Wildfire, Devastation, Need for Change

by Des Menz posted in Landscape and Biodiversity 

5 December 2015

An event like the recent Pinery fire on 25 November 2015 was bound to happen at some time. It just so happened to occur on a terrible day. It was hot, dry, and very windy.

There will be more of these days around the state in the future, particularly in the agricultural areas. There will be heightened risk about fire. There will be more fires, more loss of life (human and stock), more grief, more loss of property, and escalating costs. 

To add to the enormous human problems that occurred on and after that day, high speed winds swept across the barren landscape and scooped up irreplaceable topsoil, thousands of tonnes of the red stuff, only to dump it scores of kilometres, and many hundreds of kilometres, away. 

It all reminded me of the horrendous dust-storms of 1983 around the time of the Ash Wednesday bushfires. I was living in a farmland area south of Port Pirie at the time; bare summer-ploughed fields and high speed winds ensured only one outcome.

The recovery of the land from the Pinery wildfire, for that is what it was, might take years, but there are actions that can be done right now to alleviate the long, slow, return to a productive condition.

Later I’ll come to those those actions to alleviate this "fire and bare earth” scenario. Firstly, we have to get some descriptors right. 

When is a “bushfire” not a bushfire?

The Pinery fire has been referred to as a bushfire in the general media. This is incorrect. This was a CROPLAND WILDFIRE

It was certainly not a BUSHFIRE as there was so little bush (native vegetation) that exists in the area. 

Cropland wildfire is a term that is scarcely used in Australia, but I believe it should be so as to distinguish the difference between various types of landscape fire. The insurance industry might be interested in adding this term to their portfolio of “insurable events”.

Wildfire is a term that is used in North America. Here in Australia the more sedate term bushfire is used to describe all types of landscape fire events, whether it becomes uncontrollable or not.

With the rise and importance of social media and the involvement of radio, I believe it is time to re-think the language of communicating fire severity.

Given the extensive cropland area in the agricultural part of the state, maybe it’s time to introduce the term Cropland Wildfire.

The Pinery Wildfire

The Pinery fire was a classic wildfire. It began very rapidly and became uncontrollable and wild in a very short time. Public statements attest to this. Local residents say they had never seen a fire like it in their lives.

Here’s a map of the extent of the wildfire.

Source : http://www.cfs.sa.gov.au/custom/files/media/pinery_fire_map_as_at_1000_28_november_2015.jpg

It is reported that the inferno began in a south-westerly direction. It is now well understood that fires create their own wind as the appetite for oxygen escalates. Fire needs oxygen. It also needs combustible material. 

On that day on 25 November, the fuel was the crops. The region where the fire began is dominated by cropping agriculture and sheep grazing. Some crops were yet to be harvested, some had been stripped off. And so, with all the conditions coming together, a crop fire became a wildfire of unstoppable proportions. 

Later in the day, the wind direction changed to south-westerly, and the fire front moved to the north-east. Look at those long fingers of burnt terrain on the map above. More than 85,000 hectares of land was burnt. 

Nature Maps is very instructive about past fires in this area. If you are familiar with how to extract information from the maps, open up the layer that describes “Fires" and it can be seen that there have been very few in the Pinery area in the past 40 years; the last of significance was near Hamley Bridge in 1996.  

What is notable about that particular event is the same “fingers of fire” in the north-easterly direction. The hamley Bridge wildfire was a smaller version of the Pinery wildfire.

Nature Maps only reveals the past 40 years fire events and does not include the time of the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983.

Cropland is high fire risk country, it always has been and always will be. But the risk of cropland fires and cropland wildfires is now increasing because of the effects of agricultural cropping change and regional climate change.

The losses from the Pinery wildfire

At the time of writing (4 December 2015), insurance claims for property losses have reached more than $120 million, according to one report.

To date … 2 lives lost, 87 houses destroyed, 292 properties affected by fire, 400 farm sheds destroyed, 89 items of farm plant destroyed,  98 vehicles destroyed, and the following stock killed - nearly 16,000 sheep, nearly 54,000 poultry, 500 pigs,  87 cattle, 16 horses, and 3 alpacas.

There will be more losses.

The costs will be ongoing for years.

Why was this wildfire so devastating?

The answer is simple - poor landscape resilience, no landscape vegetation to buffer the impacts of high winds,  and an absence of connection with nature. These are all issues about history and human endeavour.

For more on these subjects, go to :

A Touch of History          Landscape and Mindset          Lost Connections

Mallee scrubland and mallee heath used to dominate the South Australian landscape that is now the cropping agricultural land of the state. This area covers just 15% of the area of South Australia, and yet 87% of that area has been cleared, mostly for cropping. In terms of ecosystem history, this change has been incredibly disruptive, and destructive. 

