A thesis, fire, and the telling of stories

A thesis, fire, and the telling of stories

In the summer of 2019-20, my view of the world was skewed by fire. At the tail end of a Masters in Sustainable Development, I was working on a thesis. Exploring the issue of climate change reportage meant that a pine table in our home was cluttered with books and research papers tackling the subject. Volumes on climate change and economics jostled for space with papers about the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of media efforts to convey climate science to those who needed to know about it — people, generally, farmers, specifically.

As I worked on analysis of the role the media has played in informing farmers in Western Australia about climate change, fire dominated my thoughts. To my north, blazes had blackened the Nullarbor Plain, blocking the Eyre Highway and trapping motorists at roadhouses spotted along the bitumen that linked us to the states to our east. At the peak of our tourist season, travellers to WA were halted at either side of the border. Trucks, caravans: all besieged by fire as it consumed vast tracts of bushland. Sooty faced firefighters persistently worked to contain an all-consuming force. To the north of Perth, a blaze wiped out horticultural crops, houses, bush and beehives…but this was all nothing compared to what we saw of the fire “over east”.

As acrid smoke drifted into our home from the north, and terrifying images of flames outrunning fire trucks flashed onto my computer screen, I felt ill, and I wrote. Explaining my topic and providing the background to my research:

Media coverage of climate change has an impact on the knowledge of its audiences; the way climate science, the findings of scientists and the impacts of climate change are relayed influences the opinions and practices of people, including policymakers.

As if on some strangely misdirected cue, Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not appear on centre stage to talk about fire…he was in Hawaii.

Analysis of media coverage of climate change was made easier by the examples provided during this “Black Summer.” Contradictions emerged in the news reports emanating from bushfire ravaged regions. The ABC reports were consistently urgent, and The Guardian did not back down from linking the fires to climate change. The iconic images of people trapped on beaches at Narooma and Mallacoota are seared on our collective national memories. As we talked to friends who watched those fires burn near their homes, and listened to news reports and emergency warnings, we could empathise. Fire has touched the lives of many in Australia, the driest continent in the world. The ongoing drama of the nationwide disaster made it hard to focus on the equally dry academic task at hand.

But the news reports we heard, saw and read served to illuminate the problems I was discussing in theory. While reports from some news outlets firmly linked the destructive fires to climate change, quoting sources such as Greg Mullins AO, AFSM, fire chief and Climate Council member, others, notably the Murdoch press, saw fit to continue with their reportage of climate change to date. The Australian even copped justifiable criticism for running a story about the New Year’s Day picnic races at Hanging Rock while all over the world leading mastheads led with pictures of the devastation occurring in Australia, their front pages lit up with images of raw red fire against blackened skies. Arsonists, left wing radicals, The Greens…all manner of culprits were the focal point of their efforts to avoid mention of climate change as having any influence on the fire that freckled Australia that summer.

Such deflection was consistent with media coverage of climate change. While it was not surprising to see media coverage of the fire follow the pattern of climate change coverage that already existed in Australia, it was disappointing — especially when observed from my vantage point.

Our region is still healing after the fire that devastated communities and claimed lives in the summer of 2015-2016.

Where we live, in the south-east of Western Australia, grain production has not always dominated our farming landscapes. For many years, farmers struggled to obtain the yields that made cropping a serious option. Moist summers made harvest a long, drawn out affair. As a rural reporter, I often wrote about sprouted grain, downgraded deliveries, and harvests that dragged on forever as farmers dodged rain events. Cattle and sheep were run in their thousands, and paddocks of pastures interjected wide swaths of crop land, creating a patchwork of grazed and ungrazed land. Every summer weaner sales were held at two regional locations, with hundreds of sleek, fat youngsters changing hands at the fall of the auctioneer’s hammer.

But that has changed.

Cropping has become more and more viable due to a mixture of different grain varieties, the use of grain driers, and climate change. Esperance is now one of the most productive, reliable, grain growing areas of Western Australia. The change has not all been bad. With the livestock came overgrazing and wind would often tear topsoil from paddocks damaged by cloven hooves, sending it washing in gritty waves, trapped by fences and sandblasting roads. In dry years, the stock damaged the country, so in some ways it has been good to see them go. On the downside, it is getting harder to grow the summer perennial and our dams are drying up. There is a danger to this scenario that was revealed in 2015.

