Land Down Under

What a difference geography makes. ‘Tomorrow’s forecast: strong winds out of the North blowing across the continent, increasing through the day.’ That forecast, for the last week of November, in the United States would have locals and community leaders alike scrambling for blankets, food, and snow chains; in Australia, however, it’s the start of summer, and bushfire season, and emergency managers, particularly fire brigades in southern Western Australia anxiously await word from the State Emergency Office that there is a bushfire. Down here it is summer; down here in December the interior of the continent can soar well above 110F during the day; down here, this is the most fire-prone continent on earth.

    Co-Starring Bryce Touchstone, because clearly the kangaroo thinks he’s the star!

The eucalyptus tree is full of combustible oil, and its dense bark can be flung as far as 20-30 km in front of an advancing bushfire. While bushfires attract far more attention in the SE and SW regions of Australia, they are far more frequent in the northern regions. This is due to the population distribution of Australia; Victoria, the SE state of the mainland continent is 3% of the total land, with over 35% of the total population of the country. Perth is in the SW, the most remote capital in the world, and is the 4th largest city in the country. The last fortnightly report in WA showed a prescribed burn in northern WA that cleared nearly 1 million Ha of land with very little, if any media coverage, while a bushfire along the south coast occupied less than 60,000Ha and occupied the attention of the majority of the state for nearly a week.
It is this factor of human settlement, placing mankind at an increased risk from a natural process that has occurred in Australia for billions of years, that constantly brings mankind and nature at odds with one another. In Australia, many hardwood tree species have adapted to this fire environment, whereas bushfire clears scrub and low-lying vegetation, creating a fertile surface layer of ash for the hard-coated seeds of these trees which will only germinate after having extreme heat put to them, like that from a bushfire. It is very incorrect to make the assumption that fire destroys ecosystems; on the contrary, down here the ecosystems have not only adapted to, but in many instances thrive on rampant, large-scale periodic fire.
Much of the fire environment knowledge in the United States comes from Australia. There is much to learn from this “sunburned country”, where fires can last for weeks, and without substantial inland waters are only put out when rain arrives, which in the Australian Outback can be a rare occurrence, particularly in the summer months when hot, dry conditions prevail for weeks on end, providing ample conditions for rampant bushfire activity with little reprieve. So, if you’re going out in those hot, dry summer days, whether in the U.S. or Australia, be sure to pack plenty of ice water, wear light-colored clothes, and stay tuned to the local weather situation for your area.

-Meteorologist Bryce Touchstone

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