fire, the teacher

bushfires have played a crucial role in shaping australia’s ecology for millions of years.

photo from NASA satellite data; dec. 2019; jan.-feb., 2020

the original intent of this post was to take a lighthearted look at how one tiny australian island is roaring back after half its land area was blackened in last year’s bush fires. but as sometimes happens, the story took on a life of its own.

the main character in the story is mother nature, which is in riotous growth mode after a rather rough patch in oz. the story, however, is set against the backdrop of the difficult discussion australia is having as it grapples with two intertwined challenges; the increasing intensity and destructiveness of bush fires; and the emerging reality that australia’s european settlers disrupted a land and fire management system that sustained the balance between man and nature for tens of thousands of years.

so as australia reckons with its past and evaluates the adaptability of indigenous methods to 21st century challenges, the circle of life (remember ‘the lion king‘?) goes humming along,

the flames engulfed every shred of vegetation in parts of western Kangaroo Island, right down to the water’s edge. now it’s being reborn

exhibit A: kangaroo island (k.i. to the locals) is a treasure trove of biodeversity located off australia’s southern coast. k.i. is about the size of luxembourg. (it’s visible in the satellite imagery above, a brightly burning dot about halfway down the inner coast). the island’s western half is mostly wilderness, home to a smorgasbord of endangered species, many of them found nowhere else.

lightning strike fires burned large swathes of australia to a crisp a year ago. clouds of smoke and a blanket of ash smothered the country. breathing was an existential risk.

it was a time of superlatives. we were told the fires were “unprecedented anywhere in the world”, temperatures were the hottest, damage was the greatest. entire native species were wiped out. experts estimated a billion animals died. and that’s not counting fish, bats and frogs. apocalyptic predictions dominated the news.

observers from abroad seeing news accounts could be forgiven for confusing australia with hell; a blazing inferno down below where cuddly koalas and kangaroos were being barbequed to extinction.

n.b. this is not intended as a rant about the pathology gripping journalism. if journalism is the first draft of history (god forbid!), this is the second draft. the longer view.

and now, meet mr. long view, ron swan. ron is a walking kangaroo island encyclopedia, not to mention a bush country chef.

grilled local fish, fresh salad, fine k.i. wine. ron’s secret bush kitchen he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve

ron makes his living introducing visitors to the hidden wonders of kangaroo island. he’s damn good at it.

he also knows a thing or two about the ecology of fire.

driving through a forest of charred stumps, ron pulls over to show us the life percolating inside. this one is a yacca (no, not yucca, you northern hemisphereans!)

the bark of this yacca was turned to ash in the fire, but beneath the surface it’s alive and well.

yacca is the aboriginal name for what are commonly known as grass trees, though they’re neither grass nor trees. and the bark is not bark at all, (though it’s worse than its bite). ron shows us that the “bark” is made of tightly packed leaves. he then peels back a layer to reveal the inner core, which is very much alive.

to make a long story short, these species survive and thrive on fire. while the tops of the eucalyptus trees are destroyed in a blaze, the underground core re-sprouts from buds (lignotubers) stored either deep in the stem or at the base of the trunk. this dance of fire and flora is one of mother nature’s wonders.

the tops of these eucalyptus trees in flinders chase national park were destroyed but new growth is erupting from the underground core

when europeans arrived in 1788, the people living on the land had a good working relationship with fire. we now know that these traditional custodians understood fire to be an inevitable force that must be managed, just as the flora and fauna had adapted. it was not so much that they had tamed fire. it was the other way around. they had learned from fire. the most adaptable (flora, fauna, humans) survived and thrived. the rest are now extinct.

some contend we’re facing another extinction crisis today.

on the extinction/survival scale, kangaroo island is showing its mettle, rising like a phoenix from the ashes. almost all its 4400 residents live in the eastern half, which was spared by fire. in the west, where the flora and fauna of the spectacular flinders chase national wilderness park was a near total loss, the terrain is again verdant.

most of the park’s major attractions are intact. one famous lodge was destroyed; but others, like the magnificent lighthouse, admiral’s arch and remarkable rocks, three great photo ops, (we couldn’t resist) were untouched.

another tourist favorite, the koalas, were decimated by the fires. but peggy rissmiller, co-founder and resident scientist at K.I’s pelican lagoon research and wildlife center, says there are 25,000 of the teddy-bear like animals remaining. and they’re a nuisance, she says, an invasive, fast-breeding species playing havoc with the island’s delicate ecological balance.

peggy rissmiller is the world’s leading authority on echidnas. photo from her website.

dr. rissmiller, an american, prefers to work with her echidnas, spiny little creatures that were also fire victims. they’re native to the island, and endangered. an article about her work with these rare monotremes (mammals that lay eggs) is titled “what animal has a four-headed penis and produces puggles?” it’s a must read.

amid fears of a fire-filled future, the government named a royal commission into national disaster arrangements. the commission’s 578-page report is a disaster planner’s bible. in a sign of the times, it includes a chapter on indigenous land and fire management practices, but commission chair, air chief marshal (ret’d) mark binskin regrets that there are not enough “cultural fire practitioners” to implement the concept.

it will take time to recover and institutionalize the traditional knowledge lost over more than two centuries.

eventually, the idea is to mesh cultural burning with modern techniques to develop a strategy to meet the challenges of hotter temperatures and a growing population.

the good news is that, after a season of searing temps and unhealthy air, much of australia is experiencing a cooler and wetter year; a time to heal its burn wounds. it may turn out that by the time the country’s pandemic-shut gates swing open to foreign visitors again, the country may be well on the road back to normal; whatever the new normal may be.

it has also provided a much needed time for rethinking the relationship with flame. the continent’s european settlers brought with them a fear of fire. they could not comprehend the fine art of land and fire management possessed by the original occupants.

now the eyes of understanding are opening, and as mother nature heals her wounds, a cultural healing is also underway. the wisdom of indigenous fire practitioners is no longer ignored. it is revered.

that cloud of smoke australians were choking on a year ago may have a silver lining after all.


  1. Scott says:

    Ethiopians are learning the hard way how difficult it is to kill a eucalyptus after importing so many from Australia and then finding out how much water they consume. And what?? Did I hear you say BBQ Koalas? Great read! Thanks as always.


    1. don’t import eucalyptus or koalas. they’re both menaces. thanks for your kind words, scott.


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