Australia’s Black Summer of bushfires in 2019–20 was utterly unprecedented. Fires started in winter then burned through spring and summer until flooding rains caused a different type of catastrophe in countless communities already struggling to cope and recover. 2019 was the hottest year ever recorded in Australia, and in many parts the driest, following years of punishing drought. Temperature records were broken by large margins on multiple occasions, with parts of Sydney reaching almost 50°C.
Forests along the east coast were primed for disaster, and ultimately nearly a quarter of eastern broadleaf forests succumbed to the flames, against a yearly average of 3–5%. There had never been fires of this magnitude ever before, with at least 17 million hectares swept by flames. Ancient rainforests unchanged for millions of years that had never before burned intensely, burned freely. In the state of New South Wales (NSW), where the worst previous bushfire disasters in 1994 and 2013 had each destroyed just over 200 homes, 2,476 homes were destroyed together with thousands of other buildings including schools, factories, shops and community buildings.
My motivation for writing Firestorm came not only from my months of fighting the most intense, deadly fires I had ever seen, back on the front line as a volunteer firefighter following my retirement as Commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW in 2017, but also from the blatant misinformation circulated by some politicians and parts of the media during the fires. The campaign of misinformation was aimed squarely at discrediting the undeniable and growing body of scientific fact proving the link between extreme weather, fires and human-caused climate change. It was also intended to cover up the fact that the Australian Government was, and remains, a laggard internationally on efforts to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Early in 2019 I spoke at length to former colleagues, all former chiefs of Australian fire and emergency services, about the serious fire season experienced in 2018 and continuing drought conditions. All of us were convinced that a fire catastrophe was imminent.
With assistance and advice from Australia’s Climate Council, a non-profit group, I set up Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA), a group of 23 former fire and emergency chiefs representing every fire service in Australia. ELCA continues to grow and there are now 35 members. We wrote to the Prime Minister in April and May 2019 warning of a looming fire catastrophe and requested a meeting so that we could reinforce concerns held by current fire chiefs (who were constrained from speaking out by the politics of climate change) and to suggest practical measures the national government could take to assist state and territory governments primarily responsible for emergency response. The suggestions included more national funding for large firefighting aircraft (requested by current chiefs but denied) and simplification of call-out processes for military support to emergency services. We were ignored, ridiculed and criticised, in the same way that climate scientists had been for decades. Eventually, when we became a political and media problem for the government, it reluctantly agreed to a meeting in December 2019. By then hundreds of homes had been destroyed and lives lost – it was far too late.
Firestorm tells this story but most importantly explains through the eyes of a firefighter how Australian fire seasons and fire weather started to change for the worse over the decades, becoming noticeable in the late 1990s. It details signature events that underlined how a slightly warmer climate was having a disproportionate effect on the scale and intensity of fires, such as the 1994 bushfires in NSW, the devastating fire disaster and fire tornado in Canberra in 2003 and the tragic Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009 that claimed 173 lives.
Firestorm starts with my first big fire in 1971, which I fought beside my father Jack, a long-term volunteer firefighter, who taught me how to understand fire weather patterns, cycles and natural indicators suggesting that a serious fire season was on the way. I then detail some of the major fires I fought over the years in a changing environment, concluding with stories from the front lines of the 2019–20 disaster. Over the decades I witnessed how weather conditions were subtly changing, fire seasons were starting earlier and lasting longer, and the most serious seasons, formerly about a decade apart around Sydney, were starting to happen every five or six years.
The book is carefully referenced and grounded in scientific fact so that readers can pursue further research. It details, for example, how formerly rare pyroconvective events including fire-generated lightning storms with no rain became commonplace during Black Summer. Pyroconvective events occur when convection columns above massive, intense fires push into the stratosphere and link with the upper atmosphere, sometimes bringing storm-force winds and very dry air down to the surface, or spawning dreaded pyrocumulonimbus clouds (fire storms) that can lead to fire tornadoes and sudden downbursts with winds coming from all directions. Research has identified that from 1978 to 2018 there were just 60 recorded pyroconvective storms across the whole of Australia. But during the six months of fire in 2019–20, there were up to 39. This underlines how years of drying and higher temperatures have made forests more flammable, leading to fires of extremely high intensity.
Another facet of the worsening fire problem in Australia is increased fire ignitions caused by lightning, often in remote, inaccessible country. Research has established that a long-term drying trend since the 1970s – at least 12% less winter rainfall in south-east Australia and 20% less in the south-west – has resulted in dryer fuels with ignitions from lightning strikes becoming more common, particularly in places like Tasmania where they were formerly rare. There is also evidence that as the climate warms, dry lightning storms are becoming more common.
Australia is not the only country facing intensifying fires. Wildfires are now happening in countries where they were previously uncommon, such as the UK, Greenland and Siberia, and they are worsening in places including the USA, Canada, Europe, South America and parts of Asia.
Fire professionals have a duty to understand changing hazards and risks faced by communities they serve and protect, and to advise on measures that will help to keep people as safe as possible. As the world continues its inexorable warming, driven by the production of greenhouse gases from the burning of coal, oil and gas, fire safety professionals need to not only advocate for better building standards, better fire detection and suppression arrangements and technologies, public education and community resilience programmes but also add our voices to the increasing calls for all countries to hasten their efforts toward net zero emissions as quickly as possible. Put simply, we need to dial down the heat to reduce the risks.
As the Australian Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements concluded, the planet will continue to warm until mid-century. Existing emissions in the atmosphere have locked in a worsening of heatwaves, droughts, fires, floods and storms. The Royal Commission then made the stark point that what happens after mid-century relies entirely on the trajectory of emissions reductions from today – if we continue the current trajectory, disaster risks will continue to worsen, and fires like Black Summer will become the norm. If instead the world acts in concert to radically reduce emissions and reach net zero as quickly as possible, there is a chance that we can stabilise warming, then eventually bring temperatures down. It is vital that we understand this and do everything in our power to help make it happen. The safety, security and prosperity of future generations are in our hands. Firestorm ends on this note of hope.
Firestorm. Battling super-charged natural disasters. 2021. Author: Greg Mullins. Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia. Available through Amazon, Booktopia and other online distributors.
For more information, go to https://www.penguin.com.au/books/firestorm-9781761040917