Nature or negligence? Creating a global context to understand destructive wildfires 

Extreme fire events are being reported around the world, in some cases involving substantial loss of life and property. Understanding the global pattern of extreme fires, and their relationship with climate conditions and human settlement patterns is a basic step in knowing if extreme fire events are like other natural hazards to which humans must adapt, or if humans have increased their vulnerability by not only building in dangerous environments, but also by increasing fire danger through inappropriate management of fuels and ignitions. If weather conditions are the main driver of extreme fires then climate change may make a bad situation worse. Resolving these issues demands a geographic context. Existing records of fire disasters were too fragmentary to provide a coherent global perspective. So I formed a team to create a global database to illuminate the ‘pyrogeography’ of extreme fire events. As I explain, I was strongly motivated to do this work because I live in a city that was very nearly destroyed by a huge conflagration 50 years ago.

I live in Hobart, the capital of the temperate island of Tasmania. On February 7, 2017, Tasmania is marking the 50th anniversary of the Black Tuesday bushfire, which killed 62 people, left 900 injured, and destroyed 1,400 homes. With slightly different winds the fire could have been driven into the centre of the city. For Australian fire managers, the 1967 bushfire has served as a historical benchmark, framing thinking about the destructive capacities of landscape fire. However, since turn of this century the 1967 Hobart disaster has been eclipsed by a spate of extreme bushfires, like the 2003 fire that burnt into the suburbs of Canberra, the capital of Australia, and the notorious 2009 Victorian Black Saturday Bushfire that killed 173 people and had an economic impact of over 4 billion dollars. On 4 January 2013, Tasmania experienced an extreme fire event that destroyed the small township of Dunalley that presented the world with the iconic image of a family taking refuge under a pier. What was not widely reported was that a Tasmanian wilderness fire, known as the Giblin River fire, that is one of the largest fires in the Tasmanian historical record was burning at the same time (French et al. 2016). Both fires were driven by extreme fire weather conditions, but the Dunalley fire was ignited by a smouldering log in a debris pile and thus ultimately caused by humans, whereas the Giblin River fire was caused by a lightning strike and set by nature.

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