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A New Breed of Bushfire
May 26, 2013 8:58 PM   Subscribe

On January 4th, 2013, in the midst of a national heat wave, Tasmania experienced some of the most extreme weather on record, with Hobart recording a record temperature of 41.8°C in the afternoon. Fires blazed around the state, covering almost 50,000 acres, claiming hundreds of properties, and destroying the town of Dunalley. The Tasman peninsula was cut off by the fires, necessitating a sea rescue of over 2,000 people. An image of a family clinging to a jetty in the water to escape from the fire captured the attention of the world. With the launch of their Australian edition, The Guardian have produced a frightening and fascinating multimedia article exploring the human side of the inferno.
posted by Jimbob (46 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Tasmania experienced some of the most extreme weather on record, with Hobart recording a record temperature of 41.8°C in the afternoon.

Welcome to Texas...
posted by jim in austin at 9:33 PM on May 26, 2013


Wow, that Guardian piece is really really impressive. Wow, that's using the internet in a damn smart way. Kudos to the Guardian. And what an incredible ordeal these grandparents and their grandchildren endured. I'm speechless.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:42 PM on May 26, 2013 [8 favorites]


Great article, thanks for the link. Really nicely done. Have passed it on to my Hobart friends too!

And jim_in_austin, yeah, there are a lot of similarities between Australia and TX, as I think every time I visit my parents there.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:44 PM on May 26, 2013


Yeah, where I live, we have temperatures on or above the 40s C all through summer. Big fires like the one described in the post are pretty scary to think about.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:50 PM on May 26, 2013


Nice format on that. Guardian as always is quality.
posted by jcruelty at 9:51 PM on May 26, 2013


It's worth mentioning that Tasmania is pretty much the coldest part of Australia.
posted by markr at 9:56 PM on May 26, 2013 [16 favorites]


Jesus.
posted by rtha at 10:26 PM on May 26, 2013


That's some good web design. Too bad it's about the end of the world.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:07 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


An image of a family clinging to a jetty in the water to escape from the fire captured the attention of the world.

Grandpa said he sent the pictures to his daughter to reassure her that her kids were OK. But he couldn't just tell her that. He had to send a picture of them huddled in the water, looking scared to death, and add a message that they are "surrounded by fire." Thanks, Dad.

Too bad it's about the end of the world.

When I read the part where the four horses appeared, I thought, "No shit."
posted by pracowity at 11:31 PM on May 26, 2013 [9 favorites]


Thanks Jimbob; that is a great presentation site by the Guardian. I'm actually slightly embarrassed to admit that this whole event hardly registered at the time. My brother and sister in law were in Tasmania in January and I recall being aware that they were in a safe place. But fire news gets to be the wallpaper of summer media and it's easy to dull it down or tune it out a bit unless very catastrophic news pierces through.
posted by peacay at 11:42 PM on May 26, 2013


Good website design; unsettling content.
posted by Wordshore at 11:50 PM on May 26, 2013


That was impressive. And frightening.

I looked at the photos of the family under the jetty and counted the kids each time, just in case.
posted by firstdrop at 12:11 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Guardian Australia is a very welcome development. The contrast with the tabloid trash-plastered Sydney Morning Herald website is striking (to say nothing of any of the Murdoch 'news' sources).
posted by moorooka at 12:11 AM on May 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


The Guardian's article format reminded me a bit of the New York Times' crazy Snow Fall piece.
posted by disillusioned at 12:52 AM on May 27, 2013


To give some idea of how Tasmania is NOTHING like Texas - when we were in Hobart in January 2001 it was rather cold, and there was enough snow on Mount Wellington to make snowmen.

Australia is a huge country, like the US, so saying 'Australia' is like a certain state is like saying 'the US' is like Belgium because somewhere in Maine reminded you of your visit to the Low Countries.
posted by Megami at 1:04 AM on May 27, 2013 [10 favorites]


Wow, that Guardian presentation is really well done.
I was in Tasmania about a month after the fires, as a tourist. It's a spectacularly gorgeous place and one that is quite unlike the Australian mainland.
The final chapter of the Guardian piece, about adapting to life in a flammable environment is both frightening and heartening.
Thanks for the post, Jimbob.
posted by islander at 1:11 AM on May 27, 2013


Is Australia the Face of Climate Change to Come? Extreme weather Down Under may foreshadow events on a global scale.
posted by homunculus at 1:21 AM on May 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


pracowity: "Grandpa said he sent the pictures to his daughter to reassure her that her kids were OK. But he couldn't just tell her that. He had to send a picture of them huddled in the water, looking scared to death, and add a message that they are "surrounded by fire." Thanks, Dad. "
Gotta love Aussies.
posted by brokkr at 2:42 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


That interface reminds me a LOT of Half Life 2.
posted by ZaneJ. at 3:19 AM on May 27, 2013


The interface isn't really working for me on a small notebook (I miss the end of the longer text blocks), but that's kind of by the by. The gist is there.

