We have a long, tumultuous history with prescribed burning in Australia. It’s a fiery debate in the media, universities, research centers, park management offices and our homes– do we light the match and fight fire with fire, or risk loss of property (even life) for the price of inaction?
Once upon a time, fire was utilized for a single purpose – to manipulate the environment in order to resource food, water and shelter. The Aboriginal people of Australia had skillful mastery of the art of flame-wielding and complete understanding of how to manage the subsequent burn. Comparatively, today’s fire regimes must be able to meet multiple requirements, including those of protection of property and life, whilst also responding to the needs of our fire-adapted environment. A challenge great enough on its own, further heightened by a rapidly heating climate.
It is a dangerous game to play, prescribed burning. Success relies on extensive knowledge about the location to burn in, the frequency and intensity the burn, and the timing. Additionally, it is beneficial to pre-empt any weather changes that might occur, and to understand every facet of the complex and ever changing environment subject to the burn. These are the requirements that must be fulfilled in order for a prescribed burn to be a guaranteed success. However, these requirements can never fully be met, and as a result, a prescribed burn can never be guaranteed to go off without a hitch. Yet we, our communities and our government, demand this guarantee from fire management bodies and fire scientists. We demand that they play the prescribed burning game and figuratively, shirtfront Mother Nature.
So our scientists research the ecology, biology and geography of an area roped off for a prescribed burn, in order to understand the dynamics of the environment and predict the optimal intensity and frequency of the prescribed burn. Meteorologists try to estimate the weather and any possible anomalies that might cause a prescribed burn to escalate into an uncontrollable wildfire. Land management bodies talk to local residents and communities about aesthetic changes to the area and possible health risks resulting from the smoke and airborne particles. Firefighters and volunteers run through evacuation procedures and hand out pamphlets, preparing for the worst-case scenario. All these actions are undertaken (along with considerably more) in an effort to try and control what is in essence, uncontrollable – fire.
Prescribed burning can be likened to rolling the dice in Monopoly. You own the whole section of the board you are heading for; you own the next 5 properties. But there is still a 1 in 6 chance that you might roll the dice and land on the one property at the far end of the stretch that is not yours, and have to pay an enormous rent to your little sister. In a prescribed burn scenario, the experts cover all the controllable elements and also prepare to the best of their means for the uncontrollable. But they are playing, at a fundamental level, with nature – there is still a small chance that they might land on their little sister’s property, and all their preparation and research falls to the wayside.
These are the scenarios that we most hear about in the media and that are publicized as evidence in the literature on anti-prescribed burning. I do not think that we can use the mishaps of prescribed burning projects as evidence to not burn – nor can we point the finger of blame at the fire management bodies that have been given the impossible task of controlling the uncontrollable. It has been proven by historical Aboriginal practice and scientific research, that Australia needs fire. It supplements our environment and natural ecosystems. If scientists recommend prescribed burning as a way to satisfy that need and if they are confident in their practice and their research, then I say burn baby, burn.
Words by Maddison Howard, Art by Danyon Burge
This article first appeared in print volume 88, edition 1 HEAT