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Black Christmas: In Australia, a year-end wildfire destroyed homes, killed wildlife and burned nearly 2 million acres. The effects--and what to do next--are still being decided.

As the long days of Australia's hot summer crept towards Christmas 2001, park rangers, firefighters, and people living in wooded areas listened to the weather forecasts with growing dread.

Usually the southern hemisphere's summer months, which are December, January, and February, bring frequent soaking rains. But at the end of last year, rainfall in the large eastern state of New South Wales was well below average--up to 90 percent lower in some areas--and the widespread woods and heath-lands were tinder-dry.

By the last week of the year the mercury was spiking to more than 100 degrees Farenheit with gale force winds, the classic weather for buslifires, as wildfires in Australia are called, On Christmas day the first flames broke out, and within hours bushfires were burning up and down the eastern part of the state.

Twenty-two exhausting days later, when the weather changed and the last blazes were finally brought under control, 170 homes and more than 200 sheds, shops, and apartments had been destroyed; dozens of cars, trailers, and boats; many head of livestock; and countless wild animals.

But 15,000 other structures had been saved and no lives lost among residents or the army of volunteer and professional firefighters and support staff from around the country who had been battling the flames. They were feted with a ticker-tape parade down the main street of Sydney.

The Christmas 2001 outbreak was to become the worst bushfire episode in the state's history, with more than 900 fires, nearly 2,000 miles of fire perimeter, and more than 1.86 million acres of forest and shrubland burned. City outskirts were damaged, and the fire situation dominated every news report and every conversation.

Bushfires are no rarity in Australia. About the size of the United States' lower 48, it is arguably the driest continent on earth and its climates range from mediterranean' through subtropical to tropical. And while much of the central and western areas of the country are sparsely populated desert or semi-desert, much of the southern and eastern seaboard is wooded.

In the latest fires, as in ones that hit Sydney, the country's largest city, in 1994, sunny skies over the city were smeared with a dull red layer of smoke, producing an eerie light like an eclipse. Plumes of smoke stretched 200 miles out over the Pacific. Sydney's air pollution was the worst ever recorded, forcing some flights to be diverted to other cities and causing breathing problems for asthmatics.

One air traveler reported, "as soon as we were over the northern edge of Sydney I could only see a blanket of brown smoke as far as the eye could see." Roads were closed, and big flakes of ash and burned leaves rained down on urban backyards and gardens. In many suburbs, the flames glowed on the horizon at night.

An unexpected side effect, also seen in Australia after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines, was a series of brilliant smoke-induced sunsets.

HOW THEY HAPPEN

Bushfires caused by lightning strikes have always happened in Australia, but human activity has greatly increased their frequency, starting with the first Aboriginal settlers who arrived 40,000 years ago from southeast Asia. Some scientists believe that they radically transformed the landscape by using fire as a hunting tool.

But Aboriginal population densities were quite low. Today, 214 years after the arrival of Europeans, almost 85 percent of the country's nearly 20 million people live on just 1 percent of the land--around the coasts and in the cities. Strangely enough for such a big, empty country, Australia is one of the most urbanized nations on earth, and that has put constantly increasing pressure on the environment around the built-up areas.

Through carelessness or maliciousness, many of Australia's bushfires are caused by humans. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, 154 of last summer's fires were started by individuals. Of these, 20 were accidental and the remainder either deliberately lit or still under investigation.

While some people are starting fires, others are trying to prevent them. As in other areas of the world suffering from high fire risk, Australian authorities--the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Rural Fire Service and others--carry out fire prevention and hazard reduction activities. These range from cutting access trails and firebreaks to early forecasting of dangerous weather conditions, closing parks and forests at high risk times, and imposing total fire bans.

DIVERSE ECOSYSTEMS

New South Wales is a big state, averaging about 550 miles from north to south, and it contains a wide range of ecosystems along its eastern seaboard, where the fires occurred. Much of the region is rocky, and plant cover includes coastal heath, dry open sclerophyll, or woody-leaved, shrublands, tall forests, and some small pockets of rainforest.

