Last season’s bushfires directly killed 34 people and devastated more than 8 million hectares of land along the south-eastern fringe of Australia.
A further 445 people are estimated to have died from smoke-induced respiratory problems.
The burned landscape may take decades to recover, if it recovers at all.
So will the 2020 fire season kick off this month? And is last summer’s inferno what we should expect as a normal fire season? The answer to both questions is no. Let’s look at why.
First, let’s recap what led to last year’s early start to the fire season, and why the bushfires became so intense and extensive.
The fires were so severe because they incorporated five energy sources. The most obvious is fuel: live and dead plant material.
The other sources bushfires get their energy from include the terrain, weather, atmospheric instability and a lack of moisture in the environment such as in soil, timber in houses and large woody debris.
The June fires in Queensland resulted from a drought due to the lack of rain coming from the Indian Ocean. The drought combined with unusually hot dry winds from the north-west. By August the bushfires were burning all along the east coast of Australia and had become large and overwhelming.
Ahead of the fire season, environmental moisture was the lowest ever recorded in much of eastern Australia. This was due to the Indian Ocean Dipole – the difference in sea surface temperature on either side of the ocean – which affects rainfall in Australia. The dipole was in positive mode, which brought drought. This meant the fire used less of its own energy to spread.
Fire weather conditions in south-eastern Australia were severe from August 2019 until March 2020. Temperatures reached record highs in places, relative humidity was low and winds were strong due to high-pressure systems tracking further north than normal.
High atmospheric instability, often associated with thunderstorms, enabled large fire plumes to develop as fires grew to several thousand hectares in size. This increased winds and dryness at ground level, rapidly escalating the damaging power and size of the fires.
Fuel levels were high because of the drying trend associated with climate change and a lack of low-intensity fires over the past couple of decades, which allowed fuel levels to build up.
Currently, at least two bushfire energy sources – fuels and drought – are at low levels.
Fuels are low because last season’s fires burnt through large tracts of landscape and it will take five to ten years for them to redevelop. The build-up will start with leaf litter, twigs and bark.
In forested areas, the initial flush of regrowth in understorey and overstorey will be live and moist. Gradually, leaves will turn over and dead litter will start to build up.
But there is little chance of areas severely burnt in 2019-20 carrying an intense fire for at least five years.
What’s also different this year to last is the moist conditions. Drought leading up to last fire season was severe (see below).
Environmental moisture was the driest on record, or in the lowest 5% of records for much of south-east Australia.
But the current level of drought (see below) is much less pronounced.
A change in weather patterns brought good rains to eastern Australia from late February to April.
It’s too early to say conclusively how the fire season will pan out in 2020-21. But moister conditions due to a neutral Indian Ocean Dipole and Southern Oscillation Index (which indicates the strength of any El Niño and La Niña events), the lack of fuel, and more normal weather patterns (known as a positive Southern Annular Mode) mean there is little prospect of an early start to the season.
The likelihood of severe bushfires in south-east Australia later in the year and over summer is much reduced. This doesn’t mean there won’t be bushfires. But they’re not likely to be as extensive and severe as last fire season.
The reduced bushfire risk is likely to persist for the next three to five years.
But, in the longer term, climate change means severe fire seasons are becoming more frequent. If we simply try to suppress these fires, we will fail. We need a concerted effort to manage the bushfire risk. This should involve carefully planned and implemented prescribed fires, as well as planning and preparing for bushfires.
Last bushfire season should be a turning point for land management in Australia. Five inquiries into the last bushfire season are under way, including a royal commission, a Senate inquiry and inquiries in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.
These inquiries must lead to change. We have a short window of opportunity to start managing fires in the landscape more sustainably. If we don’t, in a decade’s time we may see the Black Summer repeat itself.
Comedian Celeste Barber’s whopping $51 million bushfire fundraiser showed us just how generous people can be in times of trouble.
But the need to seek the NSW Supreme Court’s advice about how to spend the funds also demonstrates how tricky things can become when large amounts of money are involved.
As someone who researches the regulation of philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector, the episode is both a lesson in reading the fine print and the need for simpler donations laws.
But it should not deter public-spirited celebrities from fundraising in the future.
The summer bushfires saw an outpouring of generosity, with Australians donating vast sums towards various charities and causes.
Barber has family on the NSW South Coast, which was badly hit by the fires. The well-known comedian responded by setting up a Facebook fundraiser.
The beneficiary was the Trustee for NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and Brigades Donation Fund and the target was to raise $30,000.
