Tom Griffiths
Inside Story 8 January 2020

As fires engulf us in this terrifying summer, some politicians and commentators continue to duck and weave around the link between extreme weather events and climate change. One of the arguments they deploy to dismiss the effects of global warming is that we’ve always had bushfires in Australia. It’s true, we have. Bushfire is integral to our ecology, culture and identity; it is scripted into the deep biological and human history of the fire continent. But bushfire is various and it, too, has a history — and a frightening future. The long, gruelling fire season of 2019–20 has declared something new in modern Australian experience, something we can indeed call unprecedented, and a product of climate change.

I don’t use that term “unprecedented” lightly. In 2009 I resisted its use to describe the Black Saturday firestorm, for that fire had the features of a phenomenon Victorians knew all too well. Black Saturday was the latest in a lineage of frightening, fatal firestorms that have roared out of “the fire flume,” as historian Stephen Pyne calls the hot northerly winds that sweep scorching air from inland Australia into the forested ranges of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. In that region, bushfires strike every year, firestorms every few decades. Firestorms are bushfires of a different order of magnitude; they cannot be fought; they rampage and kill. The years of the great Victorian firestorms are burnt into the memories of bush dwellers: 1851, 1898, 1919, 1926, 1932, 1939, 1962, 1983 and 2009. These dates with their death tolls are the signature of a distinctively deadly fire region, produced by a cocktail of weather, topography and trees.

The firestorms are intensified by particular species of trees — the mountain ash and the alpine ash — that conspire to create a raging crown fire that kills and reproduces the whole forest en masse and takes people with it. These tall ash-type eucalypts need a hot, fast-moving crown fire to crack open their seeds, upon which their regeneration uniquely depends. Firestorms in these normally wet mountain forests erupt only after long droughts and they concentrate whole summers of fire and anxiety into single, violent events. The ecology of the forest depends on firestorms, so we know they happened also under Aboriginal ecological management. In the last two hundred years, the cultural history of the forest has exaggerated and intensified this natural rhythm.

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