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We’ve asked Stephen Pyne, an environmental historian who has written about fire around the world, to offer his thoughts on the bushfires in Australia. As of this publication date, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island had burned and the death toll neared 200.


Black Saturday: The Sequel

The fires are a horror, even by Australian standards, which is saying much.  But for those of us who have long admired Australia’s gritty resolve in the face of conflagrations and have regarded it as a firepower for the caliber of its fire sciences and its bushfire brigades, the recent spectacle arouses dismay and sadness as well.

This is not the first such eruption.  Australia has filled up the weekly calendar with Red Tuesdays, Ash Wednesdays, Black Thursdays, and so on.  The chronicle is having to appeal to holidays like Black Christmas and renumber its sequels.  Black Saturday II is a monster: the bad bushfire on steroids.  But it is not an alien visitation.  It is a recurring nightmare, at times worse, at times less savage, and Australians seem unable to do anything but fight and flee, and curse and console.

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The reason for the fires is simple.  Australia is a fire continent: it is built to burn.  To this general combustibility its southeast adds a pattern of seasonal winds, associated with cold fronts that draft scorching, unstable air from the interior across whatever flame lies on the land.  At such times the region becomes a colossal fire flume that fans flames which for scale and savagery have no equal elsewhere on Earth.

But even heat waves do not kindle fires of themselves, and cyclonic winds do not drive fire in the same way they do storm surges.  Fire is not a physical substance: it is a reaction.  It feeds on the vegetation, and whatever climatic forces exist must be integrated into that combustible biomass.  Fire, that is, synthesizes its surroundings.  Understand its setting, and you understand fire.  Control that setting, and you control fire.

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