It’s hard to paint an accurate picture that encapsulates the scale and extent of Australia’s current bushfire season, and with more than 50 separate fires still burning across the continent at the time of writing, it may be some time before the magnitude of the crisis is fully understood.
Unprecedented in their intensity and geographical scope, fires have been burning across every state, but particularly fiercely through the coastal and eastern ranges of New South Wales (NSW) and north-eastern Victoria. As of 14 January, 2020, bushfires this season have burned through an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres), destroyed close to 2,500 homes, damaged more than 10,000 buildings and resulted in the loss of 33 lives. Air quality across the country has reached hazardous levels prompting a rise in people seeking emergency treatment for respiratory problems, with both Melbourne and Canberra’s air quality rated the worst in the world on several dates across January. The cumulative smoke from the bushfires has, on several occasions, surged more than 17 kilometres up into the stratosphere, blanketing New Zealand’s South Island and travelling approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 miles) across the South Pacific Ocean to South America. The ‘fire clouds’ that have formed as a result have stimulated their own weather systems, with thunderstorms and lightning strikes igniting new and unpredictable fires – and, at this writing, it’s only halfway through the summer.
As the driest inhabited continent on earth, bushfires have been a natural part of the history and mythology of the Australian landscape for tens of thousands of years. The fire conditions of the current 2019/2020 bushfire season, however, are without parallel on several fronts. Beyond the geographical scale and intensity of the fires, this season’s bushfires have burnt through areas and ecosystems comprised of typically fire-proof vegetation, such as wet eucalyptus forests, rainforests, heathlands and dried-out swamps. World Heritage-listed national parks that are considered some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, like Western Australia’s Stirling Range, have experienced severe casualties of rare and threatened flora and fauna, and may never fully recover. While images of dehydrated koalas and singed kangaroos have captured the world’s attention, a (highly conservative) estimate of 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles have perished, not counting the losses of bats, frogs or the invertebrates that make up the foundational elements of the food chain. The numbers are particularly harrowing considering Australia already bears the highest rate of species loss for any region in the world.
The climatic backdrop precipitating the spate of fires is one of several years of historically hot and protracted summers. Australia’s mean temperature in 2019 was 1.52 degrees Celsius higher than average, making it the warmest year since records began in 1910. Continental-scale droughts, affecting the eastern states most acutely, have been endured for several years, while water levels in key catchment areas, such as the Murray Darling Basin, have been at their lowest levels in a decade. Coupled with record lows in rainfall and soil moisture, and the soaring temperatures and wind speeds of this summer’s weather, the conditions were prime for small fires to become major infernos across large swathes of the country. Amid these conditions, Australian cities and towns in the past month alone have also endured tropical cyclones, hailstorms with stones the size of golf-balls, duststorms and heatwaves. Well and truly before this year’s bushfire season even began, the impact of droughts and flooding rains culminated in mass fish kills, hundreds and thousands of livestock losses and the decomposition of precious wilderness areas. A fragile and dry continent, Australia seems continually caught in the grips of extreme weather roulette, with the stakes likely to become more erratic in the context of a rapidly warming world.
A number of contributing policy failures and government inaction surrounding land and bushfire management have also compounded the risk and severity of the bushfire season. While the federal and NSW and Victoria state governments have announced independent expert inquiries into the bushfires, it should be noted that since 1939, there have been at least 18 major bushfire inquiries in Australia. According to former senate committees, ‘Previous inquiry processes have not resolved the issues that have been so consistently brought to the attention of governments.’ Some of these issues include inadequate protective burning and fuel reduction (both on public lands and around assets), insufficient resources for fire and land management agencies, and the disregard of local knowledge and experience – including traditional ecological knowledge and land management practices – in managing publicly and privately-owned land. These well-established concerns are likely to resurface in the next series of parliamentary inquiries, the question is whether the recommendations from these will be implemented.
Farmers on the frontlines
It will take some time before the economic, environmental and social costs of the bushfires can be truly ascertained. Significant impacts are already being felt by the agricultural sector, the repercussions of which are likely to affect Australia’s broader food system. While farmers have been grappling with the ongoing impacts of low soil moisture, water and feed shortages for some time now, the localised impacts of bushfires have manifested in unprecedented and highly complex conditions. While tens of thousands of livestock are likely to have perished (or had to be euthanised) as a result of the bushfires, farmers must now face the grim task of burying the carcasses to prevent potential public health and biosecurity risks. The task is so considerable that Australia’s Defence Force has been assigned to dig mass graves, while 100 veterinarians have been deployed across the country to assess and euthanise thousands of stock injured by the blazes. Some farmers have been in imminent danger and continue to face the threat from multiple firefronts, but due to their daily farming enterprises cannot leave their farm. Notwithstanding the defence of their properties and livelihoods, farmers also make up a large proportion of the more than 70,000 volunteers of the Rural Fire Service. It is not uncommon for these volunteers and their families to suffer significant losses or be made homeless while protecting the homes and lives of others.