Eucalypts (commonly known here as gums) dominate almost everywhere. Australia has hundreds of species that thrive in almost every ecological niche from arid savannah to moist rainforest to snow-clad mountain. Most are tall, nondeciduous softwoods with pale smooth bark and foliage that's light, sparse, and usually blue-green. In some varieties the thin, dry leaves contain a volatile oil that evaporates in hot weather. This oil, suspended in the air, creates the bluish haze that gives the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney, scene of many of the 2001-2002 fires, their name.

Eucalypt forest burns easily and fiercely, but it's not the volatile all that's the culprit. Gum trees shed their long, leathery leaves continuously, forming a combustible layer on the ground.

According to Ross Bradstock, fire ecologist with the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, "eucalypts produce a woody leaf litter which doesn't rot away or decompose very readily. So it accumulates quite rapidly around the bases of plants and forms a carpet on the floor of the forest. It makes a relatively continuous layer of fuel very quickly."

FIGHTING BACK

Within days of the first outbreaks, the fires had spread in patches up and down more than 450 miles of country, with the biggest concentrations occurring in a 100-mile radius of Sydney. Thousands of residents were evacuated.

Teams of firefighters from a number of different organizations, most notably the professional NSW Fire Brigade and the volunteer Rural Fire Service and State Emergency Service, worked in ferocious conditions through round-the-clock shifts for three weeks to isolate, back-burn, and quench the flames. Altogether some 20,000 people joined the effort, including many volunteers from other parts of Australia.

Hundreds of aircraft were used, including three gigantic helitankers shipped in from the United States, each carrying nearly 2,000 gallons of water at a time to 'bomb' fires back to a point where ground-based firefighters could move in to finish the job. Police helicopters used infrared detectors to define fire locations through the thick pall of smoke, and to spot invisible subsurface burning.

Most fires were away from population centers, but a number of urban outskirts were destroyed or threatened. Firefighters even pumped water from some residents' swimming pools to fight the approaching flames.

COPING ... OR NOT

Because of the age-old natural occurrence of fire in Australia, many of the plants and animals that live there have evolved ways of coping with, or even benefiting from, bushfires. Like plants in similar conditions elsewhere in the world, shrubs such as banksia and hakea protect their seeds from fire by storing them in woody cones that release them when burned. Some plants even need a periodic scorching in order to germinate.

Fire, of course, affects animals as well, and Australia is home to some of the world's most unique species. Many live in portions of New South Wales affected by the fires. Its almost 700 species of birds include large and small parrots, hawks, and smaller heath and woodland types including the famous 'laughing' kookahurra, a cousin of the kingfisher.

There are several kinds of bat, most notably the big 'flying foxes,' or fruit hats, with their 3-foot wingspans, common residents of Sydney as well as further afield. The reptile population ranges from a variety of venomous and harmless snakes to the endangered blue-tongued lizard and the goanna, a monitor lizard that grows to 8 feet. Insects abound: flies, for which the outback is famous; highly poisonous spiders, and tropical inhabitants of small pockets of rainforest.

Of course Australia is best known for its marsupial mammals: several species of kangaroo and their smaller cousins, the wallabies; the sweet-faced rural-and urban-dwelling ring-tailed possum; and the chubby hairy-nosed wombat. Then there's the duck-billed platypus, with the body of an otter and the beak and feet of Donald Duck; the sugar glider, a small possum whose skin stretches between fore and hind legs, providing "wings" with which to glide from tree to tree; and of course Australia's signature koalas.

Though you'll never see 'roos around the cities, the current kangaroo population Australia-wide is estimated at 19 million to 27 million. Some species live in light woodlands, although most generally prefer open country where their great speed is an advantage in escaping dangers such as Australia's wild native dog, the dingo.

Australia's other signature species, the koala, is threatened by habitat destruction (they're territorial and loathe to move), a low breeding rate, and a debilitating viral epidemic. Koalas eat only eucalyptus leaves and live only in eucalyptus forests, which limits their range of available food and makes them especially vulnerable to bushfires.

Koalas number fewer than 100,000 across the continent, and experts say it could take 15 years for the New South Wales populations to recover from the fires.

Although animals were lost--the exact number killed or injured is unknown--the sketchy picture emerging now is that the death toll was not as bad as initially feared. Some even found ways to benefit from the fires.

