The Fires Next Time by Peter Christoff [ed]

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

The fires of Australia’s black summer of 2019/20 were amongst the largest ever recorded in human history. Burning 24 million hectares, they eclipsed any of the infamous Australian bushfires of the last 100 years (Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday, for example). The fact that they were named for a whole season rather than one day, tells a story of their magnitude.

This is not a subject for the faint hearted, with so much of the country on fire, ten thousand buildings lost and a staggering three billion animals dead. Anyone doubting the effects of climate change would struggle to deny the statistics that fire seasons are longer and the worst fires are more intense than has ever been seen before. The Fires Next Time assesses the multiple and far-reaching impacts of Australia’s Black Summer. It highlights the substantial need for cultural, political and institutional change in Australia in the face of global warming’s growing steps and the likelihood that we have not yet seen the biggest and worst of the modern megafires [xxii].

The book is a based on a seminar held in 2021, with 10 topics, each written by different individuals or teams of experts. Mercifully, there are no politicians included and the emphasis is on evidence rather than conjecture or hearsay. In doing so, many of the myths spread at the time – such as arsonists being largely responsible; or the fire extent being nothing unusual – are well and truly debunked.

Sandwiched between the editor’s introduction and epilogue are the 10 chapters, which are categorised within three themes- What happened; Impacts and responses; and Looking forward. The book’s genesis as different papers means that there is a certain amount of repetition, but that only serves to reinforce the facts and figures that explain this singular event.

The scientists are particularly scathing about the federal government which, by refusing to acknowledge the link between fire and climate change, took a business-as-usual approach despite constant warnings that this fire season was like no other. Natural disaster preparation at national level was inadequate and, post-fire response and adaptation, was demonstrably underfunded.

While the authors offer some hope for the future if we address these matters, the need for urgent action is never more clear when,  on current trajectories, “the temperature of 2019 will be viewed as a rare cool [emphasis added] event…around 2040” [p69]. Let us hope that this book influences the people who need to make the hard decisions necessary to avoid such a bleak future.

Peter Christoff is a political scientist, a senior research fellow with the Melbourne Climate Futures Initiative, and an honorary associate professor with the School of Geography, Atmospheric and Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His books include Globalisation and the Environment (co-authored with Robyn Eckersley) and Four Degrees of Global Warming: Australia in a Hot World.

 The Fires Next Time

(November 2023)

Edited by Peter Christoff

MUP

ISBN: 978 052287 942 1

$35.00 (RRP Paperback); 336pp

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