Perspectives on bushfires.

I remember the great bushfire in Canberra of 2003. I had only arrived with the family a week before and had just rented a nice house near the top of Mt Cook, right in the path of an enormous bushfire that ended up destroying hundreds of homes.

The heat of that day was immense: 40 degrees and strong winds. Activity was similarly frantic. Warnings on the radio of how the seemingly impossible was truly happening: fires that broke all containment lines were converging on the capital. Barbecues got cancelled as everyone returned home to prepare: people feverishly cleaning out the gutters of their house to remove anything that would easily combust; people filling up their bathtubs to be able to quickly immerse themselves if needed; the ban on using hose-pipes suddenly being lifted as the importance of water conservation gave way to survival. Our neighbour, whom we never talked to before, or afterwards, was suddenly very chummy in the face of this imminent joint danger. Indeed, there was a palpable buzz about Canberra as people went through a shared emergency.

Well do I remember standing on top of Mt Cook, seeing the fires break more containment lines on their way to our neighbourhood. In the distance, we could see huge fire-arcs of hundreds of meters, via which whole trees, full of igniting oils, were whirled into the Southern suburbs, causing immense damage to people and property. One had to be in awe of that kind of destructive force, which simply seemed too great for humans to meaningfully oppose. One suddenly felt a bit silly, holding two hosepipes in one’s hand waiting for these huge fires to come! Luckily for my neighbourhood, the wind shifted just as the fires were about to hit us, with the cooler air streaming from the opposite direction effectively ending the tragedy. For months afterwards, family back in the Netherlands and the UK would ask whether there were any houses left in Canberra and whether we had been lucky. We had been.

Yesterday and today, there are more large bushfires running wild in Australia and fears of a repeat of the 2003 fires abound. Let us hope things don’t get that bad.

Putting on my social scientist hat, I can offer the following perspectives on these bushfires:

  1. I am no expert in these things, but am told such fires are often the result of heavy rains in previous years, which meant a lot more plant-growth which is currently fuelling the flames. Perhaps a lack of back-burning in previous years might also be involved. This is where economics comes in: the choice to do only limited back-burning is of course a political choice that involves a trade-off between the wish to have a more natural landscape and the wish to have a less fire-prone and thereby less natural landscape. The choice of allowing lots of houses in the middle of very forested areas is of course also a political one.
  2. At a stroke, Australia is emitting huge amounts of CO2. Apparently, the 2003 Canberra bushfires released some 190 million tonnes, roughly half of what the economy goes through in a year. So forget about meeting our Kyoto targets this year! At least, if counting properly…
  3. They are great fraternising events. Fire-fighters are brought in from all over the country to these things, and the whole nation is gelled together as everyone has something at stake. Not only will communities share their fire-fighters, but bushfires are a real worry around the country, making everyone realise that ‘this could have been them’. There is also a kind of heroism about fighting these natural phenomena, and emergency services get a real work-out during such events, which keeps them efficient and scrutinised. Together with cyclones, floods, and droughts, bushfires are some of the most effective means of nation-hood building Australia has. This in turn means these fires are great for future tax compliance and community cohesion in general. During bushfires, new immigrants become citizens as they share in the drama and the risks with those who have been there longer. Age, skin colour, and religion cease to matter as the fires don’t care about such things. Whilst a tragedy for the victims, these emergencies have great propaganda value for the nation state.
  4. Natural disasters are big business in Australia. Natural disasters in the period before 1999 have been estimated to cost around 1.14 billion per year in 1999 money. Floods in particular were found to be very expensive, costing up to 1% of total GDP for a bad flood. These estimates seem to include only direct costs though via property and health effects. Indirect costs, such as when mayor floods spawn large public programs to capture flash floods in large dams, are not included, nor do the direct costs of maintaining all the emergency services seem to be included. Adding all that and realising that we had quite a few major disasters in the last 10 years (major cyclones, a major flood, a major drought, and 3 large fires) one would probably be looking at something like a 0.5-1% cost in terms of GDP per year in the last 10 years. That is a lot of business, because of course the main economic costs are in re-construction of damaged property. It is also big business for insurers.
  5. Invariably, bushfires raise controversies about insurers’ definitions of fire damage. It will not be new to Australians, but people living in less fire-prone areas might be amazed to know how tight one can make that definition. Damage due to fire smoke, and smouldering embers is for instance not the same as damage due to fire. One’s whole house can hence be blackened by smoke and crumpled by embers, but it is not necessarily fire damage and hence not necessarily covered by mere fire insurance. You get similar issues surrounding floods, with damage due to mould and moisture not being the same as pure flood damage. The wondrous ability to twist language so as to avoid paying out reasonable claims is on full display after such events.
  6. The economics of insurance-payouts surrounding natural disasters is interesting, as large private insurers essentially have much deeper pockets than their customers and so in principle could get away with paying almost nothing, simply forcing private individuals to go through endless costly legal procedures that cost more than the damages they would eventually recoup. Via such threats, insurance companies could normally manage to pay out almost nothing, whatever the actual merits of a claim. It is the wish to attract new business and to avoid the wrath of the governments, whose pockets and powers are large enough to take them on, that forms the actual reason to pay out any damages, meaning that insurance companies will be playing a waiting game oriented towards minimizing the negative media impact whilst paying out as little as possible. By waiting to pay out, insurance companies can hope that the media interest dies down as there are new disasters to cover and as claimants simply die of old age before being paid. In turn, this means that an ability to reach the media is key for a community to be able to force insurance payouts of natural disasters, raising the issue of optimal institutions that monitor insurance behaviour.
  7. You get the inevitable quasi-religious stories linking disasters to ‘sin’, essentially via a simple morality-play argument of ‘you have sinned, so now you are punished’. You had fruitcakes blaming the 2009 bushfires on Australia’s abortion laws. The first off the block this time round was Christina Figueres, a UN climate change marketer, wagging her finger at Australia, telling CNN reporters there was ‘absolutely’ a link between climate change and wildfires.
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36 Responses to Perspectives on bushfires.