"For seed-eating animals," says fire ecologist Bradstock, "it's like Christmas after a fire, because there are seeds everywhere. You often see parrots and cockatoos hanging around burnt areas, and a lot of native rats probably aren't doing badly at all."

A lack of cover, however, increases their risk of being eaten by a raptor or fox, he adds.

Small mammals such as bush rats and marsupial carnivores survived the fires by hiding under boulders and in damp rock crevasses. Wombats and many reptiles burrowed underground.

Others weren't so lucky. Slow-moving animals and those living in trees--animals such as koalas, possums, and gliders--were most at risk. When the fires were intense enough to burn the crowns of the trees, these animals had nowhere to go.

John Callaghan, chief ecologist of the Australian Koala Foundation, says "what they would do is climb to the tops of trees and tuck themselves into a ball, covering their sensitive parts such as their nose, ears and eyes." Thousands of animals were killed or injured, and many survivors were so badly burned they had to be destroyed.

One Sydney local reported that, "in suburbs near national parks, residents frequently found native animals such as snakes, possums, and echidnas [spiny anteaters] wandering across roads, because they had nowhere else to go. Some got hit by cars."

LESSONS

So how bad, really, were the recent New South Wales fires?

While it's impossible to generalize because different areas were affected differently, the effects were fairly benign in places that had had 10 to 20 years to recover since the last fire, Bradstock says.

"However there have been other places, like the Royal National Park, [a large park located just beyond Sydney's southern fringes] where we've had three major fires in the last 14 years," he adds.

"This last fire has burned about 60 percent of the park, and [in] a fair proportion of that, the time between fires was not enough for regeneration capacity to be rebuilt. So we're seeing adverse changes, such as the decline of prominent species of plants. This has spinoff effects, like the decline of a lot of shrubs, which changes the habitat for animals," such as wombats and other small marsupials.

Although for most places the overall results are probably not too bad, Bradstock says, "there will be instances where there are problems developing, and if we get a couple of more big fires in those areas over the next decade, we'll be in quite serious trouble."

Whether those "couple of more big fires" occur or not depends, of course, in part on the weather. But it also depends on what people do and don't do.

Bushfire management presents a vastly complex set of problems, and there is still much to learn. In the next year, the results of a 6-year study of fire behavior based on the 1994 Sydney fires are to be released, and they should tell us much about the best way forward. Most experts agree, however, that greater public awareness and education are essential to success.

Whatever approaches are finally taken, Australia, with its unique flora and fauna and vast biodiversity, has everything to gain from bushfire management, and nothing to lose.

RELATED ARTICLE: In Russia, Wildfires Imperil Siberian Tigers

Hundreds of forest fires swept through the Russian Far East in mid-May, burning tens of thousands of acres, destroying trees and threatening Russia's endangered Siberian tiger. AMERICAN FORESTS has planted more than 300,000 Korean pine in the area known as Primorsky Krai, which runs along the coast of the Sea of Japan. At press time, those areas had been spared, although our Russian partner, Sergei Ganzei with the Russian Academy of Sciences, was keeping a wary eye on the blazes.

According to an Environment News Service story, dry weather and strong winds combined to create fires so widespread that the Emergency Situations Ministry in Khabarovsk declared a state of emergency throughout the region. Authorities rushed nearly 2,000 firefighters, paratroopers, and civilians and 363 firefighting vehicles to the site. Especially dry conditions have been compounded by illegal logging, in which valuable timber is removed and limbs and butts left behind. The area is popular with campers and picnickers, as well, adding to the potential fire hazards.

Since 1997 the United States and Russia have worked together to control the deadly fires by creating a GIS mapping analysis of the area. Working together on this project are the U.S. Forest Service, the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the federal Forest Service of Russia.

The situation there is especially grave because of the endangered status of the tigers. There are believed to be only about 450 Siberian tigers left in the wild, most in the Russian Far East. AMERICAN FORESTS has been working with the Pacific Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences to expand the tiger's habitat. Planting trees to expand reserves and create corridors between protected tiger reserves is one tangible way to help the big cats survive and multiply. All our sites have fire breaks around them.

As we receive more news about the Russian wildfires, we wil post updates on our website, www.americanforests.org

David Halperin is a freelance writer based in Cremorne, New South Wales.
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Author:Halperin, David
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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