The fundraiser went viral and saw millions of dollars pour in from around the world. As donations skyrocketed, Barber told her fans via Instagram she planned to spread the money raised around:
I’m going to make sure that Victoria gets some, that South Australia gets some, also families of people who have died in these fires, the wildlife.
Ultimately, Barber raised more than $51 million from about 1.3 million donors. Facebook’s fundraising partner, PayPal Giving Fund, then passed the money on to the NSW RFS donation fund.
But spending the money was not straightforward.
The RFS donation fund is governed by a “trust deed,” which limits what it can use donations for. This means it can only spend funds received on equipment, training and resources or administrative costs for RFS brigades.
It does not allow donations to be passed on to fire services in other states or to other charities.
Given Barber’s comments about how the donations should be distributed and the intense attention on the issue, the RFS sought the advice of the NSW Supreme Court.
On Monday, the court handed down its decision, and depending on your perspective, it’s a mix of good and bad news.
On the one hand, the court confirmed that donations can’t be passed on to fire services in other states or to other charities.
But it found funds can be spent to support rural firefighters injured while firefighting and the families of rural firefighters killed while firefighting. The funds can also be spent on physical and mental health training, as well as trauma counselling.
The effect of the court’s decision is that the funds will stay with the RFS, where they will no doubt be used for important purposes.
But the decision may disappoint some donors, who thought the money would be able to be used to help the broader response to the bushfires. That includes supporting relief and rebuilding efforts in communities devastated by the fires, or helping injured wildlife.
The decision did flag that individual donors could bring their own court case if they believed the funds they donated where not being used for the purposes they were donated for. But this is unlikely – if you’ve donated $25, then you may not want to spend lots of time and expense pursuing a court case.
The NSW Parliament could pass legislation to broaden the purposes for which the donation fund can spend donations. And NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge has proposed a bill to do just that.
But NSW’s Coalition government is unlikely to back a Greens-sponsored bill.
The main lesson is that if you’re setting up a fundraiser, or looking to donate to a particular charity, do some due diligence first.
For example, the national charities regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission has a free public register where you can look up information about individual charities.
To be fair to Barber, she did only intend to raise $30,000 for the RFS, and only expressed a desire to broaden the beneficiaries of her fundraiser when it took off.
But it’s important to read the fine print and to understand what you can and can’t do as part of a fundraiser.
The episode also shows us that the laws governing charities and philanthropy in Australia are complex.
If the federal government introduced simpler laws to regulate “deductible gift recipients” (organisations that can receive tax deductible donations), then it’s likely the problem with Barber’s fundraising would have been easier to resolve.
This is because the activities of organisations wouldn’t need to as tightly confined as they are currently required to be.
In a short statement on Monday, Barber noted: “turns out that studying acting at university does not make me a lawmaker”.
Some people may think the court’s involvement means we should leave fundraising to the professionals, and that celebrity fundraisers do more harm than good. I disagree.
One of the powerful aspects of philanthropy is that anybody can see an area of need, donate money and rally others to do so.
That is something we should encourage. Whilst it’s important to do due diligence, celebrities can play an important role by using their platform to promote giving.
Barber’s bushfire fundraiser was a powerful example of this, and we shouldn’t let the legal issues detract from it.
First the drought, then bushfires and then flash floods: a chain of extreme events hit Australia hard in recent months. The coronavirus pandemic has only temporarily shifted our attention towards a new emergency, adding yet another risk.
We knew from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the risk of extreme events was rising. What we perhaps didn’t realise was the high probability of different extreme events hitting one after the other in the same regions. Especially in the fringes of Australian cities, residents are facing new levels of environmental risk, especially from bushfires and floods.
But this cycle of devastation is not inevitable if we understand the connections between events and do something about them.
Measures to slow climate change are in the hands of policymakers. But, at the adaptation level, we can still do many things to reduce the impacts of extreme events on our cities.
We can start by increasing our capacity to see these phenomena as one problem to be tackled locally, rather than distinct problems to be addressed centrally. Solutions should be holistic, community-centred and focused on people’s practices and shared responsibilities.
We can draw lessons from humanitarian responses to large disasters, including both national and international cases. A recent review of disaster responses in urban areas found several factors are critical for more successful recovery.
One is to prioritise the needs of people themselves. This requires genuine, collaborative engagement. People who have been through a bushfire or flood are not “helpless victims”. They are survivors who need to be supported and listened to, not dictated to, in terms of what they may or may not need.
Another lesson is to link recovery efforts, rather than have individual agencies provide services separately. For instance, an organisation focusing on housing recovery needs to work closely with organisations that are providing water or sanitation. A coordinated approach is more efficient, less wearying on those needing help, and better reflects the interconnected reality of everyday life.
