Historian Stephen J. Pyne on the Australian Fires

By Guest Contributor on February 10, 2009

We’ve asked Stephen Pyne, an environmental historian who has written about fire around the world, to offer his thoughts on the bushfires in Australia. As of this publication date, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island had burned and the death toll neared 200.

Black Saturday: The Sequel

The fires are a horror, even by Australian standards, which is saying much.  But for those of us who have long admired Australia’s gritty resolve in the face of conflagrations and have regarded it as a firepower for the caliber of its fire sciences and its bushfire brigades, the recent spectacle arouses dismay and sadness as well.

This is not the first such eruption.  Australia has filled up the weekly calendar with Red Tuesdays, Ash Wednesdays, Black Thursdays, and so on.  The chronicle is having to appeal to holidays like Black Christmas and renumber its sequels.  Black Saturday II is a monster: the bad bushfire on steroids.  But it is not an alien visitation.  It is a recurring nightmare, at times worse, at times less savage, and Australians seem unable to do anything but fight and flee, and curse and console.


The reason for the fires is simple.  Australia is a fire continent: it is built to burn.  To this general combustibility its southeast adds a pattern of seasonal winds, associated with cold fronts that draft scorching, unstable air from the interior across whatever flame lies on the land.  At such times the region becomes a colossal fire flume that fans flames which for scale and savagery have no equal elsewhere on Earth.

But even heat waves do not kindle fires of themselves, and cyclonic winds do not drive fire in the same way they do storm surges.  Fire is not a physical substance: it is a reaction.  It feeds on the vegetation, and whatever climatic forces exist must be integrated into that combustible biomass.  Fire, that is, synthesizes its surroundings.  Understand its setting, and you understand fire.  Control that setting, and you control fire.


What saddens many of us is that Australia knows better.  It developed many key concepts of fire ecology and models of bushfire behavior.  It pioneered landscape-scale prescribed burning as a method of bushfire management.  It devised the protocol for structure protection in the bush, especially, the ingenious stratagem of leaving early or staying, preparing, and defending.  In recent decades, it has beefed up active suppression capabilities and emergency response services.

Almost uniquely, Australia seemed to have gotten the basics right, certainly better than the muscle-bound, paramilitary response of North America.  That approach only set up an ecological insurgency which summer surges of hardware and firefighters could never quell.  Americans looked to Australia especially as a cognate country that knew how to replace feral fire with tame fire.

Yet Australia keeps enduring the same Sisyphean cycle of calamitous conflagrations in the same places.  It isn’t getting what it knows into its practices.  It seems to be abandoning its historic solutions for precisely the kind of telegenic suppression operations and political theater that have failed elsewhere.  Even when controlled burning is accepted “in principle,” there always seems a reason not to burn in this place or at this time.  The burning gets outsourced to lightning, accident, and arson.

It’s too early to identify the particulars behind this most recent catastrophe.  But it’s likely that investigation will point to the same culprits, perhaps aggravated by climate change and arson.  Both are reasons, and both are also potential misdirections.  Global warming might magnify outbreaks, but it means a change in degree, not in kind; and its effects must still be absorbed by the combustible cover.  Arson can put fire in the worst place at the worst time, but its power depends on ignition’s capacity to spread and on flame to destroy susceptible buildings.

Neither is basic.  With or without global warming or arson, damaging fires will come, they will spread as the landscape allows, and they will inflict damage as structures permit.  And it is there – with how Australians live on the land – that reform must go.


Australia will have fire, and it will recycle the conditions that can leverage small flames into holocausts.  The choice is whether to kindle those fires with some degree of deliberation, or whether to leave that task to lightning, clumsies, and crazies.

After the 1939 Black Friday conflagration, a royal commission set into motion the modern era of bushfire management.  At the time the official ambition of state-sponsored conservation was to eliminate fire as far as possible, and through fire exclusion, ultimately to alter the very character of the landscape so that it would become less fire prone.  Judge Stretton asked the nation’s forester why he continued to hold this view when it had never succeeded, when bushfires had inevitably wiped out his every repeated effort.  Wryly, Stretton mocked the absurdity of those who sought to make sunburnt Australia into green England.

It seems likely that Black Saturday II will yield another royal commission.  Much has changed over 70 years; Australians are more urban, more sensitive to environmental issues, keener to protect unique ecological assets.  Yet perhaps they are substituting another, more modern delusion, striving to remake the burning bush into an unburnt Oz, only to find this vision also repeatedly obliterated by remorseless fire.

I hope not.  We don’t need a Black Saturday III.

