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We’ve Never Seen Conditions As Bad As This

As bushfires devastate Australia, firefighters are at the frontline of defense. Yet, decades of cost-cutting have hamstrung their efforts, and Scott Morrison has refused to pay the volunteer force for their work. Funding these services is the bare minimum in a warming world, but it doesn't substitute for structural change.

Firefighters stop at a refueling station following a long night at the nearby fire front on Wednesday on Kangaroo Island, Australia. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

As a career firefighter of over twenty years’ service, these fires are the worst I have seen.

At time of writing there has been a record 4.9 million hectares burnt out — an area larger than Scotland. There are at least 23 dead, three of whom were firefighters. Thousands of homes, and many more other structures have been destroyed. Last December, the record for Australia’s hottest day was smashed three times in one week.

Over the last two months, no part of New South Wales’s long coastline has remained unscathed. At its peak, the Gospers Mountain fire stretched from Lithgow to the central coast hinterland. The civilian evacuation of the south coast over the New Year period was as big as the 1974 evacuation of Darwin in the wake of Cyclone Tracey. And this is to say nothing of Australia’s other states, let alone the global impact. The particulate pollution is so severe that cities in New Zealand, over two thousand kilometers away, have been affected.

Fires in a Warming World

Why is this fire season so intense? In short, the fuel load is high and the drought has made this fuel extremely dry. It’s true that this confluence of factors is not uncommon. But there is no doubt that the changing climate has primed already dangerous conditions, leading to bushfires of unprecedented size and intensity.

Average temperatures have already increased by one degree Celsius. This has led to warmer winters and, consequently, a shrinking window for hazard-reduction measures like controlled burning to reduce fuel load. Already heightened atmospheric concentrations carbon dioxide can act as a type of fertilizer, spurring plant growth and further increasing fuel load.

Worst of all, the extreme weather events that go with global heating supercharge catastrophic fire conditions. Runs of very high temperatures lasting for days leave the bush primed for ignition. Wind storms then fan a small blaze into something far worse. Dry lightning causes further outbreaks, often in dense inaccessible bush, where fires can take hold and grow.

When these fires take off, they do so with terrifying speed and force. The vast quantity of thermal energy released by a big blaze changes the behavior of the weather around the fire. This can create Pyrocumulonimbus storms and lightning strikes that spark new fires unpredictably. Extreme winds can also carry burning embers kilometers ahead of the blaze. Once things get to this point, containment lines become meaningless and all that fire crews can do is try to protect life and property. Fires this big cannot be put out; they must burn out. The fire season will only properly end with rain.

Every credible climate scientist recognizes that these extremes are a by-product of climate change. And every experienced firefighter I know says that they’ve never seen conditions as bad as they are now. The meaning of “unprecedented” can be diminished through overuse, but these blazes are exactly that. It is not only the intensity, but also their continent-spanning scale. Temperatures have only increased by one degree and we are already in dangerous, uncharted territory.

Fighting the Inferno

No one can dispute that we must radically change our understanding of the fire season and how we fight it. The real debate will revolve around the interpretation of this fight to come.

The first question is how we resource firefighting. In New South Wales (NSW), the state where I work, there are two fire services on the ground. The first is Fire Rescue NSW (FRNSW), which has a paid workforce, responsible for the majority of NSW’s population, including the big cities, regional centers and larger towns. The second is the Rural Fire Service (RFS), which has a largely volunteer workforce and bears primary responsibility for bushfires. In addition to this, units specialising in bush management and firefighting are attached to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

FRNSW recently had its budget cut in the order of $20 million, limiting expansion where it was most needed. The NPWS and RFS have also endured cuts over the past few years, leading to hundreds of lost jobs and a diminished ability to invest in firefighting equipment and logistics.

In the wash up from these fires these cuts will likely be reversed. This is well and good, but it’s only a small step towards the expansion of firefighting services we need. The scale of the fires makes it clear just how much more we need to do the job amidst deteriorating conditions.

Indeed, firefighters have already found existing capacity hamstrung by limited funds. For example, hundreds of FRNSW personnel have been ready and willing to work on their days off. Owing to a shortage of fire engines, they have not been deployed. Instead of this forced idleness, we need a reserve fleet comprising literally hundreds of trucks that can be mobilized when conditions are bad. Certainly, maintaining this capacity will be expensive. But compared to the damage, financial and otherwise, inflicted by the extreme fire events we are and will be experiencing, the costs would be negligible.