  1. Michael says:

    Do you concede a link between climate change and an increase in frequency and severity of fires? My level of sympathy for people living in bushfire prone areas who fail to manage the risks prudently is already being tested – certainly it’s not at the same level it was 20 years ago.

    • Tel says:

      Fires on the whole have been getting less severe, so statistically there’s a link: more CO2 correlates with less severe fires. Then again more CO2 also correlates with fewer pirates so there you have it.

      The Black Thursday bushfires were a devastating series of fires that swept the state of Victoria, Australia on 6 February 1851. They are considered the largest Australian bushfires in a populous region in recorded history, with approximately 5 million hectares, or a quarter of Victoria, being burnt. 12 lives were lost, along with one million sheep and thousands of cattle.

      • John walker says:

        The 1939 fires were probably the most intense of all,though the 83 fires were also very hot… CIROs report estimated the temp at Cockatoo was higher than the temp at ground zero in a A bomb.

  2. “The choice of allowing lots of houses in the middle of very forested areas is of course also a political one.”
    Around springwood/winmallie there was a lot of subdivissions done in the 70s and 80s , in areas that should never had been developed, “just a matter of time” , according to those with long memories, back then.

    • derrida derider says:

      Yep, my memory is the same. I also remember that the opposition, which was indeed largely on the grounds of bushfire issues, came from the much despised greenies, quoting hard scientific research by the CSIRO. Of course they had no chance against property developers backed by the “pro-business” press and politicians.

      For those who don’t know the area Springwood and Winmalee are perched on the escarpment at the eastern end of the spectacular Grose Valley wilderness. Roaring along that valley and up the escarpment with a strong westerly behind it a big fire will act as a gigantic blowtorch just where it reaches the houses.

      You pay a price for ignoring inconvenient physics.

      • hammy says:

        You appear to another of those climate change denialists, blaming anything other than AGW for the fires.

        • derrida derider says:

          Que? Lets be clear:

          1) It was only a matter of time before a bad bushfire burnt Winmalee, regardless of AGW.
          2) Bad bushfires have become more common in the last 30 or 40 years, partly due to AGW. But that does NOT entitle you to say AGW burnt down Winmalee.

          There’s a practical objection to saying a single event is a result of AGW. If you loudly claim a heatwave is “proof of AGW” then denier-inclined punters will claim that the next cold snap “proves” AGW false. And cold snaps will still sometimes happen. So it’s much better strategy to stick to the more complicated truth – AGW is real and will rasie the frequency of extreme weather events, but we cannot say it caused any individual event..