In that year, climate change made its mark, indelibly, on our home. With a lightning strike in bushland to the north-east of where I now live, a blaze was triggered. This blaze would eventually claim crops, entire towns, and people.

In her report following the Inquest into the deaths of fire victims Kym Curnow, Thomas Butcher, Julia Kohrs-Lichte and Anna Suschova-Winther, Coroner Sarah Linton stated that “…as of 2016, this was one of the worst bushfires in Western Australian history in terms of human fatalities. Many other people risked their lives to contain the fire and protect property. There was a total of 10 fires around Esperance that burnt for a total of 11 days. In addition to the tragic loss of life, a huge amount of property, crops, livestock, native animals and bushland were lost.”

In her analysis of the situation that saw Esperance on fire for days, Coroner Linton raised the issue of climate change, and the burning issue of politics.

Despite the rhetoric of many politicians today, who would have us believe that climate change is not the cause of increasing bushfires in Australia, I am satisfied from the evidence before me that the climate is changing and the timing, number, duration and severity of fires in this country is increasing, in part as a result of climate change.

I will generally restrict my remarks and recommendations to the Esperance region, as that is where the death occurred and it is the focus of this inquest. However, I note that the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and CSIRO released the fifth biennial State of the Climate report for Australia in 2018, which confirmed that “[o]observations and climate modelling paint a consistent picture of ongoing, long term climate change interacting with underlying natural variability. These changes are associated with increases in the frequency or intensity of heat events, fire weather and drought. For fire weather in particular, the report notes that there has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia, particularly for southern and eastern Australia.

The fact that the fires at the focus of the inquest were among the many raging in Western Australia at the time, in November, was noted by the Coroner in her report following the inquest into the deaths.

The state wide picture for Western Australia, as recorded by the DFES State Operations Centre, was a total of 15 ‘fires of note’ burning by Monday, 16 November 2015, 8 of which were in the Great Southern, and in particular, 2 of which were burning in Esperance. There were also a large number of less significant fires burning, bringing it to a total of about 91 fires of some level burning.

This was all occurring prior to the recognised bushfire season.

The fires that year not only killed four people, they also caused what the coroner described as “enormous damage to buildings, farmlands, livestock and native wildlife”.

The Cascades fire also burnt 128,000 hectares and destroyed the Scaddan town hall, a house, 16 non-residential structures and dozens of vehicles in the communities of Grass Patch, Seven Gums and Scaddan. Approximately 4,500 livestock died and 30,000 hectares of crop (equating to 500,000 tonnes of grain) was burnt. The Merivale fire burnt 18,000 hectares and destroyed two houses in Stockyard Creek. The Cape Arid complex fires destroyed 164,000 hectares of bushland, including approximately 90% of the Western Ground Parrot habitat. This native parrot is critically endangered and the loss of its habitat prompted concerns that it could become the first bird in at least 200 years to become extinct in Western Australia. Efforts are being made to manage predators and create a successful breeding program, but it remains critically endangered. The financial cost of these fires ran into the millions.

Much of the Coroner’s Report into the death of the four victims of the Esperance fires in 2015 focused on shortcomings in communications and deployment of resources, and recommendations that would serve to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future. Media reports of the inquiry honed in on the findings made by the Coroner, and the tragic events that led to the necessity for the report in the first place. But the coroner also recognised that the Esperance fires of 2015 served as a harbinger of our fiery future:

The scale of the fires was enormous. However, I am told the March 2019 fires were even larger, involving a complex of 7 to 8 fires running at the same time and impacting on some 300,000 hectares of UCL and national parks. It was, therefore, bigger in terms of area than the November 2015 fires, although not attended by the same level of tragedy as fortunately, no deaths of people occurred.

What this demonstrates is that large and complex fires of this kind are no longer an isolated event, and the focus needs to be on reducing the harm that they will cause.

Changes in farm management, with less livestock to graze pastures and serve as a choke on a raging fire front, combined with bumper yielding unharvested crops  — a Molotov cocktail waiting for ignition. But the focus has been firmly on controlling fire in the bushland: this makes sense but ignores the potential to also consider management on farms.