In the aid world this is known as an “area-based” approach. It prioritises efforts that are driven by people demand rather than by the supply available.
A third lesson is give people money, not goods. Money allows people to decide what they really need, rather than rely on the assumptions of others.
As the bushfires have shown, donations of secondhand goods and clothes often turn into piles of unwanted goods. Disposal then becomes a problem in its own right.
Planning approaches in outer urban areas should be realigned with our current understanding of bushfire and flood risk. This situation is challenging planners to engage with residents in new ways to ensure local needs are met, especially in relation to disaster resilience.
In areas of high bushfire risk, planning needs to connect equally with the full range of locals. Landscape and biodiversity experts, including Indigenous land managers, and emergency managers should work in association with planning processes that welcome input from residents. This approach is highly likely to reduce risks.
Planners have a vital job to create platforms that enable the interplay of ideas, local values and traditional knowledge. Authentic engagement can increase residents’ awareness of environmental hazards. It can also pave the way for specific actions by authorities to reduce risks, such as those undertaken by Country Fire Service community engagement units in South Australia.
Regenerating ecosystems by responding to flood risk can be crucial to increase urban and peri-urban resilience while reducing future drought and bushfire impacts.
Research on flood management suggests rainwater must be always seen as a resource, even in the case of extreme events. Sustainable water management through harvesting, retention and reuse can have long-term positive effects in regenerating micro-climates. It is at the base of any action aimed at comprehensively increasing resilience.
In this sense, approaches based on decentralised systems are more effective at countering the risks of drought, fire and flood locally. They consist of small-scale nature-based solutions able to absorb and retain water to reduce flooding. Distributed off-grid systems support water harvesting in rainy seasons and prevent fires during drought by maintaining soil moisture.
Decentralisation also creates opportunities for innovation in the management of urban ecosystems, with responsibility shared among many. Mobile technologies can help communities play an active role in minimising flood impacts at the small scale. Information platforms can also help raise awareness of the links between risks and actions and lead to practical solutions that are within everybody’s reach.
Disrupted ecosystems can make the local impacts of drought, fire and flood worse, but can also play a role in global failures, such as the recent pandemic. It is urgent to define and implement mechanisms to reverse this trend.
Lessons from disaster responses point towards the need to tailor solutions to community needs and local environmental conditions. A few key strategies are emerging:
foster networks and coordinated approaches that operate across silos
support local and traditional landscape knowledge
use information platforms to help people work together to manage risks
manage water locally with the support of populations to prevent drought and bushfire.
Recent environmental crises are showing us the way to finally change direction. Safe cities and landscapes can be achieved only by regenerating urban ecosystems while responding to increasing environmental risks through integrated, people-centred actions.
Elisa Palazzo, Urbanist and landscape planner – Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW; Annette Bardsley, Researcher, Department of Geography, Environment and Population, University of Adelaide, and David Sanderson, Professor and Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture, UNSW
Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Brian Oliver, University of Technology Sydney; Courtney Alice Waugh, Nord University; Marcel Klaassen, Deakin University, and Veerle L. B. Jaspers, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
It’s hard to forget the thick smoke plumes blanketing Australia’s cities and towns during the black summer. But consecutive days of smoke haze can also come from planned burns to reduce fuel loads, and fires set after logging.
Expanding planned burning is often touted as a way to mitigate the risk of bushfires rising with climate change. But the autumn burn-off season is bad news for the COVID-19 pandemic, as smoke exposure can make us more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses.
In fact, doctors in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, are campaigning for better air quality monitors. They argue burn-offs are a serious health risk during this pandemic, particularly with asthma inhaler stocks in limited supply.
Yes, planned burns can be useful, but they offer limited protection from bushfires and, right now, they pose an immediate health risk. It’s a reasonable bet that planned burning will do us more harm than good in 2020.
The same can be said of other sources of smoke, including from logging regeneration burns, wood heaters, backyard burn-offs and burning fossil fuels.
Smoke pollution from the black summer may have killed more than 400 people, and sent 4,000 people to the hospital.
Bushfire smoke includes fine particles – less than 2.5 micrometers in size (one micrometre is a ten-thousanth of a centimetre) – that can reach to the ends of our lungs and enter the bloodstream. They compromise our immune system, weakening our antiviral defences.
Smoke also has a toxic mix of metals and organic chemicals that include known carcinogens. Even short term exposure increases hospital admissions and ambulance call-outs in Australia for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, cardiovascular attacks and other health effects.
