Australia Is Blazing Into the Pyrocene—the Age of Fire

If you want to gaze into the hellish future of human existence on Earth, look to Australia. Huge bushfires have torched 14.5 million acres since September, killing at least 18. Vast plumes of smoke are pouring into major cities along the east coast, imposing a dire respiratory health hazard on millions of people. And Australia’s fire season is just getting started.For Californians, the scenes are familiar . The same cabal of factors, including climate change and land management, is conspiring to produce bigger wildfires that consume more land and kill more people. We have entered the age of embers—think of it like an ice age, but with flames, what fire historian Stephen Pyne calls the Pyrocene .
In both Australia and California, a warmer world means drier vegetation, which burns more readily. Australia is also buckling under a severe drought, coupled with a brutal heat wave—in mid December, the country saw its hottest day ever recorded, an average maximum temperature of 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit. As in California, severe winds can fan a mere spark into a wildfire so massive, it creates its own weather . And just as fast-moving flames swallowed up Paradise in 2018 , fires are moving so quickly, they’re overwhelming whole Australian towns.
“It's unprecedented,” says fire scientist David Bowman of the University of Tasmania. “It's gotten worse than unprecedented—it's a catastrophe.” Australia’s fires are tearing through landscapes they shouldn’t be tearing through. Banana plantations, for example, should be filled with lush, green plants resistant to fire, but they too are going up in flames. “We're seeing fires in rural landscapes that are behaving in ways that are just very concerning,” says Bowman. “Very fast moving, overwhelming. When you're talking about evacuating rural towns, it's just chilling.”
In Australia as in California, climate change increased the likelihood of fires—but decades of local policy mistakes amplified their danger. For millennia, the native peoples of both places maintained a healthy relationship with fire, understanding the value in starting conflagrations so as to reset ecosystems, as wildfires have done since they first burned on Earth. If you let smaller blazes burn, they destroy brush that can otherwise build up and fuel an out-of-control wildfire.When the British arrived in Australia, they brought with them a zero-tolerance policy on fire: Stamp out wildfires immediately. After World War II, though, Australian policymakers began to revolt. Taking a cue from aboriginal fire policies as well as rural Australians, they implemented a large-scale program of controlled burns.