Players train at the Auckland ASB Tennis Center in January under an orange sky, due to smoke emanating from Australian bushfires. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The unusual nature of Australia’s Black Summer bushfires may have marked the beginning of a fire-fueled “ice age” and the world appears to have “crossed the threshold” into a more dangerous future, said a global fire historian.
Professor Emeritus Stephen Pyne at Arizona State University is a former firefighter in the US who has previously studied Australian fires for his 1991 book, Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia.
Pyne said the 2019/2020 fires, which tore through 24 to 40 million hectares of scrub in several states and territories, marked the start of a global fire year.
“I think there will be a legacy because the fires are not limited to Australia, they continue to hit the western United States, they are in Europe and Siberia.”
Pyne said the scale of the Black Summer fires set it apart from fires in previous years.
“While there are no individual fires in Australia or elsewhere that are unprecedented, I think the scale is different because they come as a herd.”
Pyne previously thought the Black Saturday fires, which claimed the lives of 173 people in Victoria in 2009, had set a limit for what a single fire can do, but last year’s fire season swelled to months of continuous burning.
“What makes fires different in general is the large-scale swarm effect. It’s not two or three days apart outbreaks, they continued.
“I think of it as the ‘rolling thunder effect.’ When they come in a sequence like that, it just keeps expanding.”
Pyne said California is also a spectacular example of this, with the state experiencing the fourth consecutive year of historic fires.
He said that not all fires have the same cause, the fires in the Amazon are also related to land clearing and those that occur in Indonesia are related to draining tropical peatlands.
“But everywhere, fire seems to be a manifestation of the broken relationship between humans and nature,” he said.
“I think we have the potential to cross the threshold this year.”
NEW ‘AGE OF FIRE’
Pyne believes the way humans manage natural landscapes, combined with the treatment of fossil fuels, may have given birth to a new “ice age”.
“We take stuff from our geological past and burn it without understanding the effect, and this is released into our future.”
He said that the increasing severity of fire was a manifestation of this activity, which also changed sea levels and caused widespread extinctions of plants and animals.
“We are reshaping the planet directly and indirectly.”
In the same way that ice is seen as a physical manifestation of changes in Earth’s temperature during the Pleistocene era, fire can be a manifestation of a new era that Pyne calls the Pyrocene era.
“For the fires in Australia, it turns out to be what led to an extraordinary global fire year, and it can also be taken as an indisputable marker for what I think of as our new fire age.”
Pyne believes that the smoke from fires, which obscure cities like Sydney and Canberra for days, could eventually get people to notice what’s going on around them, just as the dust storms of the 1930s sparked action in the dust bowl in America. .
He said action was being taken about agricultural practices when Washington DC began to feel the effects of massive dust storms spreading far from central US areas.
“This changed the discourse and suddenly it became a national issue. This gives extra urgency to many conservation programs and makes the issue visible to the public and Congress.
“My feeling is the smoke will do it for this last year’s fire.
“It makes visibility of impact clear to a larger audience and it can lead to change.”
Smoke from the Australian fires reached New Zealand and was reported to other areas around the world, while the smoke from the US fires was spreading to places people said were immune to fire, making it an unprecedented public health problem.
“I think people have a very high tolerance for fire images – they’re dramatic but limited to certain places, but smoke can spread widely,” said Pyne.
This way, the Black Summer fires can have a longer impact.
“I was tempted to think that it was a historical fire, but it might also be a fire depending on our response.”
Pyne said that fire is in our future no matter what we do.
“We have to control the fossil fuel burning party but even after this stabilizes or reverses, there will still be a lot of fires and we have to do a lot more than we did before.
“They are not leaving… we have a huge debt and we also have to put a lot of fire back into the environment.
“Even if we stop burning fossil fuels and step up our action on climate change, there will be a lot of fires in our future.
“It can be wild or devastating, or it can be controlled and actually produce good benefits.
“But it won’t go away.”
With the US still facing the repercussions of the presidential election, which Donald Trump still rejects, Pyne said Australia was in a better position to take action.
“You are really at the forefront, you are equipped with world-class fire science and forest fire fighting skills,” he said.
“I hope Australia can make the move and start responding in an engaged and informed way, in a way that the US and even Canada cannot.
“This is something that Australia can really lead, can engage with landscapes and fires, and cultural discussions are an interesting part of that too.”
Pyne said it’s not just about doing one big thing to solve climate change and fix the problem, there are lots of little things that can be done too, and these actions may differ in many areas.
“We need to decide what the problem is in each particular place and what kind of treatment suite makes sense there.”