Smoke exposure causes inflammation in the lungs, as does coronavirus infection. But it’s a not a simple equation; they likely act in a synergistic way with complex interactions.
New research from the USA shows average air pollution with one extra microgram of fine particles per cubic metre is associated with a 15% higher death rate from COVID-19.
In other words, if COVID-19 has a base death rate of about 1 in 100, and fine particles in air pollution span from near one microgram/litre to higher than 12 in major urban centres, then the death rate could more than double to 2.65 per 100 infections.
Research into other viral infections shows just two hours of exposure to smoke can make people more susceptible to respiratory infections. But what we’re uncertain about is if short term exposure to smoke would illicit the same dire consequences – dramatically higher death rates – as there appears to be with long-term exposure to air pollutants.
What’s more, men could be more at risk than women. Men find it harder to fight off the flu than women, and prior exposure to wood smoke can make flu symptoms worse in men.
The amount and pattern of planned burning is under pressure to change. Some commentators are campaigning for increased planned burning, but others are asking for less, and the Victorian firefighter chief has said it’s no silver bullet.
While planned burns aim to reduce wildfire, it’s not yet clear whether this will ultimately alter the amount of smoke over communities.
On the one hand, planned burns could pump more smoke into the atmosphere than wildfires because
larger areas need to be burned, smoke can build up and hang around for longer, and planned burns could produce more toxic smoke by burning wetter fuels.
On the other hand, planned burns have lower severity and are more patchy than wildfires, so burn less of the vegetation in a given area, potentially producing less smoke.
What about protection? Planned burns can make firefighting easier for a few years after fire. But current rates of planned burning give little protection for houses when wildfires are driven by extreme weather.
Planned burns within a few hundred metres of houses can give protection but must occur frequently, such as less than every five years. We shouldn’t expect towns to endure local smoke pollution this often.
In the context of COVID-19, the seasonal timing of fires is also important.
The coming summer is unlikely to bring a repeat of last summer’s fires because so much forest is already burnt.
So, even if COVID-19 spills over into 2021, the compounding smoke risk from wildfires is likely to be lower than smoke from planned burns in autumn and spring.
All things considered, it’s not worth the health risk to conduct planned burns, logging regeneration burns or other burning this year while the pandemic continues to sweep through the country, particularly in areas close to towns such as the Yarra Valley.
Still, whether or not planned burns will change our total exposure to smoke from bushfires, the effects of climate change are definitely bringing more fire and with it more smoke.
This means we can expect to have to deal with interactions between virus risks and smoke risks more often in the future.
Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Brian Oliver, Research Leader in Respiratory cellular and molecular biology at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research and Professor, Faculty of Science, University of Technology Sydney; Courtney Alice Waugh, Associate Professor in Immunology and Disease, Nord University; Marcel Klaassen, Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Ecology, Deakin University, and Veerle L. B. Jaspers, Professor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
The world faces profound disruption. For Australians who lived through the most horrific fire season on record, there has been no time to recover. The next crisis is now upon us in the form of COVID-19. As we grapple with uncertainty and upheaval, it’s clear that our old “normal” will never be recovered.
Radical changes like these can be interpreted through the lens of “rupture”. As the social scientist Christian Lund describes, ruptures are “open moments, when opportunities and risks multiply… when new structural scaffolding is erected”.
The concept of rupture therefore explains what happens during periods of profound change – such as colonisation or environmental catastrophe – when relationships between people, governments and the environment get reconfigured.
This can help us to make sense of the bushfire crisis and COVID-19: we are in an open moment, when the status quo is in flux.
Colonisation is perhaps the most dramatic example of rupture in human history. Original ways of life are violently overthrown, while new systems of authority, property and control are imposed.
Novelist Chinua Achebe famously described the effects of colonisation on tribal people in Nigeria, with his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart. But rupture tells us that things do not just fall apart – they also get remade.
We have researched rupture in Southeast Asia, where hydro-electric dam projects have devastated river systems and local livelihoods. New kinds of political power and powerlessness have emerged in affected communities, who’ve had to adjust to flooding, resettlement and an influx of new settlers.
We’ve also found new relationships between people and nature in these contexts. For example, as indigenous people have been displaced from their ancestral lands, they must reestablish access to natural resources and forest-based traditions in new places.
Importantly, the rupture metaphor can be scaled up to help us understand national and global crises. Three insights emerge.
Both the bushfires and COVID-19 expose how underlying conditions – such as drought, social inequality, and the erosion of public goods and services – contribute to a dramatic event occurring, and in turn shape how it unfolds.