Stephen J. Pyne is a professor at Arizona State University. He is the author of Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia (1991) and The Still-Burning Bush (2006).  You can read two of Steve’s essays on fire in the wildland-urban interface in the most recent issue of Forest History Today.  His FHS Issues Series book, America’s Fires: Management of Wildlands and Forests, is currently being revised and updated.
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0 responses to “Historian Stephen J. Pyne on the Australian Fires”

  1. Carol Fort says:

    An interesting aspect of our current fire season is the media concentration on arson. Possibly because of the immense loss of life ( deaths are expected to reach over 3000 there have been media reports that represent arsonists as ‘mass murderers’. Governments have announced that they already have policies of surveillance of known arsonists during high-risk seasons, with the implication that ‘surveillance’ will intensify. So. Professor Pyne is right. It looks as though crisis-provoked institutional change will concentrate on social and legal changes in attitudes to arsonists while we delicately avoid saying anything about the wisdom (or otherwise) of building houses on the edge of national park forests. Carol Fort, Historian, Flinders University, South Australia.

  2. […] in this insightful analysis published on the Forest History Society’s blog, environmental historian Stephen Pyne cautions […]

  3. There has been an intensive effort by forest industries to avert the spotlight from the actual pattern of the fires, which overwhelmingly burned down ‘managed’ forests, including plantations. “G/greens” were blamed (unjustly) for opposing burning-off. The hugely important fact, that old growth (non-managed) forests were able to resist wholesale conflagration, compared to managed forest which went up like matches has been avoided in public information and debate. The role of the State government in pushing population growth beyond the natural water catchment capacity of the State, which has led to farm dams being filled and gardens being left to dry out and die, must have played a part in the ability of the land to protect itself.

    http://candobetter.org, of which I am an editor and writer received news anonymously from the field (but which can be confirmed) and from government sources about the real issues of vulnerability, and I have cut and pasted them below. More at http://candobetter.org/node/1069 and elsewhere on the site. (Thank you for your site, which I have just found.)

    “How after 12 years of drought and the recent mega fires and a policy of so much fuel reduction burning, do we get the claimed record levels of fuel. But how do you control a fire under the following circumstances?
    1. Temperatures where there hottest ever recorded at 47 degrees.
    2. Relative humidity in single figures and winds constantly hitting 100kmh.
    3. A 12 year drought.
    4. 1ml of rain in 6 weeks.
    5. The previous week had a run of 5 days each over 40 degrees. Unheard of.

    Pattern of burning in specific locations

    1) Much of the fire burnt most intensively through dry forest. On the Modis fire satellite image, the fire appears to have burnt these forests most intensively, whereas the wetter forests are patchy. The towns of Marysville, Kinglake and St Andrews are surrounded by these drier forest types, where we see the highest levels of devastation.

    2) These fires burnt very aggressively in plantations. The Churchill fire burnt through large areas of plantations. These are intensively managed for wood production, with no understorey or fuel loads, yet these burned very intensively.

    3) Around Whittlesea, Wallan and East Kilmore, much of these fires burnt through long grass on farmland. The argument of forest protection around these areas is irrelevant, given that these areas are cleared farmlands and had very little forest areas upwind on Saturday.

    4) The fire on Mt Riddle was ignited by a lightning strike and burnt the northern slope. At the beginning of last year, the DSE/Parks Victoria lit a large control burn on this slope, of which it even scorched the crowns of the eucs. This control burn did not prevented the ignition and spread of this fire into Healesville and surrounding forest.

    5) Many of these fires have started on either private land or non-forest areas (ie the fire that burned over Mount Disappointment). The only fire at this stage to have started in National Park was the Mt Riddle Fire.

    6) Large fire breaks had been cut through Mt Disappointment bounding the Wallaby Creek water catchment. This is ‘active management’, yet they were useless in preventing the fire from spreading from the state forest into the protected Wallaby Creek catchment.

    7) It is suspected that the fires west of Mt Disappointment and Yarra Glen, along with Churchill, were deliberately lit. This is a case of managing ‘people’ rather than forests.

    8) These fires are being intensified by a rapidly changing climate. Scientific models developed by the CSIRO have predicted that high fire danger days are going to increase dramatically with increased greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

    9) Scientific studies around the world indicate that highly disturbed ecosystems are more vulnerable to the climate crisis than less disturbed ones.

    What happened during specific fires

    * The Kilmore fire started on the edge of a farmland, was not catchable, ripped through plantations and across huge firebreaks like the Hume freeway and strategic breaks. It had burnt around the farmland trapping people trying to escape out of Kinglake long before it burnt through the National Park and into Kinglake. It burnt quite slowly through the Wallaby Creek catchment (unlogged) compared to the Mt Disappointment state forest. Mt Disappointment state forest is a mecca for 4wds and other recreationists that claim by allowing them into the bush, then fires will be stopped. Eventhough it was still moving at over 10kmh. A fire is pretty well much uncontrollable at around 2kmh.
    * This fire has burnt through the urban interface, the most heavily fire managed areas around. The Kinglake National Park is on very poor quality soils. Hence it is mainly only low growing grasses.
    * The Murrundindi fire started in very close proximity to a timber mill. It burnt to Marysville 20 kms away in just over an hour. This is in the most heavily logged and woodchipped area in Victoria and also a mecca for the 4wd and associated groups. It has spotted across the Acheron valley and raced up areas heavily woodchipped as a crown fire (not initially burning through ground fuel) into the closed O’shannassy water catchment.
    * We are getting a picture that SOME areas of old growth ash forest remained unburnt in the initial fire storm. But they are burning at very low intensity and will hopefully survive.
    The Old growth of Maroondah catchment has generally survived to date but again fires are just starting to enter them. hopefully they will stay at an intensity low enough for the eucs to survive. Apart from Bunyip, I cannot think of any major fire this season that hasn’t been in a plantation or other heavily logged forestry area. It is almost like they are being targeted.”

