process of rebuilding what was lost or relocating anew.
Let’s not however, stay in the same place. Now is the time to really start a discussion about how we envision living safely within the Australian landscape, and how we can “do it better” as our climate continues to change.
By Daisy Day