A Seattle Forester Sizes Up The Culture Wars on Australian Fires


Satellite image of Eastern Australia, December 2019 – Image: Wikimedia

Australia has been called the most climate-vulnerable developed country in the world.  It has very dry weather, volatile Eucalypt forests, and rising seasonal temperatures of over 110 degrees. The forested part of the country has been hard hit by bushfires this year—the worst in a decade.

It gets worse. According to The New York Times, Murdoch-owned newspapers there are spinning their own conspiracy theories about the causes. They’re chasing rumors of arson while minimizing the catastrophe.

Steve Burke is a forester who has raised his family in Seattle. He’s from Victoria in Australia, and his thoughts are far away. When it’s very hot and dry, as it has been in the Australian summer, there are so many points of ignition that knowing precisely how the fires got started is pointless, according to Burke.  “It’s not just one fire,” said Burke. “It’s thousands.” In other words, just as in the US, wildfires can be expected to be both fiercer and more common. 

Some of the Australian fires are on Kangaroo Island, where a friend of the Burkes’ lived before her house was destroyed by fire. Kangaroo Island and its Eucalypt forests are home to many bird species, as well as Ligurian honeybees and lots of mammals and marsupials imported from the mainland. About a third of its land area is protected as wilderness. This year’s bush fires have destroyed hundreds of acres there so far, many in protected areas.  Homes are gone and people displaced, with two deaths recorded as of last week. 

In the south part of Australia, Eucalypt forests are extra fire-prone because of the oily pitch of the plants, said Burke. The same species is good at recovering from near death, too. But 2019 was Australia’s driest year ever. Fires and fire conditions are the new normal, and not just in that part of the world. So is controversy about causes and prevention of the fires.

There is some progress on prevention. Foresters everywhere agree that part of the culprit is the overgrown forest floor, which provides fuel. And just as in Burke’s native Australia, in Washington we have succeeded in reducing fire hazard by thinning and mowing patches of undergrowth so that it is less conductive.  

But there is disagreement on the idea of “back-burning,” a method of preemption that involves controlled burning of the forest understory.  Such controlled burning is arguably more efficient and “natural,” but it hurts air quality and threatens vulnerable species. Opinions on this technique break down along cultural lines, with climate-change deniers on the back-burning side and “greenies” on the side of more conventional thinning and mowing. 

Meanwhile, as the climate continues to heat up, local disaster planning and recovery will be ever more important in vulnerable areas. This is something that Australians can get behind, and something both sides of their culture war can believe in.  Burke remembers the rural neighbors in Victoria who learned the basic skills of firefighting. Now they are more vigilant. Since the last huge disaster, which killed over 100 people on the continent, Burke’s rural neighbors in Victoria have doubled down on their warnings and evacuations, as well as their skills. 

While Australians struggle to contain the fires and wait for the rains of 2020, in keeping with more wildly fluctuating weather patterns, they must now also prepare for cyclones and floods. Unfortunately, heatwaves are more likely than ever. When the rains come, the special birds and animals of Kangaroo Island will begin their slow recovery. Humans will adapt. But we may never recover completely.

Clair Enlow
Clair Enlow
Clair Enlow is a freelance journalist writing about architecture, planning and history. She’s a Loeb Fellow and an honorary member of AIASeattle.


  1. Thanks for the article. It’s very important to point out corporate funded climate denial as it relates to the tragic Australia fires. The climate emergency is a global phenomenon. What we do (or don’t do) in Seattle will determine whether our world stays below 2 degrees C, or spins out of control via climate feedback loops. Right now, Port of Seattle is planning to build a 3rd cruise ship terminal. Seattle is already the leading cruise ship port in North America. Do we really need another one which would add millions of tons of GHG annually to our carbon footprint? Join the effort to stop business as usual at the Port. It’s not a given that humans will adapt. We are running out of time. Perhaps a very few of the most privileged and fortunate will adapt. The next Port Board of Commissioners meeting is on January 28. https://meetings.portseattle.org/

    • Really? Seattle is the “leading cruise ship port in North America”? Not by a long shot. According to Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_busiest_cruise_ports_by_passengers Seattle clocks in at ninth in the US, and sees about one-fifth the number of passengers that No. I (Miami) does. That’s not an argument in favor of the new terminal for the for ships, but let’s at least state the numbers correctly. How does a cruise ship’s GHG footprint compare with those of large resorts or vacations taken by plane?

      • Thanks for the correction Douglas. My bad. Seattle is now at about 1.2 million passengers per year. So maybe more accurate would be to say leading cruise ship port on the West Coast of US/North America, not including Alaska. At the risk of getting into another numbers debate, I’ve seen it quoted in several places that per passenger mile, cruise ship GHG exceeds flying by a factor of 3 to 4. But it’s really difficult to find these stats. And I’m not at all confident of data collection integrity (i.e. the true cost) in this era. Also, up to 90% of cruise passengers who board a ship in Seattle fly in from elsewhere (e.g. NY/Florida) so that adds to the overall carbon footprint of one person choosing to take a cruise. The new terminal in Seattle would handle the largest deep draft cruise ships – over 6000 passenger capacity.

  2. Thank you. I heartily agree that giant cruise ships should become extinct sooner rather than later. As you point out, they put out millions of tons of GHG. I think it’s also significant that giant cruise ships blight coastlines and coastal cities everywhere and clog sidewalks and streets with tourists. In the market, this doesn’t help “the producers” because they don’t buy produce! The Port of Seattle is on the wrong side of history on this one.

  3. There are also urban planning reasons to oppose the proposed new cruise ship terminal at Seattle’s south downtown. As these ships disgorge boatloads of passengers, they inundate restaurants and shops, and they skew our downtown businesses more toward the non-repeat customers. There are much better uses for Pier 46, where the new cruise ship terminal is planned. The tourist economy is a drug that Seattle has already used in excess.


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