        • John walker says:

          As fires become more frequent the plant community changes and the fires will become less intense

  3. Josh says:

    Poor analogy in point number 7. There is at least evidence to support the claim that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of fire danger weather. Whether it was a factor in these fires, time will tell.

    Also, your point about ‘backburning’ (which is actually a practice used during bushfires or wildfires) is simplistic to say the least. There is a large scientific literature on the effectiveness of prescribed burning for reducing fire risk.

  4. Tim Macknay says:


    Do you concede a link between climate change and an increase in frequency and severity of fires?

    The last sentence of #7 ought to answer that for you – it implies that suggesting a link between climate change and wildfires is the equivalent of mediaeval-style religious fundamentalism. I think Paul’s “socialist scientist hat” must have fallen off as he was typing that one. ;)

  5. Paul Frijters says:

    Michael, Tim,

    I have no problem with agreeing that a warmer world will mean more hot days and that we are thus looking at a future with more of them. But to go from long-run projections on one of the inputs into bushfires (alongside rain, housing policy, forestry policy, etc.) to talking about today’s fires and putting absolutist labels on the link to climate change, is something else.

    • Tim Macknay says:

      Paul, it seems you’re in agreement with the Secretary-General of the UNFCCC, then. To quote her exact words:

      “The World Meteorological Organisation has not established the direct link between this wildfire and climate change yet, but what is absolutely clear is that the science is telling us there are increasing heatwaves in Asia, Europe and Australia”.

      My main difficulty with your point #7 is the implicit comparison between climate change policy activism and the religious lunatic fringe, which is a cheap shot (and unwarranted). I think #7 might have been a more authentic “social science” observation if you’d instead referred to “the inevitable linking of natural disasters to other agendas” or some such.

      I acknowledge that the Reuters article you relied on gave a slightly distorted account of Figuerres’ remarks, but it seems like you jumped on it as an opportunity for a cheap shot, which isn’t really social science (or at least shouldn’t be).

      • hmmm, well that does put a slightly different perspective on her remarks. I indeed relied on the Reuters article presuming they knew what they were on about. Do you have a link to the transcript of the whole interview? If she didnt actually say anything about the Australian fires, I might then take that comment back, although even what you quote is a bit tendentious in the circumstances. CNN presumably wasnt interested in a scientific debate about heatwaves….

        I dont see why I couldn’t jump on the alleged remark though.

      • Tim Macknay says:

        I don’t have a link to the transcript, unfortunately. The quote is from an ABC news piece which quoted her directly, unlike the Reuters piece. It seems that Figuerres has also sought to soften her remarks and claimed that she was misrepresented and wasn’t seeking to link the fires directly to climate change.

        But as I said, my main complaint wasn’t that you raised Figuerres’ remark as an example of an arguably unwarranted use of the fires to peddle a particular message (there was no doubt she was doing that, in fact I think she actually used the words “doom and gloom”), but your implicit sledge of climate change activism as equivalent to fringe religious extremists.

        That’s not a rational position to take on the evidence, even for someone with your skeptical view of environmentalism. There’s a degree of prejudice at work.

        • why dont you read what I actually say about such things (and have said for about 10 years now):

          now, that is what I would call climate-change activism. I presume you think climate change activism is exemplified by Kyoto and ETS? I find those circus-acts, as I explained in advance of the 2009 Kopenhagen debacle (

        • Tim Macknay says:

          I presume you think climate change activism is exemplified by Kyoto and ETS?

          No, actually. I have read many of your pieces on this and related topics (although not that particular one, until today) I agree with some, but not all, of your perspectives.

      • hmmm, this is the link I can find:
        which also links to the physical interview. It is clear the interviewer indeed makes a bit of a leap to link ‘absolutely’ to wildfires, but reading the whole thing doesnt make Christina look less than a doomsayer. Indeed, it makes it look worse. Some of the other bits you didnt put up:

        The U.N. climate chief said that she believed the Australian government would pay a very high political and economic price for straying from the path established by the previous Labor government.