The way we maintain a volunteer workforce is in most desperate need of change. Fighting campaign fires over a lengthening fire season has seen volunteers spend weeks undertaking difficult, dirty and dangerous work. This means forgoing paid work and income. It is beyond unreasonable to expect this of people – it repays sacrifice with contempt. It’s worse still when volunteers stand alongside professional firefighters like me, who are paid reasonably to perform exactly the same work and who enjoy enviable conditions won through a century of union organizing.

The commitment of the volunteer firefighting workforce is beyond reproach. Paying them for their labor is not only right for them, but for the community as a whole.

Mustering the Political Will

This step would be easy. A model for paid volunteer firefighters already exists in NSW. Fire Rescue NSW has thousands of part-time firefighters in regional and rural areas, who respond by pager and are paid by the hour. It wouldn’t be hard for the RFS to implement something similar. The only thing lacking is political will.

RFS management, along with state and federal governments, are opposed to paying volunteers. After all, what boss wouldn’t want employees who work for free? Further, the division between paid and volunteer on the ground fire serves divides firefighters, limiting union power and giving RFS management license to manage their volunteer workforce however they choose.

I was shocked recently when I heard a RFS volunteer’s description of the amenities at her brigade’s shed. They relied on the office next door for toilet facilities and they did not have a dedicated area for cleaning and servicing their breathing equipment. The paid and unionized firefighters of Fire Rescue NSW would never accept conditions like these. It’s perverse that those who work for free are also required to perform that work in substandard conditions.

Paying volunteers would change this because paid workers can be unionized. Organized firefighters can achieve great things. As the heating environment leads to new emergency situations — be they fires, floods, or storms — we will be needed more than ever. Our industry will grow. If that expansion is not accompanied by growth in paid employment, the scope for firefighters to exercise control over their working life will be curtailed. Consequently, the service we offer will be compromised. Each new fire season will strain our capacity, leading to worse losses, both human and ecological.

Beyond Fire Engines

A bigger issue looms large behind the arguments over resourcing or recriminations about backburning. Our world is warming. This will lead to more devastating fires.

As things stand, limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celcius or below will require immediate and radical action to decarbonize the global economy. The harsh reality is that such action is unlikely to be forthcoming quickly enough. Even in the best-case scenario, we will have to face conditions like this into the foreseeable future. The new normal has already arrived.

We will have to adapt to a more hostile natural environment. As a firefighter, one of the fundamental lessons drummed into you is to minimize risk. Our workplace is inherently dangerous, so you do all that you can to make that danger manageable. This is why unionized firefighters fought for, and won, the principle of four people on a fire truck. If two are inside a burning structure, they can rely on the two outside to rescue them if needed. It’s why, as a union, we have fought over decades for decent personal protective equipment. It’s why we have a long history of taking industrial action in defense of workers’ compensation and the like.

We also know that once you are behind a length of hose, it’s too late to adapt to the changing conditions on the fireground. Which is to say, industrial action by firefighters alone won’t be enough, especially when the dangerous new conditions we face are a by-product of how our society is ordered, how we produce and who benefits from these arrangements.

Our political leadership is undesirous or incapable of delivering on this question. The Liberal-National Coalition is entirely beholden to the fossil fuel industry while the Labor Party is incapable of taking a stand against the export of fossil fuels. By contrast, my party — The Greens — does have the kind of policy platform that may avert or mitigate a climate disaster. But we do not as yet have the social and political weight to force the issue.

So, to fight the bushfires of the future (as well as the climate related floods, storms, food and water shortages and epidemics) we need a mass movement that can force a fundamental reversal of our society’s economic priorities. This is a massive undertaking; we cannot afford naivety about how easy it will be. Nor can we afford any doubt as to its necessity.

We won’t see fire seasons like this one every year, but we will see them regularly. Thousands of women and men will be required to fight them. We will do our job as best we can. Over the coming weeks and years, friends and strangers will approach me to ask what they can do to help. My answer will remain: “don’t worry about the fundraising — we need to change the world.”