  4. Jack says:

    I totally agree with Sheila’s response above. I have lived in the Gippsland forests for 30 years, been a volunteer fire fighter for 20 years. I have noticed the same type of fire behaviour. The old growth enclosed canopy forests that have not been subjected to manipulation, tracks, burning, logging – and are more fire-proof. The dense understory creates a damp micro climate and slows down the ferocity of the winds.

    Govt response to fires isn’t to blame the fire danger index of near 200 (50 is considered sever) and climate extremes – it’s to placate the public out for blood. Blame the greenies and burn even more forests to stop it burning (simplistic expectations of the public). Well, burning did no good in these fires. They were fuelled by the dry hot intensity of the climate like we have never seen before. Mother nature threw the rule book out tht day! It’s called climate chaos – and we’re all responsible for it. Bunkers are best answer and looking after what forest we still have that hasn’t been damaged and ‘managed’.

  5. […] let me get this straight: Australia’s tragic fires shouldn’t be pinned on arson, or bad fire managment, or recent settlement patterns, or least of all, parched conditions resulting from cyclical […]

  6. Michael Cassanet says:

    Even if Carole Fort’s message contains a typo (3000 deaths instead of 300) it is still incorrect as the final figure was 209. Perhaps she meant animals, which could certainly be in the realm of 3000.

  7. Danielle Clode, says:

    I think the suggestion that Kinglake National Park is mainly “low growing grass” is a bit misleading. I think you’ll find it’s forest actually—rather dense tall forest. In fact, mainly comprising some of the tallest trees in the world, mountain ash (up to 400 feet tall).

    I’m not sure about some of the conclusions drawn in Sheila’s post. Old growth gullies survive fires because they are wet, not because they are undisturbed (it’s a circular argument). The fires were most severe where the vegetation and forest is thickest. Fuel reduction doesn’t stop fires, but it reduces their severity. And the fires didn’t burn as severely in cleared areas although there were still terrible impacts here. I’m not sure what is claimed by 4WDs but I don’t think anyone would really think that they seriously prevent fires.

    I don’t think fire safety and conservation are in opposition at all. We need to work together for the best ecological and human safety outcome. As Sheila (and Stephen) say, fire management is largely a matter of managing people, not forests.

    Danielle Clode (local resident near St Andrews)

  8. Bianca Ananiev says:

    I live in St Andrews and my property is near Kinglake National Park. We are one of the lucky stories of the 7th February 2009. But we knew that if there would be a fire here it would be devasting. There are some errors in Sheila’s:

    1. There were only 3 day, not 5-6 as she mentions in the week prior to the events.

    2. In 10 years I have seen 2 burn-off (on verry little land, in the middle of St Andrews and in Boomers Reserve, which is near Panton Hill rather than St Andrews).

    The biggest problem is the underground fuel which has been growing over the last decade rather than the drought.

    To be honest I do not wish to anyone to live through what my family had to live through and I wish you all do-gooders would keep your unwanted thoughts to yourself.

    As for how the fire started in St Andrews I still have not receive an answer which can fit the facts of that day.

    Please check your facts before you comment!

  9. oki says:

    Interesting chat, I am currently writing as essay on bushfire in Australia and finding it very difficult to write about something so complicated and personal. I have lived in outta Melbourne bush my whole life and grown up with the ‘recurring nightmare’ of fire danger every summer season. On those days when the land is dry, the temperatures and high and that horrible wind whips around menacingly I feel a familiar anxiousness.
    Fire is a permanent fixture in our lives in this corner of the world, it is pretty well regarded as the most dangerous fire region on the planet. For this reason we have to respect fire, we should be afraid and we should be aware. As we move deeper into the hills to escape the urban sprawl, build beautiful homes in the bush, little slices of paradise, we put ourselves in very real danger. Paradise can and will become engulfed by hellish fire, the degree and the exact time cannot be predicted but it is not a matter of if but when.
    It is not a reason not to live in the hills, they are beautiful and most of the time safe, but residents have a responsibility to be aware and manage the risks. Fuel reduction burning is a major part of that management. So if having adequate water and protective clothing, pumps and woolen blankets, communication with your local CFA and neighbours and the list goes on. After 2009 I now consider that part of that preparation includes leaving your home to protect your life when those rare days of devil weather are predicted.
    Arson is terrifying but not all fires are lit this way and we still live in an area of extreme danger.
    Just one more thing before i try and get back to this essay…the idea that undisturbed ecosystems survive climatic stress better than disturbed landscapes seems a little redundant, all of Australia is a disturbed landscape and had been managed for many thousands of years by people who were well acquainted with fire and its potential.