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.