As food, fuel and water run low in bushfire-hit regions, and some communities are cut-off from electricity and telecommunications for days on end, everyday farming tasks such as milking cows, feeding cattle, weeding or watering crops are no longer tenable, impeding production. Damage to vital infrastructure, such as sheds, storage facilities or machinery is critical, while the destruction of fencing leaves farmers with no way to safely contain their animals. In the absence of physical damage, excessive smoke can taint fruit and vegetable crops, with wine grapes being particularly susceptible. Entire cattle holdings, timber plantations and vineyards have been completely wiped out and charred by flame. When the landscape is burnt and blackened, microbial populations in the soil, particularly fungi, can suffer extensive damage. Depending on the intensity of the fire, it can create bacterially dominant soils and may destroy organic matter, opening up areas for the take-over of invasive weeds. High-intensity fires can also impact water quality by increasing the sediment and nutrient concentrations in waterways. With all the ash and silt pouring into estuaries and waterways, several oyster farms have been closed for harvest due to higher readings of algae, ash debris and other contaminants. Production losses are just the beginning. A whole network of vital infrastructure involved in packing, cool-storing and transporting goods can become impeded by road closures or power outages. Consumers can expect to see higher food prices as the costs of the bushfires add up.
From the ashes: recovery, restoration and regeneration
As the bushfire crisis unfolded across Australia, the world watched attentively. But with the rapid-fire nature of news cycles (and now the downpour of rain and floods across NSW), global attention and conversation has already shifted. How can a transformative dialogue emerge and be sustained after the fires are out? One that not only considers the risks posed by nature on human life and property, but also triggers a re-evaluation of how people conceive of themselves and others in their relationship with(in) nature? Such a dialogue will likely involve deep questioning about cultural and social values and beliefs, regulatory, legislative and financial institutions and the interdependence of biological and environmental systems. As people begin the long process of recovery, restoration and regeneration, how can they stimulate conversations and activities that don’t necessarily dictate a particular pathway for ‘resilience’ or ‘adaptation’, but rather, opens up possibilities for more sustainable futures to emerge?
For farmers Penny Kothe of Caroola Farm and Vicki Jones of CSM Organics, it was the catastrophic fires of Black Saturday that raged through Victoria over a decade ago that sparked a total rethink of the way they approach their farmland, families and community. As they began the physical and emotional work of rebuilding their lives, homes, businesses and towns, both farmers made the choice to shift from conventional to regenerative agricultural practices. Predicating the interdependent relationship between humans and the landscape, regenerative farming systems utilise a set of farming practices not just to grow food but to progressively improve the ecosystem in which that food is grown. A holistic and diversified approach, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic the natural, self-organising properties of a healthy ecosystem by focusing on diversity and the health of integrated natural and human systems.
For Penny Kothe, the Black Saturday bushfires were not only a catalyst for reassessing her farming practices, but they also spurred a deeper contemplation of her place on the land and humanity’s collective responsibility for managing it. ‘Losing everything in a house fire made me realise the important things in life – family, health and community – and from that, I started out on a whole new track. Whilst I’d previously read books on permaculture and holistic management, the fire gave me a whole fresh start and determination to lead my life the way I wanted. It made me reflect seriously on the question: what are we even here for?’ For Vicki Jones, the Black Saturday fires prompted contemplation of issues such as farm succession, learned helplessness among farmers and the link between rural isolation and mental health. The rising input costs of feed and fertiliser, the social isolation experienced in supplying long and fragmented supply chains, and the financial volatility of the market during the global financial crisis were factors to consider in the family succession of her farm. These cumulative pressures prompted a shift from conventional to certified organic dairy farming, as well as sourcing an alternative market for her products. Vicki now sells through Prom Coast Food Collective, a producer- and community-centric, low waste model that returns 95% of the dollar to farming families
As both farmers attest, authentic regenerative agriculture requires the broader community to adopt an ethos in their approach to food, landscapes and culture. ‘Regeneration’ in this sense, requires a reshaping of the human journey, one that cultivates the values of environmental stewardship alongside more localised economies that strengthen solidarity between farmer, eater and the Earth. It encourages farmers’ social participation and connectedness with their local communities while instilling a strong, collective ethics of care in response to the social and ecological challenges of our time. As Kothe reflects, ‘It is through such disasters that we re-evaluate the meaning of our lives, come together as communities and divest ourselves of our consumeristic attitudes that have become so ingrained in our way of life.’
It is the collective experiences, voices and defined action of people from impacted communities that will help shape the vision for long-lasting, impactful, transformative change. For frontline farming communities, the solution starts with building thriving local economies which provide farmers with dignified livelihoods that are ecologically diverse, healthy and resilient. It continues beyond the farm through opportunities for integrated land management that draws on indigenous knowledge and the best of modern science. The local and global impact of Australia’s current bushfire crisis is being felt through grief, stress, frustration and disbelief. But perhaps from the ashes, transformative dialogues and new narratives can emerge – ones that create opportunities and pathways for a regenerative future.
If you would like to help farmers affected by the fires you can donate to the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal.
Photograph: Ian Barbour