Built to Burn

No one knows more about the history and ecology of fire than Stephen Pyne. “Australia,” he writes today, “is a fire continent: it is built to burn.

To this general combustibility its southeast corner 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 channel that fans flames which, for scale and savagery, have no equal on earth.

Still, even Pyne calls Saturday’s fires a “horror.” And that speaks volumes. As he notes, “Australia has filled the weekly¬† calendar with Red Tuesdays, Ash Wednesdays, Black Thursdays, and is having to re-number its sequals. There was a black Saturday on February 12, 1977, but Black Saturday II is a bad bushfire on steroids.”

Pyne’s essay should be required reading for people living in flammable landscapes and especially for the planners, politicians and land managers that shape the built landscapes of these vulnerable communities. The bottom line, he writes:

With or without global warming or arson, damaging fires will come, spread as the landscape allows and inflict damage as structures permit. And it is there – with how Australians live on the land – that reform must go.

What this means, he insists, is fighting fire with fire:

The choice is whether skilled people should backburn or leave fire-starting to lightning, clumsies and crazies.

Over at Resilience Science, however, Garry Peterson says that Pyne “understates the change in settlement patterns, as increasing number of people live in ex-urban areas that complicate fire management.”

Hmm, from where I’m sitting (Boulder, Colorado), that certainly is true. Should the arid Southwest, with its own drought woes, growing ex-urban population, and fire-starved landscape, pay close attention to Australia’s agony?

One Response to “Built to Burn”

  1. John says:

    There’s a very different version of this essay at the Forest History Society blog site. It’s worth reading that one for the contrast. http://fhsarchives.wordpress.com/2009/02/10/historian-stephen-j-pyne-on-the-australian-fires/

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