Are we ready for another Black Summer?
Australia’s 2019-20 bushfire season killed nearly 500 people, including three American aerial firefighters. But two years on, and following a royal commission, what has changed? Adam Thorn speaks to the key figures trying to revolutionise our response in the air
You can make a very good argument that Greg Mullins knows more about fighting bushfires than any Australian who’s ever lived.
He grew up in semi-rural Terrey Hills, inland from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and every summer, there were fires. When smoke was on the horizon, dad, a volunteer firefighter, would dart over the road to the station, leap into the old truck and off he’d go until it was extinguished. When he returned, blackened and smokey, a young Greg would bombard him with questions. “I was probably five or six when I decided I wanted to be a firefighter,” he tells me today. Not that it took him that long. One day in 1977, aged 12, his brother’s best friend called the Mullins household to say he could see a fire approaching his house – but both parents were away. With the brigade too far to help, dad took matters into his own hands, hurrying out to the garage and loading an axe and shovel into the family car. To his mother’s horror, he took Greg, too. They saved the home after hours of battling the flames between them that night. “All around us, the bush was alive with orange sparks, burning logs and trees,” he wrote later in his autobiography. “It actually looked quite beautiful.”
His rise up the ranks of the NSW fire service was mind-boggling. In 1996 he became the youngest person to be appointed assistant commission, aged just 37. He took the top job seven years later, replacing a former chief of the Royal Australian Navy. An eventful spell saw him send medical teams to Sri Lanka and the Maldives after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and coordinate the response to the 2006 Blue Mountains fires. He even fitted in a stint studying at the US National Fire Academy. When he finally hung up his hose and retired in January 2017 – after 39 years of service – he was the second longest-serving fire commissioner in the organisation’s 133-year history. He was told that the only person to serve longer was found dead at his desk at HQ in 1913.
Except, he didn’t really leave at all, immediately rejoining the rural fire brigade as a volunteer. He was back out among the fires again, dragging hoses through the bush and chasing flame fronts. It certainly beat sitting in the operations centre juggling resource demands and briefing politicians, he thought. But back on the frontline, he kept hearing murmurings from colleagues a bad summer was due. Seasons were getting hotter and longer while Australia was in the middle of an unprecedented drought, drying out the ground and making it ripe for ignition. Something had fundamentally changed. Freed from the shackles of self-censorship required in a top public-sector job, he created a campaign group comprised of fellow former emergency service chiefs to warn about the upcoming summer. Emergency Leaders for Climate Action debuted with 23 members and a full-page letter in The Age in April 2019.
The text warned that the traditional tactics used to fight the blazes, such as hazard reduction burns, weren’t working as the fires became more regular and intense. It argued longer seasons in the northern hemisphere meant other countries were now less willing to share resources, meaning we should consider investing in more of our own aircraft. Finally, it urged the Prime Minister to meet with the group and launch a parliamentary inquiry to examine how Australia could better equip itself to handle future seasons.
But Scott Morrison never did meet the group, and no inquiry took place.
The ‘Black Summer’ that followed was the worst in the country’s history. You’ve likely heard the numbers before, but they’re worth reiterating. Bushfires that summer destroyed more than 3,000 homes, killed or displaced three billion animals, and burnt through 240,000 square kilometres of land – the equivalent of the landmass of the UK. In total, 33 people were killed directly by the fires and another 450 via smoke. Estimates of its financial impact vary, but conservative estimates put the figure at $10 billion. However, I’ve seen some that chalk it up it at ten times that.
“We spoke up because we were concerned,” says Mullins. “But, I have to say, even we were gobsmacked by just how bad it turned out to be.”
The science behind bushfires is surprisingly simple. For a blaze to start, explains Matthias Boer, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, only three things are needed. The first is stuff to burn, such as plants and biomass. Typically, there just isn’t enough about, but in forests and woodlands, supply is plentiful. The second is a lack of rain. The drier our bush, the more flammable it is. It becomes challenging for fires to start in wet years, but it’s the reverse during prolonged droughts. The third is ignition. While it’s true that these can be man-made – a cigarette butt flicked or a disposable BBQ neglected – more often than not, lightning strikes are responsible. You actually don’t need many of these to get the fire roaring, too. For instance, the Gospers Mountain mega-fire, which destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore, was caused by just a single ignition incident in October 2019. Throw in a bit of wind, which helps the flames leap between trees, and you have the potential for a bad season. “That is the basic sequence that always applies,” says Boer.
“The Black Summer was a perfect storm. It was traumatic in a way to our scientists because when things started to unfold in September, October and November, we knew it wouldn’t stop because it was so dry over such a large area. Greg Mullins very clearly saw it coming earlier than others, but he wasn’t really listened to. Strangely enough, it’s not the first time that expert advice is not really taken seriously by the government.”
