Many people continue to think Black Summer, the devastating bushfires of 2019-20, was an aberration and not a current reality. Science only confirms, however, these fires will be the “new normal” in the future. In the forceful The Fires Next Time: Understanding Australia’s Black Summer, scientists, environmentalists and climate change experts gravely chart the unprecedented destructiveness of this “megafire”: 24 million hectares of land incinerated, three billion perished animals and 33 people dead.
The bushfires are then examined through the lens of climate change to reveal this news: the time to be reactive to fires is over. These experts offer proactive fixes for the future, stressing major political and institutional change must also take place.
In a riveting essay, historian Tom Griffiths re-examines the “great fires” that have previously besieged Australia – including Red Tuesday of 1898 and Black Saturday of 2009 – to illustrate our fraught and reactive “war” with managing fires. One lesson, Griffiths argues, is to revive Indigenous fire practices to improve our fire management on the ground and to strengthen community ties with First Nations people. The incredible biodiversity loss from Black Summer is chronicled by ecologists Brendan Wintle and Libby Rumpff, who soberly conclude that many endangered species now inexorably “journey towards extinction”.
Health experts give a grim assessment of the enduring physical and mental health impacts of the fires. Beyond the widespread and harmful smoke exposure, there is growing research that indicates Black Summer led to an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance abuse in survivors.
Outside immediately reducing Australia’s fossil fuel output, there are other urgent but achievable solutions advanced by the book. One is the need for sustained investment from government in community resilience-building – one-off funding announcements don’t do much good. More use of pre-emptive burning to reduce fire risk is also needed, including wider adoption of Indigenous cultural burning practices. There must finally be lasting efforts at ecological preservation to better protect critical species to ensure their long-term survival.
Governments must lead the way, including by realising sound ideas proposed here, such as a National Climate Insurance Scheme. Initiatives like it would better protect communities and livelihoods from a future of ever-increasing climate displacement and destruction. If there’s only one fact to take from the deeply illuminating The Fires Next Time, it’s this: Australia is only becoming hotter, drier and more flammable. Unless warnings are heeded now and active steps by governments are taken soon, our future will become an unmanageable “chain of catastrophes” wrought by climate change.
Melbourne University Press, 336pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "The Fires Next Time".
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