If the Black Summer is no longer, in the minds of Australians, the defining crisis of 2020, to speak with CSIRO bushfire researcher Dr Matt Plucinski is to comprehend not only its scale but its texture.
Almost a year on, some figures smoulder in the memory. Thirty-three people dead, as many as 30 million hectares burnt and, according to a WWF-funded study, three billion animals killed or displaced. As destroyers of wildlife, the bushfires belong in the company of the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater Horizon oil spills. But the crisis also mobilised a fire-fighting effort to defend the continent, as smoke filled satellite images and billowed across the sea.
For Plucinski, a senior scientist with more than 20 years in bushfire research and a volunteer NSW Rural Fire Service firefighter, the dread of the summer was writ large in his haze-shrouded adopted home of Canberra.
Residents of the nation’s capital, used to opening their windows to an easterly breeze on summer evenings, were instead hunted indoors by smoke from the NSW South Coast. Postcard towns like Eden and Batemans Bay became evacuation flashpoints, and specks on the map like Cobargo were household names. Further southwest, massive fires in the Snowy Mountains devoured the landscape.
“The word of the summer was ‘Unprecedented’. The NSW Rural Fire Service magazine that came out after that summer had the word ‘Unprecedented’ on the cover, and it certainly was,” says Plucinski.
“People will say there’s been larger areas burnt in other seasons, but they’re generally in drier environments and grasslands and desert sort of areas. In terms of forest, this was certainly unprecedented. This was an extraordinary amount of area, and you just watched it progress down the coast from Queensland to Victoria.”
Sparking an interest in fires
Plucinski obtained his PhD in 2003 from the University of NSW, where his thesis focussed on defining ignition thresholds in heathland fuels. It seems, now, like a natural progression. He had grown up in a leafy Newcastle suburb and spent much of his childhood playing in the remnant bushland where there was “the odd fire in there for a kid to have a stickybeak at and fossick around”. In a time before detailed online forecasts, he developed a keen interest in the weather, and the effect the wind could have on the hours he spent in the surf.
In 2004 Plucinski joined the CSIRO Bushfire Behaviour and Risks group, focussing on fire suppression and the use of aircraft. State authorities wanted to know more about the effectiveness of expensive waterbombing aircraft – which, at the time, ranged from small helicopters to Erickson Aircranes - including the situations in which they should be used.
Since then Plucinski has studied wildfires as they are suppressed, finetuning data collection methods that have been used operationally and for training and planning by state agencies. It was his team’s scientific evaluation in 2010 that prompted the Victorian government to stop using the DC-10 air tanker. In January 2020, as firefighting aircraft swarmed above Canberra, Plucinski observed the tactical and technological evolution as one of Australia’s foremost experts on attacking fires from the air.
Plucinski has found that aircraft can be highly effective during an initial attack, even if they are thought of by many decision-makers as an expensive remedy for fires that may end up being inconsequential. But their effectiveness at containing fires that grow beyond that threshold has yet to be confirmed. The uncertainty makes it “difficult to not throw resources at a fire” when communities are at risk, says Plucinski, and more research needs to be done on the usefulness of aircraft at different stages of bushfires.
“I can sum up my entire research career in a sentence, if you like,” he says, dryly.
“Small fires are easier to put out than big ones. When there’s any fire potential, it’s all about getting to fires quickly, when they’re small. There are just so many variables to deal with.”
More than most Australians last summer, Plucinski knew the fires were burning the country in ways it hadn’t been burnt before. The effects were widespread, with areas consumed that are normally too wet to burn, and recently-burned areas that would normally stop fires’ progress having little effect.
Last summer’s binary arguments on social media – and, framed as culture wars, the national media – pitting climate science against calls for fuel load management missed the point, says Plucinski.
“It’s really both of those things. I don’t know why it became so polarised,” he says.
“It’s quite apparent that things have changed and droughts have become more severe, but there’s also a lot to be learned in the fuel reduction space from a suppression point of view. People don’t appreciate how much harder it is to suppress fires in heavier fuels.”
Looking to the future, living with fires
As Australians continue to struggle through coronavirus restrictions, do they also need to fear that last summer was a glimpse of the new normal?
They certainly won’t see Black Summer conditions every year, says the CSIRO bushfire researcher, and the coming summer will be gentler. Many places hit last time have since had their average rainfall or more, which points to a grassfire season of “one day wonders” rather than the dry forest bushfires caused by swathes of the country being tinder dry at once.
Still, Victoria’s Black Saturday tragedy of February 2009 stands as a reminder that one or two days of “off the scale” fire danger can erupt in an otherwise normal fire season. And climate change will continue to bring droughts like that of 2019-20, which made the fuels highly combustible.
It’s a summer Plucinski says Australia must learn from, even as the world lurches through one of its defining health crises. For many Australians the sight of roiling fires in California in the northern summer, and San Francisco cloaked in that familiar red, were reminders of our own recurring trauma. Six of the golden state’s 20 largest recorded fires have happened this year. In terrifying ways, this is becoming a different planet to the one we are used to living on.
“People have forgotten about it a bit because of the COVID situation, but every Australian summer has the potential for bad fires,” Plucinski says.
“I hope we never see one with as many as we did last summer.”
CSIRO supports effective cross-cultural partnerships, working with Indigenous and ranger groups to manage Australia’s landscape through fire. Does this spark your interest? Read more here.