Before the fires hit in late 2019, the drought had already brought many rural communities to their knees. The combination of dry dams, farmers without income, and towns without water meant local capacity to cope was already diminished.
Similarly with COVID-19, pre-existing poverty has translated into higher infection rates, as seen in Spain where vulnerable people in poorly paid jobs have suffered most from the virus.
From this, it is clear that crises are not stand-alone events – and society’s response must address pre-existing problems.
Conversely, favourable underlying conditions – such as social cohesion, public trust and safety nets – can help us adapt and improvise in the face of rupture.
For example during the last bushfire season, a small and nimble community-based firefighting team formed at Mongarlowe in southern New South Wales. The group extinguished spot fires that the under-resourced Rural Fire Service (RFS) could not reach – saving forests, property and potentially, lives.
Such groups emerged from already strong communities. Social cohesion and community responsiveness is also helping societies cope with COVID-19, as seen in the emergence of community-led “mutual aid” groups around the world.
Rupture can also expose frictions between citizens and their governments. For example, the Australian government’s initial response to the bushfire crisis was condemned as insensitive and ineffectual. As the crisis evolved, this damaged the government’s credibility and authority – especially in relation to its stance on climate change.
Against this foil, state governments delivered somewhat clearer messaging and steadier management. But tensions soon arose between state and federal leadership, revealing cracks in the system.
The COVID-19 pandemic means that more than ever, we need competent and coherent governance. However fractures have again emerged between state and federal governments, as some states moved ahead of the Commonwealth with faster, stricter measures to combat COVID-19.
Furthermore, as economic stimulus spending reaches A$320 billion – including wage subsidies and free childcare – the government’s neo-liberal ideology appears to have fallen away (at least temporarily).
Critical lessons from other ruptures show that Australians must remain vigilant now, as old systems of authority rewire themselves. To stem COVID-19, governments have announced major societal restrictions and huge spending. These moves demand new kinds of accountability – as demonstrated by calls for bipartisan scrutiny of Australia’s COVID-19 response.
When Australia burned last summer, few could avoid the immediacy of dead wildlife, devastated landscapes and hazardous air. Australians were overwhelmed by grief, and a new awareness of the impacts of climate change. New debates emerged about how our forests should be managed, and the pro-coal stance of the federal Coalition was challenged.
COVID-19 is also a wake-up call to humanity. It is one of many emerging infectious diseases that originated in animals – a product of our “war on nature” which includes deforestation and unregulated wildlife consumption.
As British writer George Monbiot argues, the pandemic means that we can no longer maintain the “illusion of security” on a planet with “multiple morbidities” – looming food shortages, antibiotic resistance and climate breakdown.
Rupture invites us to re-think our relationships to nature. We must recognise her agency – as firestorm or microscopic virus – and our deep dependence upon her.
Indian author Arundhati Roy recently wrote that, in these troubled times, rupture “offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves”.
The challenge now is to seize opportunities emerging from this rupture. As our economies hibernate, we’re learning how to transform. Carbon emissions have declined dramatically, and the merits of slowing down are becoming apparent. We must use this moment to re-align our relationships to one another, and to nature.
Sarah Milne, Senior Lecturer, Resources, Environment and Development, Australian National University; Carolyn Hendriks, Associate Professor, Public Policy and Governance, Australian National University, and Sango Mahanty, Associate Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
The catastrophic bushfire season is officially over, but governments, agencies and communities have failed to recognise the specific and disproportionate impact the fires have had on Aboriginal peoples.
Addressing this in bushfire response and recovery is part of Unfinished Business: the work needed for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to meet on more just terms.
In our recent study, we found more than one quarter of the Indigenous population in New South Wales and Victoria live in a fire-affected area. That’s more than 84,000 people. What’s more, one in ten infants and children affected by the fires is Indigenous.
But in past bushfire inquires and royal commissions, Aboriginal people have been mentioned only sparingly. When referenced now, it’s only in relation to cultural burning or cultural heritage. This must change.
Indigenous people comprise only 2.3% of the total population of NSW and Victoria. But they make up nearly 5.4% of the 1.55 million people living in fire-affected areas of these states.
And of the total Indigenous population in fire-affected areas, 36% are less than 15 years old. This is a major concern for delivering health services and education after bushfires have struck.
Importantly, where Indigenous people live has a marked spatial pattern.
There are 22 discrete Aboriginal communities in rural fire-affected areas. Of these, 20 are in NSW, often former mission lands where people were forcibly moved or camps established by Aboriginal peoples.
Ten per cent of Indigenous people in fire-affected areas in NSW and Victoria live in these communities.
