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Australia is fighting fire with fire, but running out of time

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“It’s starting to move up the trees!” shouted Jason King as Steve Zieba raced ahead with a hose, slipping on the steep incline before aiming his nozzle at a burning eucalyptus trunk. On the cliffside above them, another crew hauled a water line up sheer rocks and through heavy smoke to replace a hose melted by the blaze.

Even as they battled the flames, the firefighters also fed them, using metal canisters called drip torches to ignite the undergrowth. Two helicopters hovered overhead: one dropping water, the other, incendiary pellets.

For decades, Australian firefighters have tried to peg back bush fires by preempting them. Like soldiers picking the time and terrain for an attack, yellow-clad “firies” routinely burn swaths of forest and scrubland from September to November, before the summer brings soaring temperatures, arid winds and lightning strikes.

These hazard reduction burns — also known as controlled or prescribed burns — are aimed at reducing the likelihood of a serious wildfire, or at least slowing one so firefighters have a fighting chance.

But in this chess game with Mother Nature, humans have put themselves at a disadvantage.

Grass burns during a hazard reduction burn in Sydney’s southwest, Oct. 6. (Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post)
Rural Fire Service members use kerosene drip torches to ignite grassland. (Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post)

Climate change has made Australia’s major fires fiercer and more frequent, scientists say. While the conservative government this week bowed to pressure and agreed to go carbon-neutral by 2050, experts warn catastrophes like the Black Summer fires two years ago that killed 34 people and destroyed nearly 2,500 homes could become regular occurrences.

Hazard reduction is one of the few tools firefighters have to respond. Yet, climate change is altering that, too, as expanding fire seasons narrow the window for controlled burns.

“Those opportunities are few and far between,” said Ben Shepherd from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS), one of the agencies conducting the prescribed burn in Sydney’s north earlier this month. “The question now with climate change is how long the fire season will last.”

As another season looms, some former chiefs fear climate change is making hazard reduction burns obsolete.

“We now have bush fires that are like lava flows,” said Neil Bibby, the former head of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority. “There is going to be a lot of pain, and that pain includes not being able to do what you used to do back in the 1990s. Try doing it in the 2020s or 2030s and you’ve got no hope.”

‘Fighting a losing battle’
A Rural Fire Service member calls for help to manage an area of the controlled burn at Varroville Reserve, southwestern Sydney, in early October. (Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post)

On the morning of the burn, the firefighters spread out around the scribbly gum trees and sandstone heath of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. The 100 or so people were mostly unpaid volunteers: cops and supermarket clerks, groundskeepers and financial traders, plumbers and town planners.

Some had fought the last wildfire to tear through this area 27 years earlier. Others, like Zieba, had joined since the Black Summer blazes, when the RFS was flooded with more than 8,000 applications. Around half of them had completed training, bringing the force to more than 76,000 people, the largest volunteer firefighting organization in the world.

“I got tired of sitting in the office all the time,” said Zieba, a 40-year-old IT consultant concerned about climate change.

During the Black Summer fires, Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to deflect criticism by quipping, “I don’t hold a hose, mate.” Two years later, he is again under pressure over his management of an even bigger crisis.

Australia isn’t just on the front lines of climate change. As one of the highest per capita carbon emitters, it is also at the center of the debate over what needs to be done. Yet, until this week, ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, it had not committed to a 2050 net zero emissions target.

The vast majority of Australians want to see more action on climate change, polls show. And so do many of the men and women actually holding the hose, even if they are reluctant to say so.

“We live in the driest [inhabited] continent on earth, and we’re just making it drier,” said Jeff Hodder, a retired IT worker, as he kept the fire away from power lines. Asked if climate change was the cause, Hodder said he couldn’t answer while in uniform, then went ahead and said yes.

The Rural Fire Service is mostly made up of volunteers. From September to November each year, they conduct controlled burning operations designed to curb summer wildfires. (Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post)
An RFS member climbs a hill during a controlled burn in a steep area on Sydney’s northern outskirts. Properties that abut the bushland could be at risk from fires during extreme summer weather conditions. (Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post)

James Daly said he just tried to “put the wet stuff on the red stuff” and leave the climate change discussion to others, though he said global warming couldn’t be ignored.

“I try to balance out being a capitalist pig with helping people,” joked the 44-year-old financial worker.

The RFS and other Australian firefighting agencies now say climate change is increasing the frequency and ferocity of bush fires. But it has mostly fallen to retired fire chiefs to sound the alarm.

In 2019, months before the Black Summer fires, Bibby and two dozen other former chiefs wrote to the prime minister twice to ask for a meeting only to be rebuffed. By December, when Morrison’s office reached out, there were major fires in almost every state.

“I don’t think you can deny it in Australia,” said Greg Mullins, the former chief of Fire and Rescue NSW. “The fires are different now. Extreme weather is in people’s faces.”

The RFS and other Australian firefighting agencies say climate change is increasing the frequency and ferocity of bushfires. (Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post)
An RFS member uses water to douse the flames to prevent the fire from jumping containment lines. (Matthew Abbott for The Washington Post)

Mullins recalls the time as a teenager when he was caught in a blaze and had to huddle in a wheel rut as the flames moved over him. The air was so hot he passed out. He woke up — with blisters on his neck and holes burned in his overalls — when another firefighter kicked him, fearing Mullins was dead.

He retired in 2017 but still volunteers with the RFS.

“Things are burning that never burned before,” he said, citing recent fires in the rainforests of Tasmania and Queensland. “We are fighting a losing battle.”

Hazard reduction burns are still essential, he said, but are becoming “less and less effective.”

Bibby goes further, arguing climate change has turned controlled burns into mere training exercises — something Shepherd from the RFS strenuously denied. But the former chiefs agree that if the world doesn’t act to limit warming, Australia’s fires may soon be unstoppable.

“I can see medium-sized towns being obliterated,” Bibby said. “It’s already happening.”

Managing risk

The flames at incendiary point seven were spreading nicely when the firefighters saw a shape moving in the smoke. Suddenly, a mountain biker clad in Lycra came out of the bush.

“Is there anyone else in there?” Jarryd Barton shouted at the biker, who replied no.

“Bloody hell,” the firefighter said, laughing and shaking his head.

The biker wasn’t the only thing to emerge as the blaze got going. Within minutes, thousands of insects began to crawl away from the flames. A millipede wriggled across the road as spiders the size of silver dollars crept up trees, firefighters’ tools and, on several occasions, a reporter.