Ecosystem disruption and destruction have yet to be confronted  in this state.

The area around Pinery, the source of the latest cropland wildfire, has less than 1% native vegetation remaining. A traveller passing through the area might come to a different conclusion. But it is an illusion, because what the vision at ground level is a complete distortion of what can be seen from the air. 

Although a few roadsides contain native vegetation and there are similar pockets of tiny bush fragments on some properties, the landscape is devoid of natural vegetation structure. There is no ecosystem, just widely scattered remnants. It is the same story throughout most of the 1o million or so hectares of agricultural land in the state.

Examine this aerial photograph of the area where the fire began. Pinery is at the top-left of the photo.

This photo represents just a small portion of the wildfire affected area. The landscape is devoid of windbreaks, and the open structure merely adds to higher wind speeds and greater fire risk.

Industrial agriculture today demands large scale, large machinery, and the least number of impediments to the movement of farm machinery. Industrial agriculture seeks economic sustainability, but denies environmental sustainability. Native vegetation is collateral damage in the quest for farm productivity.

Economic and environmental sustainability must co-exist if both are to survive. It could be mused that environmental sustainability has all but collapsed if a close inspection of the landscape is anything to go by.

Whether climatic changes are short-term or are part of long term trends does not matter. What matters is if nothing is done about the incremental steps to decline.

The image above is symbolic of much of the state’s croplands. 

A closer inspection of the photograph reveals a sand dune system with an orientation north-west to south-east, Look at those streaky lines. In millenia past South Australia, and indeed Australia, was exposed to much windier conditions, and in the particular locality around Pinery the prevailing winds were from the south-west. 

Many more areas of the state also reveal ancient wind directions from the south-west.

Thus, for the Pinery wildfire, its horrendous initial accelerating journey to the south-east was interrupted by a change in wind to a north-easterly direction, thus altering the course and pattern of the fire front. The ancient prevailing wind direction returned to wreak havoc. 

Inspect the fire map again. Those long fingers of burnt country are testament to the prevailing wind direction. 

Regardless of whether there has been a change in farming practices over the past 15 years or so (according to Professor Wayne Meyer of University of Adelaide), from sheep grazing to cropping, the fact is that the landscape is highly susceptible to destructive events such as fire and wind.

A recipe for disaster in croplands


 The forgotten term … landscape change

Consider the following three examples.

The Past          Pinery is in an area of the state that fell to woodcutters, squatters, and want-to-be farmers in the 1850’s to 1870’s. It was almost total environmental devastation and ecosystem destruction as was recorded at the time. In the fascinating book Nature’s Line George Goyder, author Janis Sheldrick wrote ;

In January 1870 an article on ‘forest culture’ appeared (in the newspaper the Register), expressing concern over the inevitable conflict between clearing, agriculture and civilisation on the one hand, and the new awareness that ‘permananet tree vegetation is of the greatest importance’.
pg. 294

The conflict between man and nature continues to this day. Resolution seems to be a long way off. 

The Present          In Roadblocks to Landscape Change, I wrote the following;

To continue to accept the agricultural system and framework as it is now, and as it appears to the eye, and as it was shaped by our forebears in the 19th century, is to deny opportunities for future generations in the 21st century. It denies the basic need to repair the damaged house that must withstand the coming storms. This is a community-wide problem. It seems to be a widespread problem in government circles, and that's a mystery. It is a reasonable assertion to say that people accept the landscape condition for how it is now, thinking that it will remain as it always has. In truth, this is a false paradigm.

Throughout South Australia, farming systems are inadequately aligned with environmental requirements and the requisite needs for sustainable natural resources management. It began way back in Goyder’s time, and continues to this day. People ignore this fundamental connection.

Whilst the role of science in agricultural output is an important factor in economic farming systems, the importance of agriculture to the state has been declining for years. A new way, a new agri-economy, is needed for the 21st century, because 19th century systems are not able to withstand what climate change is predicted to bring. 

The Future          On 29 November, just four days after the Pinery wildfire, the Premier and the Minister for the Environment released the state’s new Climate Change Strategy 2015-2025

It was delivered just prior to their attendance at the Paris Climate Change Conference, and for good reason. This strategy was all about making a buck out of climate change, and the salesmen were off to Paris to sell the state’s offerings.

But there is one single crucial aspect that was missing in the strategy. 

It failed to include how to address the diminishing resilience of the agricultural landscape in the eye of predicted climate change with (what we are advised by CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology, and state government reports) higher temperatures and lower rainfall. This is a major issue for all farmers and rural folk. It is even described in the Climate Change Strategy, so it is confounding why this critical aspect was not countenanced. 