        “We are really already paying the price of carbon,” Figueres said. “We are paying the price with wildfires, we are paying the price with droughts.”
        “What we have seen are just introductions to the doom and gloom that we could be facing. But that’s not the only scenario,” she told Amanpour. “We could – as humankind – we could take vigorous action and we could have a very, very different scenario. That’s a scenario that is worth examining.”

        So we are paying the price with wildfires? Said on an interview about bushfires in Australia? Sounds very medieval ‘you are paying for your sins’ to me, Tim.

        • rog says:

          “Paying the price” may well be just an accurate statement, post recent cyclones insurance premiums for flood affected areas in Australia have gone through the roof as have premiums in the US. From an insurers point of view floods are the most costly as they destroy infrastructure and crops. Flood insurance in the US has been financially crippling. Allianz say that most owners in Australia living in flood threatened areas (1:50 year) have opted out of flood insurance.

      • Tim Macknay says:

        OK. I didn’t see those bits of the interview in the article I read (linked to above). Yep – I’ll give you this one. The stuff about “paying the price” has the whiff of God’s wrath about it, certainly. Point conceded.

  6. Josh says:

    Comment still in moderation?

  7. derrida derider says:

    Nice post. Going through your points:
    1) We do as much back-burning these days as we safely can – claims by the usual suspects that the reason we don’t do more is because of “teh greeny left” are bullshit.
    The more interesting question is buried in that word “safely”. Back-burning fires very occasionally get out of control and take property or even lives. The backburners will be too risk-averse because if such a fire burns someone’s house down they get blamed, whereas if someone’s house burns “naturally” “because we wanted to backburn earlier but couldn’t safely do it” then there is no-one to to sue. It’s a reverse moral hazard.

    2) Yes, natural CO2 release is of the same order of magnituade as man-made ones. So what? It’s the ADDITIONAL CO2 from our activity that is warming the planet above the “natural” baseline that natural emissions create.

    3) Its a pity it takes common danger to bring people together, but notoriously comradeship is the sole redeeming feature of war. More sinisterly, it regularly occurs to politicans seeking to “unify the country” (ie keep them in power) that a common danger – a war – will do it. I well remember in 1983 how a highly unpopular authoritarian government leaped into war in a desperate attempt to retain power – mind you, the Argentines also had a lot to answer for.

    4) Won’t reconstruction etc ADD to GDP? It’s the Fallacy of the Broken Windows again – GDP is not a measure of human welfare or even material welfare. I suspect the loss in human utility is larger than these numbers.

    5) Try to avoid car accidents that cause damage or injury too, lest you become acquainted with new meanings of the terms “accident”, “caused”, “damage” and “injury” that the @!#$’s lawyers may discover.

    6) As long as you don’t go beyond “a link” between AGW and worse bushfires, its a justified claim. More energy in the atmosphere tends over time to lead to more, or at least more extreme, bushfires – a testable prediction made a couple of decades ago that seems confirmed, on the statistical data, by experience.
    Now I agree it’s going beyond the evidence to claim that any particular fire is caused by AGW; or perhaps it’s too loose a meaning of “caused”. But such an assertion is incautious rather than ridiculous.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      :-) thanks for the reply.
      1. Ok, I will take your word for it. As I said, not an expert on these things.
      2. Sure, but it still means more CO2 in the atmosphere this year. And of course it draws attention to how much CO2 just goes around in that ‘natural system’ over which of course we have quite a bit of control: it is largely up to us humans to decide on the amount and type of forests.
      3. Yep.
      4. It is still a cost in that it reduces the amount of GDP adding to human welfare. It is still GDP, yes, but not GDP that increases our material welfare. Hence we call it cost: we could have had more stuff instead of re-building what we already had.
      5. Yep.
      6(7). The issue is much more murky than that. Not merely is the whole ‘absolutely’ claim a bit over the top given the great difficulties in getting any certainty regarding regional climate change, but one is furthermore confusing climate with politically-defined bushfires (which really only ‘count’ because there is human construction in the way, which is not related to AGW at all but with the political decision to have houses in areas that regularly and naturally go up in smoke). Indeed, one can make entirely the opposite point, which is that if ignition gets to be easier with climate change, the length between fires will be less and hence the severity would start to become less in equilibrium! All such niceties are of course lost in a CNN interview.