Apart from the low number of lives lost, and the individual survival stories, I don't find much heartening here. Rather, it's immensely distressing, verging on heartbreaking, to think that this is the future of our forests and much of what lives in them. That it's the future for those of us who kind of like living among or near trees.

With reference to the south west of WA, we're already looking at a catastrophic heat and disease induced collapse in our forest ecosystems, particularly with regard to most of our large tree species. Water tables are falling fast, our eucalypts reverse moisture transmission to leaves under prolonged and intense heat stress, and stressed trees become particularly vulnerable to both soil and tissue borne fungal disease (we're no longer looking at simply Phytophthora cinnamomi dieback but at dozens if not hundreds of species of tree killing fungi) as well as insect, grub and weevil attack.

The net result is a wholesale loss of canopy cover that feeds into a vicious cycle of increased sunlight on forest floors, death of under-storey flora, ever higher temperatures, and a further worsening of all of the problems noted above.

In the first instance that means an enormous volume of dead, dying, dry and highly flammable fuel within our forests. As a piece of anecdata, late last year I walked a few hundred k's through the steeper sections of the Murray Valley. In the feeder valleys all of the mature Marri that had been growing on north facing hillsides and exposed ridges was either already dead and on the ground, or dying and likely to be flattened during this winter's storms. Tens of thousands of trees - dead, rotten, extraordinarily friable.

Tinder. In an area where we routinely get summer winds gusting to 50 knots. In those conditions, when fire starts, it doesn't burn at a "walk, don't run" pace, it goes off with all the fury and speed of an H-bomb.

Subsequently the trees can't recover or regrow. The fires are hot enough to kill both mature trees and seed stored in the soil. Seedlings would need summer rain (which rarely happens here) to make it through their first year. They couldn't get their roots down to the water tables even if they did get a start. And the soil is still carrying fungal spores that would knock em off before maturity anyway.

So at best, current forest environments in the south-west are likely to regrow as open woodland with extensive grass coverage in their under-stories. Even more flammable. At worst we're going to have very open savannah and grasslands. Fire-storms every summer.

Hence the question of adaptation becomes extraordinarily complex. We're no longer looking only at having to adapt human behaviour to fire prone environments (eg put our housing elsewhere) and manage our forests around human settlements so as to minimise risk to life an property (eg through fuel reduction burning).

Instead, we're looking at needing to consider what flora we might transplant from elsewhere that's tolerant of extreme heat, fire resistant, disease resistant, still able to transpire some moisture (so that our grain growing areas don't entirely kark it), won't be wildly invasive, but will be capable of sustaining as much as possible of our endemic fauna.

And that's just about an impossible ask.
posted by Ahab at 3:30 AM on May 27, 2013 [24 favorites]


My parents drove my brother and his family up to the airport that morning from the peninsula, and couldn't get home for over a week. The fires were burning on a hill behind their house, and my dad spent the whole week wondering if he'd lost all the research he's been working on for years. Fortunately the worst they suffered was a freezer full of rotten meat, but it was a pretty awful week to live through - and that's nothing compared to the people who did actually lose their homes.
posted by rory at 3:53 AM on May 27, 2013


The fires are hot enough to kill both mature trees and seed stored in the soil. Seedlings would need summer rain (which rarely happens here) to make it through their first year.

This issue is being faced in the Australian Alps too - about 95% of eucalypt (ie. non-alpine) vegetation in the Alps has burnt in the last decade. Many areas have burnt 2 or 3 times. Vegetation that's used to long fire-return intervals can't cope with that, and it going to switch to another state. Similarly, in Tasmania, even not taking fire into account, vegetation communities in the eastern half of the state are moving towards being drier, with more open canopies (paper currently under review). This is conducive to more frequent fires, and you can see a feedback loop developing. Meanwhile, in the wetter west of the state, fires are now being observed burning underneath rainforest canopies, a system previously thought to be impervious to fire, as moisture is no longer available all year round.

