Australia's Bushfire Blunder

By Keith Kloor | February 12, 2009 12:12 am

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the horrible fires in Australia can be partly attributed to global warming. It’s a legitimate storyline, which many in the media have picked up on.

By and large, these stories have been measured, with the appropriate caveats. (See here and here for two good examples.)

The brutal heat wave that preceded the fires (which Tom Yulsman graphically lays out here), combined with an epic drought, and high winds, set the stage for a tragic disaster that may have been initially caused by arsonists.

Still, in this insightful analysis published on the Forest History Society’s blog, environmental historian Stephen Pyne cautions against fixating on global warming or arson as the agents of destruction:

Both are reasons, and both are also potential misdirections.  Global warming might magnify outbreaks, but it means a change in degree, not in kind; and its effects must still be absorbed by the combustible cover.  Arson can put fire in the worst place at the worst time, but its power depends on ignition’s capacity to spread and on flame to destroy susceptible buildings.

Australia, says Pyne, knows this well. The country “developed many key concepts of fire ecology and models of bushfire behavior.  It pioneered landscape-scale prescribed burning as a method of bushfire management.”

In recent years, however, this knowledge has not been put into practice. Australia, Pyne writes,

seems to be abandoning its historic solutions for precisely the kind of telegenic suppression operations and political theater that have failed elsewhere.  Even when controlled burning is accepted “in principle,” there always seems a reason not to burn in this place or at this time.  The burning gets outsourced to lightning, accident, and arson.

Or global warming.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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