What can we learn from current Australian bush fires – My opinion piece for Kuensel (January 11, 2020)

Let me start by putting Australian bush fires into perspective. The 2019 Amazon rainforest fires burned more than 900,000 hectares. California in the USA, which is known for its deadly wildfires burnt just over 100,000 hectares in 2019, and about 400,000 hectares in 2018. Australian bushfire has already burnt over 6 million hectares (almost twice the size of Bhutan) and there are still no signs of fires slowing down any time sooner.

Bush fires are common throughout Australia and the indigenous Australians have long used fire as a land management tool. Thus, bushfires are an intrinsic part of Australia’s environment and the natural ecosystems have evolved with fire. However, at present, Australia is being ravaged by the worst bush fires seen in decades, with large swathes of the country devastated since September 2019.

It has intensified over the past week, with a number of towns evacuated and some of the cities pounded by smoke and walls of flame. Over a thousand homes have been destroyed, forcing hundreds and thousands of people to evacuate. Since the start of the bushfire season, at least 18 people have died and ecologists at the University of Sydney estimated that about half a billion animals have perished, which they say is a conservative estimate.

Some of the common causes of bushfires include lightning, arcing from overhead power lines, arson, accidental ignition in the course of agricultural clearing, and controlled burn escapes. The basic factors which determine a bushfire include the presence of fuel, oxygen and an ignition source. The fire intensity and speed at which a bushfire spreads depends on ambient temperature, fuel load, fuel moisture, wind speed, and slope angle. All of which are seemingly present in the Australian landscape with an extended drought period coupled with current summer temperature.

Forest fires in Bhutan

Bhutan has been witnessing forest fires for the longest time but now it seems to be getting bigger and increasing in its frequency of occurrences. According to the Forestry Facts and Figures, Bhutan witnessed 31 and 39, recorded, forest fire incidences in 2017 and 2018 respectively. The most forest fires we witnessed in the last decade was in 2016 with the recorded fire incidences of 72. This translates to one forest fire every fifth day and this is serious for the small and resource constraint country like ours.

Though a trend of forest fire incidences can’t be deduced from three years data, 2017 Forestry Facts and Figures stated that “forest fire poses a major threat to the sustainability of the forests and is one of the major drivers of deforestation and degradation in Bhutan.” Well, we may now want to think beyond the deforestation and degradation as we have been talking about this for the longest time and explore the innovative solution to either prevent forest fires or to reduce the intensity of forest fires – and it may be achieved either through extracting resources or through controlled burning.

What should Bhutan do?

Several scholars have argued that removing small logs through thinning operations results in the removal of ladder fuels that support crown fires. Crown fires are the most destructive kind of forest fires. A study from northern Arizona, USA, demonstrated that thinning treatment in ponderosa pine forests resulted in stand structural changes making the stand less likely to support a crown fire. However, there exists another group of literature that is not in agreement with this argument. They argue that logging operations not only alter micro-climatic conditions but also can change stocking densities and other forest attributes such as plant species composition influencing the fire regimes. For example, logging in moist forests in southeastern Australia shifted the vegetation composition towards characteristic of drier forests that tend to be more fire-prone. Similarly, studies from western North America and Asian rain forests indicated that logging related alterations in stand structure increase both the risk of occurrence and severity of subsequent wildfires through changes in fuel types and conditions.

Placing these arguments of two poles in one place, it is only time for Bhutan to invest in finding the best way for Bhutan to reduce the occurrences of devastating forest fires. While we may be proud of having 1001 million cubic meters of growing stock in our forests, it is also equally important for us to assess the fuel build-up in our forests. It is important for us to know our forest structures well in relation to the fire behavior and also to understand the structural changes it might bring by either ‘over-stocking’ our forests or by removing fuel build-up from our forests. It is about time for Bhutan to invest in such localized and specialized studies to understand our natural resources better before jumping on the conclusion of how it is being practiced elsewhere. All we need to understand is ‘one size doesn’t fit all.’

Conclusion

As I write this, state and federal authorities of Australia are struggling to contain the massive blazes, even with firefighting assistance from other countries like the USA, Canada, and New Zealand. Some of Australia’s largest cities have also been affected. Earlier in December, the smoke was so bad in Sydney that air quality measured was reported to be 11 times the “hazardous” level.  Canberra was also in the same category during the New Year’s Eve when the Air Quality Index (AQI) peaked at 7700 and remained at over 3000 when the readings of AQI below 200 is considered safe.

Australia broke its all-time temperature record in December 2019, when an average maximum temperature hit 42C. Hot, dry weather combined with prolonged drought and strong winds have created perfect conditions for the fire to spread rapidly.

Scientists have long warned that a hotter, drier climate will contribute to fires becoming frequent and more intense. Australian bush fires, Amazon forest fires, and California fires may be treated as a strong message on what’s in store for us in Bhutan with the present climate change scenario.

Himalaya is at the forefront of climate change and Bhutan cannot afford to silently watch what’s happening elsewhere. We have become vulnerable to many aftermaths of climate change and the noticeable change is how our monsoon is increasingly becoming unpredictable.

Bhutan should seriously consider investing in localized state-of-the-art research to understand the changing dynamics and invest in having a road-map should such a disaster strike. We don’t have the luxury of resources, so it will only be beneficial if our National Assembly and National Council could witness debates in such front rather than ‘protocols’ and mud-slinging.

Meanwhile, out here in Australia, the country is, unfortunately, just entering its summer season. Normally, temperatures peak in January and February, meaning the country could be months away from finding relief.

Stay safe everyone!

My opinion published on Kuensel can be found here – https://kuenselonline.com/what-can-we-learn-from-current-australian-bush-fires/

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