Your Shortcut to,,, Bushfires
Your shortcut to… Bushfires
Australian Fire Danger Rating System: https://afdrs.com.au/
Top 10 fire retardant plants for each state: https://www.ozbreed.com.au/articles/top-10-fire-retardant-plants-by-state/
Four-step guide to making a bushfire survival plan: https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/36597/BFSP-Complete.pdf
Kimberly Land Council indigenous fire management: https://www.klc.org.au/indigenous-fire-management
They’ve been a part of Australian life for thousands of years… believe it or not, they can be a good thing… and indigenous elders are helping to stop them becoming catastrophic. This is your Squiz Kids Shortcut to Bushfires—the podcast where we dive into the who, what, when, where, why and how of the big news stories. I’m Amanda Bower.
And I’m Bryce Corbett.
In September 2022, fire danger ratings started to change throughout Australia. I’m talking about those signs on the side of the road that have a half-circle separated into different coloured segments, and an arrow pointing to the current fire danger… they’re all in the process of being replaced.
Today, we’ll take you through WHAT the new fire ratings mean; WHY we keep having bushfires in Australia, and HOW indigenous knowledge can help.
Listen carefully – there’s a Squiz at the end!
Bryce, let’s start with why we keep having bushfires in Australia. The simplest answer is that Australia has always had bushfires… even before it had people. A bolt of lightning hits some dry bush, and starts a fire. And bushfires can be good things! Because fires have always been a fact of life in Australia, some plant species have evolved to actually NEED fire to propogate – which is a fancy word for breed and spread.
The problem, though, is that we are seeing bushfires much more often… and they’re more intense, and causing more damage.
One big reason for that is climate change. You’d have to have been living under a rock not to have noticed that Australia has been getting more floods – and more droughts – in the last few years. That’s due to changed weather patterns. And when there’s drought, then there’s dryness… and dry wood and leaves burn much faster than damp material.
And when there are more storms, not only do they cause rain, they also cause lightning… and one of the most common causes of bushfires are lightning strikes.
And of course when it’s hotter than usual, and there’s a lot of wind… a fire does more damage. And when climate change causes the fire season to last longer… not only will there be more fires, but there’ll be less time during the off-season to prepare.
It also makes it harder for us to share our experts, and equipment, with other countries—for example, Australia often cooperates with America and Canada, sending our fire fighting equipment and experts for their fire season, and vice versa. But that’s not so easy if our fire seasons get longer and overlap.
The good news is that our governments – local, state, and federal – have realised these are big problems, and are taking action… and so are everyday people, including kids… doing their part to fight climate change, keeping their properties fire safe, even putting plants in their gardens that are fire resistant, and can provide some protection.
And Amanda, all around Australia we are getting new fire danger signs. WHAT is that all about?
Just about every town in Australia has a fire danger ratings sign as you drive in… and in September 2022, stickers were put onto those signs, letting communities know that they’d be changing. The places where fire season started first, were the first to get the new, simplified signs.
And those signs were the result of TEN years of research, right?
Yes, for something that looks so simple, an awful lot of thought and planning has gone into it! The semi circle used to be divided into six segments, starting at green – low to no danger – and going all the way up to a red-and-black striped “catastrophic”… the warning that no one wants to see.
Now, there are just four coloured segments.
If there’s only the teensiest tiniest likelihood of a fire causing danger, the arrow will actually sit on the far left, underneath where the colours start. The first colour, green, is for moderate danger. Yellow is for high fire danger; orange for extreme; and red for catastrophic.
The old system, which basically hadn’t changed since the 1950s, was found to have been confusing for people.
Yes, so the point of these signs is to communicate how dangerous, and how much damage, a fire would do it if started… but most people thought that the signs were actually predicting how likely it was that a fire would start. In actual fact, a fire can start on ANY day. The signs are there to communicate how dangerous a fire would be.
As well as having the new signs, there’s also a new system that determines the fire danger using better technology to look at the local weather—because the temperature, humidity, rainfall, and wind will all affect how quickly a fire spreads. The new system also takes into account eight different kinds of vegetation – plants – in a local area, because that vegetation provides the fuel for a fire to burn.
Most importantly, the new signs come with clear instructions on what to do. Green means you should stay up to date, and be ready to act if there’s a fire.
Yellow means you should be alert for fires, and decide what you will do if a fire starts. It’s important to have a plan.
Orange means your property should be fully prepared against fire – I’ll put all kinds of resources in your episode notes. If it’s not, you should leave for a safer location WELL before the fire gets to you.
And red is the most dangerous conditions possible. You should get out, and get out as quickly and safely as possible.
And Bryce, that’s the most important message of the new system: stay informed, stay prepared, but be ready to leave if that’s what the experts advise.
Speaking of experts, indigenous Australians have been managing the bush, and bushfires, for tens of thousands of years. HOW are is their expertise being used?
When Aboriginal people arrived in Australia, tens of thousands of years ago, they learned to manage the land in a way that suited their needs… and one of their most important tools was actually low-intensity fire. Meaning that yes, they lit bushfires on purpose.
Well, by carefully lighting small fires, they would make the way for nice, fresh green grasses to grow back… which would attract animals for them to hunt. They’d also protect fire-sensitive plants that they ate, or used for medicine, by setting fires to burn a clear area around those plants – that created what we call a fire break.
Ah yes, a fire break is basically a gap with no fuel for a fire. So if a fire does come, its flames reach the already-burned area, and don’t go any further. That protects anything that’s beyond the break.
Nowadays, people who live in places at risk of bushfires need to create their own fire breaks – my Dad does it every year on his property! And Bryce, Aboriginal people knew that those small fires they set to encourage green grass growth would also act as a fire break if a fire was accidentally started by lightning. They were literally fighting fires, by lighting fires. And Bryce, before white settlers came to Australia, high-intensity, devastating fires were extremely rare.
Nowadays, many communities are asking Indigenous people to teach them their land management practices, and combining them with modern technology…
That’s exactly right. There’s an organisation called Firesticks, where Aboriginal experts advise communities on how to care for Country using fire. And the Kimberly Land Council has indigenous fire management officers who light what’s called ‘cool’ fires in targeted areas when it’s NOT fire season – between March and July. These fires create a patchwork of burnt and unburnt country. The burnt bits create fire breaks and reduce the fuel load of any future fire. This practice also protects the habitat of mammals, reptiles, insects and birds… because the animals can get away from a slow moving fire, and then eat nice new plants that grow back after.
New research conducted in Arnhem Land and published internationally, says that Aboriginal cultural burning has been the most successful way to manage fire – and we should be using that knowledge all over the country.
Anything that reduces the number of times that the arrow points to red is a pretty excellent idea.
This is the part of the podcast where you get to test how well you’ve been listening…
1. What is one of the most common natural causes of bushfires?
2. How many coloured segments are in the new fire danger ratings signs?
3. Aboriginal have fought fire for thousands of years using what?