2019-20 wasn’t so much a summer but a season that lasted more than half a year. The burning began in July – three months early, in winter – and continued through into spring and summer until flooding rains arrived in late February. Even rainforests burned intensely in places that had never seen intense blazes before. The Bureau of Meteorology later reported that conditions preceding the summer were the driest on record, with some areas experiencing nearly 80 per cent less rainfall than average.
The earlier fires stubbornly resisted most efforts to control them. One technique, known as hazard reduction or back burns, sees crews purposefully burn a line of trees to stop a bushfire blaze from spreading. But the conditions were so bad even prescribed fires would grow out of control. Other common tactics saw firefighters concentrate their efforts at night, when it was cooler, or on days when the temperatures eased up. But the Black Summer was so intense the nights were as bad as the days, and firefighters couldn’t take advantage of the intervening spells of milder conditions because of the sheer number of fires burning. “The men and women on the frontline were suffering from fatigue and a range of mental health issues because of what they witnessed and situations where they didn’t think they’d get out alive,” says Mullins.
Three American firefighters died in one of the most high profile incidents when their Lockheed C-130 clipped a tree before colliding into the ground and bursting into flames. Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson and Rick DeMorgan Jnr came to Australia to help but died battling the Good Good fire near Cooma. A second aviation incident saw one of McDermott’s 214Bs crash while working on a blaze at Pechey, west of Brisbane. The pilot survived only after clambering out through the overhead window as the aircraft lay on its side. Mullins remains indignant that the root cause of these worsening conditions is global warming. He points to recent research suggesting that by 2040 Black Summer conditions will be the norm, and in 40 years, actually be considered cool.
“We’re the most exposed country in the world, yet no matter what the government says, it has no policy settings to actually drive down emissions.” Australia, he says, will be left high and dry if it doesn’t begin to embrace green technologies. “We’ve got lithium and other minerals the world needs to make batteries, rare earths, and so much sun and wind. We need to get fair dinkum and say we’re going to be a clever country, not a dumb country and get on board with everybody else and regain our moral standing in the world. The cost of inaction is going to be paid in massively upgrading our firefighting capabilities. It’s going to cost a lot of money because we’ve put it off and kicked the can down the road for someone else to deal with.”
In Australia, aviation is front and centre of almost every aspect of how we fight bushfires.
When a blaze is first spotted or called in by a member of the public, for instance, it will usually be a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft that is dispatched to find it and assess its severity using innovative line mapping techniques. Aircraft also transport firefighters, rescue those in danger and drop a variety of products onto, or in front of, flames. Sometimes, aircraft even help ignite back burns to stop uncontrolled fires from spreading.
We tend to categorise aircraft into three main groups for bushfire purposes: large and very large air tankers (LATs and VLATs) and smaller, single-engine air tankers (SEATs). LATs and VLATs can carry larger quantities of suppressants to drop over containment lines to limit bushfires’ spread. (You’ll have probably seen pictures of the red-coloured product dropped from planes – that’s a long-term retardant that contains mineral salts that makes it harder for vegetation to ignite.) They can fly further and quicker than smaller aircraft but require longer runways to take off. They’re also more expensive to operate, require far greater supporting infrastructure and have slower turnaround times.
On the other hand, the smaller SEATs have the advantage of operating from regional and remote airfields and being deployed quickly. Some are fitted with amphibious floats, allowing them to land on and literally scoop up water from lakes, rivers or reservoirs. Helicopters are similarly grouped into Types 1–3, reflecting their weight and ability to carry more people or retardant. Of course, rotary aircraft have the obvious advantage of not requiring a runway to take off and land.
The way all these assets are organised is messy and complicated in Australia. There are around 500 aircraft in Australia most seasons, with states and territories primarily responsible for procuring or maintaining them. A separate national body called the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) tops up their fleets with around 160 aircraft. During the Black Summer season, though, 66 foreign-registered aircraft were sourced. The reliance on overseas aircraft is more pronounced in relation to the LATs. Except for a single LAT owned by NSW (Coulson Aviation’s ‘Marie Bashir’, a converted 737), the 11 used nationwide were contracted overseas. And perhaps crucially, the NAFC doesn’t actually own any aircraft itself, instead contracting them.
These problems formed the central basis of 2020’s bushfire royal commission to examine how Australia’s response to fires could improve. Headed up by a former Federal Court judge and Air Chief Marshal, it heard evidence from 270 witnesses and saw 1,750 public submissions.
“We heard that in some cases aviation services could not be shared between the states and territories due to the intensity and length of the 2019‑2020 bushfire season,” its final report read. “Furthermore, there is a limited number of aviation support personnel based in Australia, and some states and territories retain those they have for operations in their own jurisdictions. The limited availability of aerial firefighting resources sometimes resulted in jurisdictions being unable to satisfy operational demands.” Or in other words, states weren’t helping each other because they were struggling to contain their own fires. That was a problem because, traditionally, fires in Australia start in the north, at the start of summer, before spreading south. But in the black summer, the whole country burned at the same time. The report revealed this problem worked internationally, too. Longer seasons in both hemispheres increasingly mean countries are unwilling to let their aircraft, and the specialist pilots licenced to fly them, go to Australia’s aid. It proposed a new sovereign fleet owned jointly owned and permanently based in the country.