And those living in larger towns and urban areas aren’t evenly distributed. For example, Indigenous people comprise 10.6% of residents in fire-affected Nowra–Bomaderry, compared with 1.9% of residents in fire-affected Bowral–Mittagong.
These statistics are steeped in histories and geographies that need to directly inform where and how services are delivered.
Aboriginal people hold significant legal rights and interests over lands and waters in the fire-affected areas. These are recognised by state, federal or common law. This includes native title, land acquired through the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act or lands covered by Registered Aboriginal Parties in Victoria.
Even where there’s no formal recognition, all fire-affected lands have Aboriginal ownership held and passed down through songlines, languages and kinship networks.
The nature of these legal rights and interests means the bushfires have different consequences for Aboriginal rights-holders than for non-Indigenous landowners.
Many non-Indigenous land-owners in the fire-affected areas face the difficult decision of whether to stay and rebuild, or sell and move on. Traditional owners, on the other hand, are in a far more complex and unending situation.
Traditional owners carry inter-generational responsibilities, practices and more that have been formed with the places the know as their Country.
They can leave and live on someone else’s Country, but their Country and any formally recognised communal land and water rights remain in the fire-affected area.
Clearly, Aboriginal people have unique experiences with bushfire disasters, but Aboriginal voices have seldom been heard in the recovery processes that follow.
The McLeod Inquiry, which followed the 2003 Canberra bushfires and the 2009 Black Saturday Royal Commission – were critical processes of reflection and recovery for the nation. Even in these landmark reports, references to Aboriginal people are almost completely absent.
There were only four brief mentions across three volumes of the Black Saturday Royal Commission. Two were cultural heritage protections discussions in relation to pre-bushfire season preparation, and two were historical references to past burning practices.
In other words, Aboriginal people – their cultural practices, ways of life and land management techniques – are relegated to the past.
This approach must change to acknowledge that Aboriginal people are present in contemporary society, and have distinct experiences with bushfire disasters.
But including Aboriginal voices only in regards to cultural burning is deeply problematic. Yet, it’s an emerging trend – not only in these official responses, but in the media.
This narrowly defined scope precludes the suite of concerns Aboriginal people bring to bushfire risk matters. Their concerns go across the natural hazard sector’s spectrum of preparation, planning, response and recovery.
Aboriginal people need to be part of the broad conversation that bushfire decision-makers, researchers, and the public sector are having.
To date, Victoria offers the most substantial effort to include Aboriginal voices by establishing an Aboriginal reference group to work alongside the bushfire recovery agency. But Aboriginal people require a much stronger presence in every facet of these state and national inquiries.
We identify three foundational steps:
acknowledge that Aboriginal people have been erased, made absent and marginalised in previous bushfire recovery efforts, and identify and address why this continues to happen
establish non-negotiable instructions for including Aboriginal people in the terms of reference and membership of post-bushfire inquiries
establish Aboriginal representation on relevant government committees involved in decision-making, planning and implementation of disaster risk management.
The continued marginalisation of Aboriginal people diminishes all of us – in terms of our values in living within a just society.
It was never acceptable to silence Aboriginal people in responses to major disasters. It’s incumbent upon us all to ensure these colonial practices of erasure and marginalisation are relegated to the past.
Bhiamie Williamson, Research Associate & PhD Candidate, Australian National University; Francis Markham, Research Fellow, College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University, and Jessica Weir, Senior Research Fellow, Western Sydney University
The term “human security” was first adopted by the United Nations Development Program in 1994. We speak far less of it now than we did then. Yet the cataclysmic events of this year should remind us national security is no longer to be thought of in terms of conventional warfare and military expenditure.
Put simply, human security encompasses all those threats to survival that are not military or state-sponsored, and therefore tend to fall beneath the radar of those who imagine security in conventionally “hard” terms.
The recent bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic reveal imminent threats from climate change and global diseases that threaten the very survival of what we take for granted. Yet governments have been far less willing to commit to responding to these issues than to increasing military budgets.
When the concept of human security emerged it was designed to address seven themes: “economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security”. While these terms may seem too broad to be useful, all of them are directly related to the crises now facing the world.
These crises have taken me back to a large research project with several colleagues on rethinking the relevance of human security.
There is a voluminous literature on the meaning and limitations of human security. When he launched the book based on our research, the former foreign minister Gareth Evans defined it as an attempt to link conventional understandings of national security with the needs of human development:
The concept of human security was broad enough to advance both freedom from fear and freedom from want.
In the book, I wrote:
Australia is unlikely to face a military invasion, of the sort we might have experienced in World War II, but its security is threatened by a series of global upheavals around food, water, new epidemics, transnational crime and climate change.