The disturbing thing, to me, is the immediate demand for increased prescribed burning. Prescribed burning is fine, but claims by some that it has declined in recent years is not borne out by the evidence - land managers I speak to are adamant they're burning as much as possible. And there is a limited climatic window in which prescribed burning can take place (a window that's getting narrower under climate change). Forestry announced a few weeks back that they are purchasing night-vision gear, so they can carry out prescribed burning by night. Proponents of increased prescribed burning also forget that when there hasn't been a recent destructive bushfire, most of the public comment on prescribed burning is negative, due to the health impacts of the smoke it produces. Prescribed burning alone is not the answer. The 5%-per-annum target set in Victoria is basically unachievable, and the quota is being reached by burning the hell out of the mallee in the west of the state, which doesn't do much for the populated areas around Melbourne. There is now talk of putting a similar target in place in Tasmania, and I can only imagine the result will be burning the hell out of the buttongrass.
posted by Jimbob at 4:29 AM on May 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


The interface isn't really working for me on a small notebook (I miss the end of the longer text blocks)

You can scroll. I tried because I was missing the bottom of the blocks, too. I'm on a Macbook, though, which tends to hide scroll bars and has two-finger scrolling, so I can't tell if they're obvious, nor how you'd scroll if you had to click to do it.
posted by hoyland at 5:31 AM on May 27, 2013


Ahab, Jimbob, we did the modelling for the central highlands and for far east gippsland, and yeah, basically it's Black wattle and silver wattle in the alps, following any serious disturbance event from about 2040 onwards. Ash-type eucs will survive only in remnant patches. In east gippsland it's surprisingly resilient and we should have only limited change there until 2070+

But the natural world is going to hell in a handbasket, and the fire services (I'm a CFA volunteer) can't do anything about it.
posted by wilful at 5:34 AM on May 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


When I first heard about this I was very impressed with that temperature at Hobart. Tasmania is surrounded by relatively cool ocean water and the mean January temperature is only about 17 C, which is about 63 F. A temperature of 41.8 C is about 107 F. Any wind off the ocean will keep Hobart cool, and this is an island. So I assume these extreme conditions were produced by a blast of heat from the north and northwest, driven by fairly strong NW winds from mainland Australia? But even then that air mass must cross the cool water between Tasmania and the mainland. But perhaps there is some downslope heating as the air descends into Hobart which is located on the SE side of the island. Any Australia weather nuts out there who can clarify the specific meteorological set up?
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 6:19 AM on May 27, 2013


basically it's Black wattle and silver wattle in the alps, following any serious disturbance event from about 2040 onwards

Yeah, amazing how the wattles come up after disturbance.

Any Australia weather nuts out there who can clarify the specific meteorological set up?

This is something I have to read some papers on and talk to some colleagues with - I work with a guy who's studying the phenomena that lead to these conditions in Tasmania, and running climate models to search for how frequently such events will occur in the future. From memory, the key term is "blocking high"? From the abstract of the paper above;
Both events also feature the advection of air from drought-affected continental Australia ahead of cold fronts. This air reaches the surface in the lee of Tasmanian topography by the action of the föehn effect.
posted by Jimbob at 6:47 AM on May 27, 2013


It is amazing how much trouble blocking high pressure can cause. The block causes the jet stream to maintain a fairly static position for long periods of time. And time is the key factor here. If you are under a ridge in the stuck jet stream, your location will be hot and dry....for a long time. If your location is in a trough in the stuck stream, your location will be stormy...for a long time. The result is extreme events....prolonged record heat and drought in one place, with prolonged storminess, record rain or snow, and floods in another place. And climate models predict that as the high latitudes warm more than the tropics (this is happening already), the temperature gradient from the equator to the poles diminishes. This causes the jet stream to slow down. And when it slows down it is more prone to get stuck, producing these blocking patterns with all the hardship that follows. We are really in a pickle.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 7:01 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


markr: "It's worth mentioning that Tasmania is pretty much the coldest part of Australia."

Yeah, Hobart's at a latitude similar to that of Milwaukee, with the bonus that there's nothing south of it apart from chilly antarctic waters, so hitting 107F in the afternoon is far from analogous to Texas!
posted by barnacles at 7:05 AM on May 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


I found this picture particularly resonant. Partially because it can so easily be read as a metaphor of looking into our potentially disastrous future, and partially because it's so timeless. It could have been taken a hundred years ago or a hundred years in the future.
posted by tavella at 8:07 AM on May 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Those who dig the layout might want to check out Scroll Kit.
posted by dobbs at 8:45 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Welcome to Texas...
The problem is you have one landscape/environment/agricultural system that's used to a particular temperature range, if you just spike the temperature up it doesn't become "just like" some other place that's that temperature, things get fucked up.

You have, for example, massive fires whereas in Texas you don't have massive amounts of stuff to burn because there are enough fires to take care of it. or you have droughts that are incapacitating to the local agricultural setup, or you have massive flooding that wipes out stuff that wouldn't have ever been built there if flooding like that was a regular occurrence.

Once the temperatures stabilize around the world, then a place like Tasmania may end up "just like" Texas, while Texas will be "just like" Libya, and Libya will be, like, really fucking hot.