  8. Michael S. says:

    I was waiting for it and you teased us till the end, but you finally came through with a swing at environmentalists Paul. False equivalence with Danny Nahliah for good measure. Bravo.

    It would seem a major bushfire event in October would cause some people to observe that climate change is probably a factor (alongside others you mention). But no – it’s the same mental process that makes people suggest God is punishing us for abortion laws with natural disasters.

  9. hc says:

    It was good up to point (7) where you demeaned Christina Figueres by linking her entirely reasonably views on climate science with a reflexive response on “sinning” which was silly. One approach to making a splash in academia is to point out why “all you guys got it wrong”. It is fun but on this occasion wrong.

    Climate change does stretch out El Nino and does foster greater climate variability and extreme climatic events. To say that every extreme weather event is not necessarily linked to climate change is to state the obvious. But since 1851 we have had two severe bush-fires in November and none in October. Yes, nothing proven but do you want to wait until 2200 until enough extreme observations are in to establish definite causality.

    The prudent response is that which Ms. Figueres was pointing too and which you sought to ridicule. The imperative: Try not to create a worse future environment for climate change.

  10. Paul Frijters says:

    Phil, harry,

    We will have to agree to disagree on this one. Do have a look at the whole interview. She is not helping her cause with her ‘thy doom is nigh, repent now’ admonition.

  11. ChrisB says:

    My father-in-law was involved in the rural fire service, and he devised a fire danger risk calculator that relied on the interaction of three factors; heat, dryness, and wind speed. Global warming makes the first worse, by definition, and heat dries out the grass. Yes, fires are started by eleven-year-old boys, army explosives, fallen power lines, and lightning strikes, not climate change, but any given spark is more likely to catch and run if it’s hotter. The risk will be greater and fires will be worse. This is simply not contestable.
    Australia is going to have to put nearly all its powerlines underground. What’s the price of that? Solar power will be much more competitive, certainly.
    And if Ms Figures sounds somewhat more strident than Paul would approve of, then I can only say that if I saw a truck bearing down on an oblivious child in the road I, too, would scream to attract their attention.

    • Tel says:

      The risk will be greater and fires will be worse. This is simply not contestable.

      Yeah it is contestable; when you use the words “will be” what you are saying is it hasn’t happened yet.

  12. In SE Australia , most plant communities are dominated by fire weeds -mountain ash, is the biggest fire weed in the world- and this has been the case for a very long time. Infrequent , catastrophic fire is intrinsic to these plants life cycle, without it they would be gradually replaced by ‘dry rainforest’ and other non fire promoting plant communities.

  13. Alphonse says:

    Paul, your point 7 takes false equivalence to fruitcake level.

  14. Tel says:

    At a stroke, Australia is emitting huge amounts of CO2. Apparently, the 2003 Canberra bushfires released some 190 million tonnes, roughly half of what the economy goes through in a year. So forget about meeting our Kyoto targets this year! At least, if counting properly…

    It grows back, don’t worry about it. Wood is renewable.

    Actually, Australian native timber makes bloody great firewood. If someone picked up all that fuel load laying around the bush and delivered it to households for use in their fireplace we could beat both bush fires and CO2 quotas. That said, government is trying its best to ban fire places, figures huh?

    • John walker says:

      While The current fires are not really in catchment areas, when these forests are regrowing they suck up a lot of water, run off for dams can drop by %50 or more for decades. This particularly the case in Victorian catchment areas, when regrowing ,mountain ash trees are like rockets , can reach 100 ft high in a few decades.

      • Tel says:

        It is true that trees are not “free” in as much as they consume other resources (water, land, maybe some fertilizer). However, given that we already have a lot of land covered with native trees, and they generally drop sticks all over the place and die naturally, thus producing huge amounts of fuel… it would kind of make sense to do something with that other than just waiting around for the next inevitable bushfire burn off.

        If you want to argue for land clearing and reduction of trees in certain areas, well there’s probably a case for that. Personally I think it’s a local matter to be considered on a case by case basis and primarily the land owner should make the decision. Clearing trees would obviously also reduce bushfire risk, as would planting suitably chosen non-native trees…

  15. hc says:

    More radical thinking from Paul. Pursue the Abbott direct action climate policy because it is really no policy at all. Radical thinking – the policy is costly and economists often concerned with costs.

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