I might now add cybersecurity to that list.
Over the past few years, the Australian government has increased military expenditures to the point where we are now among the top 15 countries ranked on defence spending.
Of course, our expenditure is trivial compared to the United States and China, but there is a powerful lobby pushing to increase it. At the same time, the government has made major cuts to overseas development assistance, is resisting the need to seriously cut emissions and appeared unprepared for the severity of the coronavirus epidemic.
Growing concern about the rise of China and the unpredictability of the United States has meant we ignore the more immediate threats to our security, even as they are looming around us. Most troubling, perhaps, is the government’s dislike of global institutions in a period when we need global cooperation more than ever.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made several attacks on what he terms an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”. In this he appears to be following the lead of US President Donald Trump. Our declining foreign assistance budget is lessening the capacity of countries in our region to respond to health and climate emergencies.
The failure of the United States to provide leadership on either climate change or the coronavirus has emphasised the importance of great powers grasping that even their survival depends upon global action. Arguably the authoritarian Chinese regime, for all its unpleasantness, understands this better than the Trump administration.
It is a common aphorism that generals always fight the last war. Debates about the rise of China and the need to increase our military capabilities overlook the fact the most immediate threats to national security are not conventional military ones.
There are hints of this in Australia’s foreign policy. A statement from Foreign Minister Marise Payne noted:
Australia’s longstanding and ongoing security cooperation with Pacific countries covers defence, law enforcement, transnational crime, climate and disaster resilience, border management and human security.
But the shadow minister, Penny Wong, has argued:
‘Security’ has a much broader connotation than the more threat-based protective and response concepts on which a lot of public policy concentrates.
But these statements stand apart from mainstream debates about “national security”, which remain dominated by concerns about military build-ups and terrorism.
After unparalleled bushfires and coronavirus, the concept of human security gives us the language to reassess the most immediate threats to our survival and the need for global cooperation to respond to them.
As Australia burned over summer, many of us gave generously, donating an extraordinary A$500 million by mid-January.
Charities had to scramble, as did organisations directing us to charities. For its new year’s eve fundraiser the ABC chose the Red Cross.
Weeks later, the New South Wales state MP for Bega, Andrew Constance, a local whose electorate was in the heart of the fires, attacked the Red Cross, and also the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul, arguing not all of the money was getting through:
The money is needed now, not sitting in a Red Cross bank account earning interest so they can map out their next three years and do their marketing.
The Red Cross responded, conceding it was using 10% of donations for administration but noting that it was handing out A$1 million every day.
The confusion and negativity continued, with comedian Celeste Barber seeking legal advice over the fate of A$50 million she raised for the NSW Rural Fire Service.
It was too much for the fire service to spend quickly on running expenses and buying and maintaining equipment. And it was prevented by its trust deed from passing it on to other charities.
The fallout suggests we want to be sure our money is being used to help, but we’re not sure that it is.
My research into the role played by reputation in donations indicates that it is important for charities to define their role clearly.
This includes stating plainly how they are meeting the reporting and other requirements imposed on them by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and educating the public about those requirements.
We need to do our research, think carefully before donating, and watch out for scammers.
It is important to be comfortable with each charity’s mission and objectives. They cannot act outside them without running the risk of being deregistered.
We can search for information on all charities using the commission’s charity search tool www.acnc.gov.au/charity, or for smaller sets of charities using charity ranking sites such as:
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission already does a lot, but given the power, there’s more it could do.
It could require funds raised for emergencies to be kept in trust, and reported on in more detail at regular intervals through a running statement of distribution of funds.
It could require further standardised reporting, although this would be expensive and charities are already heavily criticised for the percentage of funds used for administration.
It could also set up a one-stop shop for disaster relief.
The department of foreign affairs set up one for foreign disasters that was first used for the Bangladesh-Myanmar appeal in 2017, bringing together eight Australian charities to create a single website and a single phone number that could be used to direct calls to each individual charity.
There are understandable calls to do the same thing for domestic disasters.
Some charities might not welcome combined appeals, fearing they would reduce their own visibility and impose more hurdles. But the hurdles shouldn’t be impossible to leap. A global organisation has been set up to ensure best practice.
How to select a disaster relief charity
A government-certified single point of contact, backed up with specific reporting requirements, could provide a level of certainty that the public feel more comfortable with in times of emergency in the future.
Recent disastrous bushfires have rebooted debate about how to (re)build in the Australian bush. Questions are being asked about building standards, whether a fire-proof home is possible, the value of fire bunkers when it’s too late to leave, and if we should even live in the bush any more.