But you know we've got to look out for oil company shareholders and stuff. It would be mean to make them lose money.
posted by delmoi at 9:00 AM on May 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


if you just spike the temperature up it doesn't become "just like" some other place that's that temperature, things get fucked up.

Yes. And to reiterate a comment I made in a different post, part of the reason for this is the geologic substrate....like soil type. You can change the temperature of a place but it doesn't mean that trees will be able to shift their locations so easily. They might try to follow the warmer temperatures north, for example, but they might be blocked by soil type. So they can't go back (too hot) and they can't go forward (wrong soil), so they just disappear instead. And soil type is partly controlled by climate....but the response takes geologic time. This is why a rapid shift in climate is particularly dangerous. The geologic substrate supporting ecosystems can't respond that quickly.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 9:14 AM on May 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


Eucalypts...won't regenerate. [They have] evolved traits that will allow them to survive and prosper in fires that will clear that undergrowth. Some...hold their seeds inside small, hard capsules; a fire triggers a massive drop of seeds to the newly fertilised ground....Eucalypts are born, in a sense, to burn: they are arboreal bombs.

Interesting because Eucalyplts were partly blamed for the 1991 Oakland hills fire that destroyed over 3000 houses and killed 25 people, and the 2007 California wildfires.

These trees are all over California, but they are not native. They came from Australia about 150 years ago. There's now a debate over whether they should be removed (though it will never happen--for the most part we like the trees).
posted by eye of newt at 2:58 PM on May 27, 2013


The flash point of the eucalyptus oil in the leaves of some species of eucalypts is about 50°C. You can see how this might be a problem - on 45°C, 48°C days as we've been having in Australia, the air in forests is basically explosive.
posted by Jimbob at 4:08 PM on May 27, 2013


Australia is a huge country, like the US, so saying 'Australia' is like a certain state is like saying 'the US' is like Belgium because somewhere in Maine reminded you of your visit to the Low Countries.

Sydney is San Francisco and Melbourne is Boston.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:24 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Australia is definitely not Texas, and there are a lot of differences between them. However, there are also more than a few similarities - not least of which that they are both big places with huge variations in geography (deserts, grasslands, mountainous areas, forests), vegetation (eucalypts/piney woods, both resinous trees) and population. Issues like prolonged droughts, bush/wildfires, increased average summer temperatures, etc are common to both. Tasmania is not Texas (nor is the rest of Australia), but the issues we face in Australia around bushfires are more than a little reminiscent of the issues Texans face vs somewhere like Boston where wildfires are completely unheard of.

Also, Charlemagne In Sweatpants, I reckon Hobart's more like Boston. Can't really think of a US equivalent to Melbourne, maybe I haven't been enough places there. You are spot on with Sydney/SF though, I've thought the same!
posted by Athanassiel at 5:41 PM on May 27, 2013


Sydney is San Francisco

Come on. If this were true, Sydney would have to have some goddamn culture.
posted by Jimbob at 5:42 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]



Also, Charlemagne In Sweatpants, I reckon Hobart's more like Boston.


For real? I've never been there, but just 'cause its got a new museum and Amanda Palmer hangs out there doesn't make it Boston. They even shot a Stephen King anthology series in Melbourne.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:42 PM on May 27, 2013


Sydney is San Francisco

Come on. If this were true, Sydney would have to have some goddamn culture.


Hills, sunshine, world-famous gay district.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:43 PM on May 27, 2013


If depends if you're talking culture or environment or people. I'd tend to place Hobart more towards, say, Anchorage, Alaska.

Hills, sunshine, world-famous gay district.

Hollow wankers climbing over each other to own a house with a view of the bay. Okay, yeah I see where you're coming from now.
posted by Jimbob at 5:44 PM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hobart actually gets snow (ok, mostly on Mt Wellington), which doesn't really happen in Melbourne. It's also a harbour city, like Boston. Nothing to do with MOMA or Amanda Palmer, I've just been to both cities and they remind me of each other. Whereas I live in Melbourne and no, not so much like Boston.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:50 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Great use of the medium, and very information-dense.
posted by sensate at 7:02 PM on May 27, 2013


Oh yeah, forgot to say, an excellent photojournalistic essay. Though of course there are lots and lots of small errors.
posted by wilful at 5:07 AM on May 28, 2013


Just came back to throw in last week's Catalyst story about the Canberra fires involving a rather large topography, heat and smoke-cloud generated fire tornado.

Dunno whether that's available outside Oz, or how long it'll stay up.
posted by Ahab at 4:06 PM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, in the US: Colorado Is Burning Even Worse Than Last Year. Is climate change to blame?
posted by homunculus at 4:16 PM on June 14, 2013


Ahab, it is available in the US, and...it's a freaking full size FIRE TORNADO!
posted by eye of newt at 8:36 PM on June 14, 2013


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