What can be learned from Australian bushfires?

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A firefighter battles flames in an effort to save nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in New South Wales. SAEED KHAN/AFP

Let's start by putting the current Australian bushfires into perspective. The 2019 Amazon rainforest fires burned more than 900,000ha, while California in the US lost 100,000ha last year to fires.

The Australian bushfires have already burned more than six million hectares, which is almost twice the size of Bhutan, and there are still no signs of them slowing down.

Bushfires are common throughout Australia, and indigenous Australians have long used fire as a land management tool. Thus, bushfires are an intrinsic part of Australia’s environment and the natural ecosystems have evolved with fire.

However, at present, Australia is being ravaged by the worst bushfires in decades, with large swathes of the country devastated since last September.

It has intensified over the past week, with a number of towns evacuated and some cities pounded by smoke and walls of flame. Over a thousand homes have been destroyed, forcing hundreds and thousands of people to evacuate. Since the start of the bushfire season, at least 18 people have died, and ecologists at the University of Sydney have estimated that around half a billion animals have perished – which they say is a conservative estimate.

Some of the common causes of bushfires include lightning, arcing from overhead power lines, arson, accidental ignition in the course of agricultural clearing and controlled burn escapes. The basic factors which determine a bushfire include the presence of fuel, oxygen and an ignition source.

The intensity and speed at which a bushfire spreads depends on ambient temperature, fuel load, fuel moisture, wind speed and slope angle. All of which are seemingly present in the Australian landscape with an extended drought period coupled with current summer temperatures.

Bhutan too has witnessed forest fires but now they seem to be getting bigger and increasing in frequency. According to Forestry Facts and Figures, Bhutan witnessed 31 and 39 recorded forest fire incidences in 2017 and 2018 respectively. 2016 witnessed the most recorded incidences of forest fire in the past decade, with 72. This translates to one forest fire every fifth day, and this is serious for a small and resource-constrained country.

It is time explore innovative solutions to either prevent forest fires or to reduce their intensity – and this could be achieved either through extracting resources or through controlled burning.

Several scholars have argued that removing small logs through thinning operations results in the removal of ladder fuels that support crown fires, the most destructive kind. A study from northern Arizona in the US demonstrated that thinning ponderosa pine forests resulted them less likely to support a crown fire.

However, there exists other literature that disagrees with this. It argues that logging operations not only alter micro-climatic conditions, but can also change stocking densities and other forest attributes, such as the plant species composition influencing fire regimes.

For example, logging in moist forests in southeastern Australia shifted the vegetation composition towards the characteristic of drier forests that tend to be more fire-prone.

Similarly, studies from western North America and Asian rainforests indicated that logging-related alterations in composition increased both the risk of occurrence and the severity of subsequent wildfires through changes in fuel types and conditions.

Localised and specialised studies are needed to better understand the forests before jumping to conclusions from practises elsewhere. It needs to be understood that one size does not fit all.

As I write this, state and federal authorities of Australia are struggling to contain the massive blazes, even with firefighting assistance from countries such as the US, Canada and New Zealand. Some of Australia’s largest cities have also been affected.

In December, the smoke was so bad in Sydney that air quality was reported to be 11 times the “hazardous” level. Canberra was also in the same category on New Year’s Eve, when the Air Quality Index (AQI) peaked at 7,700 and remained at over 3,000, when AQI readings below 200 are considered safe.

Australia broke its all-time temperature record in December, when the average maximum temperature hit 42C; however on January 4, Lavington in New South Wales recorded 44C. Hot, dry weather combined with prolonged drought and strong winds have created the perfect conditions for fire to spread rapidly.

Scientists have long warned that a hotter, drier climate will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense. Australian bushfires, Amazon forest fires and California fires may be treated as a strong indication of what is in store for us in the present climate change scenario.

The Himalayas are at the forefront of climate change, and Bhutan cannot afford to silently watch what’s happening elsewhere. We have become vulnerable to many affects of climate change, and one noticeable change is how the monsoon is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

Bhutan should seriously consider investing in localised state-of-the-art research to understand the changing dynamics and develop a road map should disaster strike

Meanwhile, Australia is, unfortunately, just entering its summer season. Normally, temperatures peak in January and February, meaning the country could be months away from finding relief.

Sangay Wangchuk is a researcher at Bhutan’s Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER) and currently studying at Australia’s Charles Sturt University.