Fire Plans

Fire Plans

Review: Flames of Extinction, John Pickrell, Newsouth and Summertime, Danielle Celermajer, Penguin.

In Australia we are used to dealing, to a certain extent, with summer fires. But the fires of the summer of 2019/2020 were something else entirely.

In John Pickrell’s comprehensive Flames of Extinction he details the impacts of the fires on flora and fauna – impacts that, partly because of the distraction of Covid, we as a nation have yet to come to proper terms with. Eleven million hectares were burnt, releasing 600 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. (Satellite images were necessary to see the extent of the conflagration.) On the east coast, 54% of protected Gondwana rainforest was burnt. The Gospers Mountain fire was our biggest single bushfire ever, at one million hectares. In Queensland, tropical rainforest that we thought would never burn, did.

In Kangaroo Island alone 40,000 koalas were killed. The koala, inevitably perhaps, became ‘the emblem of the crisis’. Because of its iconic status, you would think we’d want to protect them, but in the last decade they have been affected by accelerated land clearances in NSW and QLD, and one of the biggest threats is that there are simply not enough large pockets of forest to sustain resilient populations. The NSW government, says Pickrell, has talked a lot about helping koalas but made little progress. Meanwhile, as habitats are squeezed, there are fewer escape routes when bushfires strike.

It is estimated that three billion animals died in the fires. Thousands of birds flew out over the ocean to escape the fires but died from exhaustion or smoke inhalation. Survivors had to face decimated landscapes, and runoff ash clogged and poisoned creeks and rivers. Pickrell writes about cute lemuroid ringtail possums in QLD threatened by small changes in climate, and about the famous, dinosaur-era Wollemi Pine, saved in the wild by daring firefighters helicoptered in to set up a sprinkler system. He also writes about now endangered macadamia trees and various other plants and animals you may never have heard of, but which are part of threatened biodiversity, or may have already been tipped onto the extinction list.

The loss of old-growth forest is felt particularly hard. Because they are wetter, with less fuel load and more established ferns and mosses, they resist fire better, but not the unusually hot fires of 2019/2020. Old-growth forest, whether burnt or logged, is then replaced by younger trees that burn better, encouraging more fires. This is one of the scary, runaway effects of climate change driven by human activity.

In Summertime Danielle Celermajer writes that fires are a challenge to the idea that climate change will be gradual and easily accommodated. As Covid has shown, things can run out of control quickly. And bushfires remain unpredictable; planning takes us only so far.

Celermajer’s book is a more personal story of loss, particularly in relation to domestic animals, as well as a philosophical reflection on how to deal with the existential threat of climate change. She suggests that fires have changed the way we think about summer – ‘fun and sun’ now has a tinge of dread.

She lived on a farm in a forest in southern NSW. She had to evacuate and had to deal with relocating domestic animals – pigs, donkeys, ducks – that deal with threat and loss in their own particular ways. She thinks about our responsibility to animals, and describes the hours and days of the dreadful summer, and how it feels to be on alert, consumed by thinking about fires.

She asks how the initial heightened sensitivity to loss can be sustained to tackle the root causes. She asks, is hoping a fire will go back the other direction and spare a town, against the looming evidence, as unrealistic as hoping the predictions of calamity due to climate change won’t come true? We are told relentlessly to make fire plans. Are we making enough climate plans? But she also asks how we balance cultivation of realism with the need for healing and the need to get on with life. Celermajer’s book is a deeper consideration of how, in the aftermath of one crisis and in the midst of another, we might talk, share about the future, so we can nurture some constructive good. The largest question her book asks is, how do we confront the future without losing hope?

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at


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