I presented a submission that focused on this very aspect, and for the interested reader, click the following link.

Climate Change Strategy submission

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The aftermath of the Pinery wildfire is a symptom of landscape over-reach, and unless greater vegetative cover is returned to the landscape then the horror of Pinery will happen again. 
It occurred at Wangary on Eyre Peninsula in 2005, it occurred at Hamley Bridge in 1996, it is happening in many smaller fire outbreaks every year. 

The next cropland wildfire is waiting to happen. The issue of cropland wildfire must be given far greater urgency than what it is today.

Landscape Change will not happen in South Australia because there is no acknowledgement or understanding of the need for change, no policy settings, and an agricultural economy generally locked into broadscale cropping. 

In my view, this is one of South Australia’s greatest concerns, it is out of mind and out of sight, and it is difficult to fathom why.

Re-designing the Landscape

The devastating results of cropland wildfires can be reduced substantially, and many of the answers are described in my Climate Change Strategy submission, which incidentally offered a range of opportunities that would have a profound positive impact on the rural economy. 

It is disturbing that decision-makers and others involved in agricultural production - farmers, agronomists, agricultural research establishments, learning institutions, government agencies and advisors, agricultural suppliers, farmer organisations - have not acknowledged the need to re-cover the land - reforestation and revegetation for multiple inter-related benefits. If any state in Australia needs it, it is South Australia.

There are so many opportunities just not being grasped.

Sure, there are some enlightened farmers, but they are few. In Scope for Landscape Change, I discussed the outcomes of 10% recovery of agricultural land. Given what CSIRO has concluded, 20% is more like what is needed, So what this means is that unless 50,000 hectares is revegetated and reforested every year for 40 years, then the risks of rural decline will increase with passing years.

How we get to 50,000 hectares annually (a massive project that would employ around 2,500 people for life, maybe more) is described in my Climate Change Strategy submission.

A Blueprint for Change

When particular consideration is given to cropland wildfires, a sustainable rural landscape for the 21st century involves the following;

  • after a wildfire event, avoid rapid reconstruction of farm infrastructure without having first observe patterns in nature and then to apply defensive systems that are part of a landscape-wide transition 
  • seek advice and make observations about positioning the farm for greater resilience in a wildfire; this might involve investigating existing fire event records, wind directions, fire spread patterns, existing natural and human systems that can be reinforced, anecdotal evidence and oral history
  • prepare a farm plan that includes optimum fence alignments (in terms of the establishment of windbreaks) and a design of interconnecting wide vegetative windbreaks; the reason is to slow the wind and the intensity of a fire front and to capture embers
  • establish by direct-seeding wide vegetative windbreaks using fire-retardant species with saltbush being in the frontline; note that plants with salt leaf content are able to quell the impacts of fire, and wide windbreaks (maybe up to 200 or 300 metres) can capture embers, thereby reducing the potential for crop and stock loss 
  • establish wide vegetative windbreaks around farm houses, haysheds, and machinery sheds
  • capture and store the maximum quantity of water as possible, use fire-resistant steel water tanks for all roof water storage including emergency fire water, encircle the tanks with saltbush and fire-retardant vegetation
  • establish sprinkler systems coupled to fire-fighting pumps around all buildings, such pumps to be in a fire-secure enclosure
  • inspect and seal farm houses from ember attack; most buildings are destroyed because of embers

These are just a few essential actions that enhance farm resilience in the event of wildfire.

There are more advantages. 

Wide vegetative windbreaks would have the potential to add to farm diversity because of the sequestration potential of carbon. Following the UN Climate Change conference of nations in Paris in December 2015, the federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt flagged that some Australian businesses will need to purchase international carbon credits to satisfy obligations under the new climate change deal signed by the world’s nations.

It is difficult to see why the purchase of international carbon credits should happen when there is such a huge bank of under-utilised rural land available - road reserves, water reserves, idle cleared land - that should be devoted to a revegetated condition, and subsequent carbon sequestration. In addition, agricultural pursuits in low rainfall country that are risky at best, should be reverted to a carbon farming condition with a range of arid crops to provide the land owner with the ability to trade carbon credits.

This is what drives rural change and allows people to stay on the land. There are few opportunities for the farmer during a drought or with declining terms of trade, that surpass the potential of carbon farming and the capability of additional farm income. 

The same can be said for crop farmers exposed to wildfires. Diversify, add 20% of land to a revegetated condition, become resilient.

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To conclude this article, a book is on the way about living with cropland wildfires. I already have a title for it, and have been assembling some (hopefully) enlightening and useful information. It will be available early 2016. Contact me if you would like a copy.

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