At the end of that summer, I thought we might take more notice. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. At events calling for action on climate change, those who participate are still heckled by those with the most to lose by the lack of action. In online forums on climate change, farmers who lost so much during those fires are among those who still denigrate activists for effective climate change policy, calling them ignorant, at best. This scenario leaves me confused.

As someone who grew up in the wheatbelt region of WA,  scorching summers and thunderstorms always meant that fires were a constant part of the warmer months. Firefighting units were always at the ready, and the blazes were extinguished. People would come together, sandwiches and liquid refreshments produced out of thin air to nourish firefighters during and after. The efforts were stressful but served to bring people together and strengthen community.

I now fear fire for reasons more than the obvious. For starters, the fire season is starting earlier than I remember. That means that we are on edge for longer…worry about fire risk festers at the back of minds. It is tiring and stressful. This is not good.

Then, I fear fire more because I do not see that we are listening to the messages. Or, as I was finding as I read and wrote, and wrote and read, the messages are not getting through to the people. Rather than committing to policy to tackle climate change, both through mitigation and adaptation, and planning—including adopting indigenous management techniques that allow nature to heal at the same time as protecting it and promoting its resilience, we are ignoring the option of action. Again, my thoughts go back to the words of Coroner Linton as she closed her report on the deaths in Esperance in 2015:

The focus on the inquest was rightly on saving future human lives as the number one priority. However, the importance of the national parks to regional tourism in this area also can’t be underestimated, as well as the importance of preserving our environment for future generations. That requires preservation of the State’s biodiversity by ecosystems from largescale damaging fires. As an example, due to a fire in Cape Arid that preceded the tragic November fires, they lost 90% of the habitat of the western ground parrot, an Australian native animal already on the brink of extinction. The devastating effect on other native fauna and native flora from catastrophic wildfires can’t be ignored. These fires do not provide the regenerative effect of fire on the Australian landscape that was provided by Indigenous burning practices of Australian Aboriginals developed over thousands of years. A better approach to controlled burning to preserve our natural biodiversity must surely be the future focus.

In our area, my home, we continue to crop from fence to fence. I may be wrong, but I do not see widening discussion about farm planning, grazing, firebreaks, growing green crops…just more of the same. Hectare upon hectare of golden grain. Ripe for picking…fuel for the fire.

And then, there is the role of journalists. And the thesis that still needed to be completed: my writing and thinking had gone around full circle, from the fires that raged in 2019-20, back to the 2015 fires closer to home, and back to the thesis in front of me. Five years later, the news flashes had rekindled the fear that gripped our region and made the words I wrote about reporting on the issue of climate change ring hollow, yet they served to highlight the role of the media in telling the truth about fire…and climate change itself.

As Hertsgaard and Pope (2019), Stephenson (2013) and Monbiot have so passionately stated, journalists have a responsibility to do their job well; and reporting effectively and truthfully on climate change is a journalist’s job. While we may justifiably blame media owners and editors for the malaise of poor climate change coverage, it is up to working journalists to provide the remedy and cover the topic in a way that provides the gravitas it demands while providing the hope needed to enable all people, not just farmers, to embrace positive change.

Now, a year later, with the thesis completed and another bushfire season upon us, I feel that the shoots of renewal are not restricted to burnt areas of our country. People are healing too. But I am even more convinced of the need for stories to be told, by survivors of fires past; by people with knowledge of indigenous fire management, like Victor Steffenson, and by people like Dr David Holmgren. Dr Holmgren has written extensively about permaculture design and fire control in the past, and in the wake of recent fires said that  “regenerating land and community resilience begins with places and people prepared to lead by example, modelling the cultural shifts necessary to simultaneously mitigate and adapt to the unfolding climate crisis.” (Bushfre Resilient Land and Climate Care, January 2020).

And as a storyteller, I see that our role is to enable these stories to be told: not just the dramatic tales of survival and danger that engulf us during large scale fire events, but those that reveal the real causes of problems we face as our climate changes. Stories that provide hope and foster solutions to help us work together to look after our land and, ultimately, ourselves.