I suggest homes and community buildings in bushfire-prone areas can be made much more fire-resistant, perhaps even fire-proof, by adopting earth-covered, off-grid structures – known as Earthships – as the new standard.
Houses sheltered by earth have a higher chance of survival in a bushfire. This is because earth-based constructions are non-flammable (while topsoil can burn and smoulder, clayey, sandy and gravelly soil does not).
A typical Earthship design has double-glazed windows to the north to let in winter sun, while mounds of earth, pushed up to roof level, protect the south, east and west walls. Taking this a step further, an earth-covered house includes a layer of earth over the roof.
The north-facing double-glazed windows (an essential element of passive solar design) is the only part of the building that needs some other protection.
Bushfire building codes and standards already demand that windows have extra-thick, toughened glass to resist burning debris and intense heat. Double glazing (two layers of glass separated by a small air gap) offers extra protection. In very high-risk areas, bushfire shutters are a requirement.
Although not demanded by building codes, automated sprinklers could be used to spray water on the windows. But automated systems are problematic during a bushfire when power and water supplies are likely to fail.
Independent water supplies (big water tanks) and pumps (usually petrol or diesel) are often a condition of approval for new homes in fire-prone areas. However, these are difficult to automate because of choke, throttle, ignition and refuelling issues.
Enter the Earthship. Invented by American architect Michael Reynolds, thousands have been built all over the world, often by owner-builders.
I built Australia’s first council-approved Earthship – Earthship Ironbank – in the bushfire-prone Adelaide hills. Australian examples can be found in all states, including at Ironbank in South Australia, Kinglake in Victoria, East Augusta and Jurien Bay in Western Australia, and Narara and Marulan in New South Wales.
Earthships have an electric pump powered by solar panels and a battery for day-to-day water supply – and to fight fires. Sprinklers can then spray water on any vulnerable areas regardless of grid failures and without needing to deal with the flammable fuel that petrol and diesel pumps require.
The standard Earthship design has another feature that could save lives. Underground pipes called earth-tubes or cooling tubes bring fresh air into the building at a nice temperature (better than outside) due to the heat-exchanging effect of the earth around the pipes. When wet fabric is placed over the end of the pipes, these can filter out bushfire smoke.
Earth-covered homes are very air-tight, which combined with the earth-tubes helps keep out smoke and reduce asphyxiation risks.
Another defence mechanism is the “greenhouse”, a sunroom and corridor space on the sunny north side used for passive heating and cooling, treating wastewater and growing food. Yet another layer of double glazing isolates the greenhouse from the living spaces behind it. Adding indoor sprinklers (commonplace in commercial buildings) to the greenhouse could create a “wet buffer zone” and stop embers blowing into living areas where flammable furnishings are a hazard.
An iconic Earthship feature is the tyres used to form the exterior earth walls. While empty tyres are highly flammable, in this design they are not. The tyres are filled with compacted earth and protected by a layer of earth many metres thick (inside walls are rendered). There is already evidence of their fire-resistant nature.
My PhD research focused on the energy efficiency and environmental footprint of the Earthship, comparing it to other construction systems and designs.
Earth is a low-cost, readily available material. It takes very little energy to dig it up, needs no processing and minimal (if any) transport. It is difficult to think of a more sustainable, inexpensive and non-flammable material.
I found off-grid homes minimise their eco-footprint by kicking three very dirty habits: the power, water and sewage grids. “Earthy” construction methods, such as Earthship, rammed earth, mudbrick and strawbale, also have much lower environmental impacts.
Earth-covered buildings are renowned for their energy efficiency. Earth insulates and has “thermal mass”, an architectural term for dense materials (e.g. concrete, brick, rammed earth, water). Thermal mass evens out temperature changes by absorbing heat when it is too hot inside and releasing heat when it is too cold inside. This means minimal heating and cooling bills.
There are a few “tricks” to getting council approval. Hire an experienced structural engineer and use a private certifier or surveyor for building rules consent as they are better equipped to certify compliance with the National Construction Code. The one aspect of the Earthship I couldn’t get approved was an indoor greywater garden and toilet-flushing system.
Parts of the roof are earth-covered with fire-fighting sprinklers on the roof and windows. If I was building again I’d prioritise bushfire resilience by making it fully earth-covered with fire shutters, sprinklers and a safe room.
Further study is needed to scientifically validate my proposal here. However, we already have some evidence that Earthships, with a few minor design changes, might be the most sustainable, liveable, economical, fire-resistant buildings ever conceived of.