Wilkie, Benjamin: continent of smoke

Wilkie, Benjamin

This continent of smoke‘, Meanjin, 3 November 2015

The article looks back from an impending El Nino episode to the historic effects of fire on Victoria’s Western District.

In some parts–and it’s a story replicated across the country–the whole process is becoming disrupted due to longer-term environmental and climactic changes. There’s not enough rain, and bushfires are burning with much greater frequency and intensity than they used to. Mammals and their habitats are under serious stress; more frequent extreme weather events aren’t helping.

The author moves on to more general considerations of the role of bushfires in Australia.

We live with bushfire in Australia; it seems part of the natural rhythm of the land and the seasons, though ever since the trauma of Black Saturday in 2009, and the collective grief we experienced over that tragedy, we’ve grown increasingly cautious about it. How much, however, do we really know about fire, its place in Australia, and its relationship with us and of us with it?

Wilkie then looks at the effects of fire on Australia’s ecology, especially the relationship between eucalypts and fire and the way that Indigenous Australians used fire. Settler Europeans had a different relationship again with fire. He summarises fire catastrophes from 1851 to 2009 but looks at broader implications.

What we know now is that Australia needs fire, and that it’s the combination of weather, land use, and fire practices that affect the nature of our fires. Increasingly, then, ecologists are attempting to understand the effect of fire on local and regional landscapes, to design fire regimes that do not assume that fire and biodiversity are mutually exclusive.

Wilkie’s work complements other resources on the Honest History site on fire in Australia, including this small collection with links, Peter Stanley’s book on the 2009 fires  and Bill Gammage and Keith Hancock on Indigenous fire practices. Justin Leonard writes in January 2016 on recent fires in coastal Western District. Grace Moore in February 2016 on how bushfire art helps us deal with bushfires (links from there to other references).

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