SYDNEY – As flames spread up the hill toward million-dollar homes, the firefighters scrambled to keep pace.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
As kookaburras braved the smoke to enjoy the sudden feast, skinks crawled through the ashes and bushy-tailed marsupials scampered out of the scrub and onto manicured lawns. At one point, Hodder guided a toad to safety.
Weeks of preparation go into each hazard reduction burn, including environmental assessments, Shepherd said. For the Oct. 9 burn, the RFS and NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service had prepared a 20-page plan, including control lines and escape routes. Locals had given their consent. Burns are canceled when strong winds threaten to spread embers.
But hazard reduction burns can go wrong, as one did last year, scorching North Head on Sydney Harbor.
As the firefighters worked, Scott Small watched from the edge of his yard. The 57-year-old businessman had spent more than a week during the Black Summer fires keeping flames away from another property. He had a four-wheeler with a water tank on the back, in case things took a bad turn. But Small didn’t believe climate change was affecting the fires.
“It’s the bush,” he said. “At times, it’s just going to burn.”
On the other side of the burn, atop the cliffs where Zieba was toiling, David Martin felt the same way.
As he and his partner drank mojitos on their deck and watched smoke drift over the water, the 66-year-old semi-retired insurance executive said the issue wasn’t climate change but the amount of kindling, which he trusted the hazard reduction burn to address.
Martin knew the chance of a wildfire was higher here, next to the national park.
“I accepted the risk, considering what I have to look at when I get up in the morning,” he said, gesturing at the view.
The operation was over by dusk. Most of the 135 acres had burned, leaving bare, silent choirs of charred branches where birds had sung hours earlier.
The birds would return.
One way or another, so would the fire.
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