Yet the federal government knocked back this suggestion, arguing it had “no desire” to “replicate” the state’s fleets, claiming it was “comfortable with the present arrangements”. For Mullins, it must have felt like déjà vu. “They missed the whole point that the Northern Territory, SA, the ACT and Tasmania can’t afford to get their own aircraft,” he says. “We need lots of aircraft out there, particularly single-engine air tankers, rotary-wing, medium and heavy rotary-wing aircraft and large air tankers to get onto these fires quickly. It’s as if the federal government is missing in action.”
Darren Davies has been fighting bushfires in the air for 26 years. He started out as an infantryman in a Canadian heliborne division, but soon realised he’d rather fly the aircraft that transported his battalion around. “I got to the point where I was watching these helicopters leave me in the middle of nowhere when it’s 4C, waving at me and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to be that guy! I want to go back to a hotel!’ he jokes. After he left the military, he returned to northern Alberta and began flying in oil fields and taking jobs as varied as heli-logging and heli-skiing. But he found most helicopter companies would get involved in fighting bushfires in the quieter summer months until the more traditional work came back. “I never really got involved in aviation to fight fires, but it’s just something that happened.”
He took a job flying for Coulson in 2019, and it was in late November that he arrived in Australia to take on the Black Summer fires until the first week of January. He was stationed in Victoria and based out of Mansfield, Mallacoota and Dartmouth – a town where many locals choose to defend their homes rather than escape to safety. “Everywhere we went, it was horrible flying, the visibility was terrible, and the smoke was bad,” he says.
Davies is a modest character, but in truth, he’s barely missed a bushfire season since his airborne career started. I ask what it’s like soaring over the blazes? “Well, if you’re flying over the fires, and if you can feel the heat, you’re too close,” he says. “If you are directly over them, then you’re high – very high. You get pictures of us at distorted views where it looks like, ‘Oh my god, that helicopter, it’s pretty much right in the flame!’ But we’re not.”
During the Black Summer, he was piloting a CH-47D Chinook, using its 3,000-gallon tank to keep the flames at bay. The way he explains it, fighting bushfires in the air is a far more nuanced skill than many outside the industry would believe. “As aviators, we’re just trying to help the guys on the ground,” he explains. “We can cool flames down, but if somebody isn’t there directly afterwards to go in and work on that, it will heat back up and start burning again.” He’d be in constant radio contact with the crew leader on the ground, who would be the person really calling the shots. It sounds incredible, but it’s not unusual for firefighters down below to lay panels on the ground to help convey messages and give those in the air pointers as to exactly where they need them to go. “We’re trying to buy them time. We’re trying to direct the fire to natural barriers such as water bodies or roads – somewhere where it’s not going to burn into a house or residential area.”
I ask him if he, like Mullins, has noticed a change in conditions as the years have passed? “It just seems like the burning seasons are a little bit different,” he says. “When I first started fighting fires in Canada, we had our burning season in May that would give you a good solid few weeks of work. And then the monsoon in June would come around and rain on the whole parade. But now, it just seems that when fires happen, they’re more intense.”
But then Davies starts to say something hinted to me earlier by several people I spoke to for this article. Bushfires, in of themselves, aren’t usually a bad thing at all. “Mother Nature has its own plan. It needs to cleanse itself. It needs to burn,” he says. “But if we’re putting all these fires out, all the time, you have unburned fuel that’s sitting there ready go.” As we plan the future of fighting bushfires with new technologies, this will become our real dilemma. It’s a catch 22, he explains, because that small fire you let go could surprisingly turn into a monster blaze. “It’s hard. It’s like when do you fight and when don’t you? And I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t.”
If Matthew Boer is correct, and the same basic sequence always leads to bushfires, then we should be able to fight them smarter, too. And perhaps the most crucial rule of bushfires is this: they always start off small, meaning if we get there early, we can put them out before they become a problem. Currently, we’re often reliant on someone actually spotting a fire and calling it in. That can be near impossible in the middle of a forest and not even that much easier if it’s beside the main road. We’re all guilty of it, but do you really phone the emergency services when you see smoke, or just assume somebody else has? Even then, a person, or aircraft, will have to go and check it out before a man and his hose can arrive. By then, it’s often too late.
Christopher Tylor, a former volunteer firefighter based in Queensland, has developed a system that can spot two-thirds of fires in less than 60 seconds and 95 per cent within five minutes. Fireball uses a combination of ground-based cameras, satellites and drones to monitor the bush and analyse the data with machine learning and artificial intelligence. “I always thought, ‘There’s so much technology out there, why are we still fighting fires as we did 100 years ago?’” he tells me. Tylor is an astrophysicist by trade, and his system effectively ‘flips’ the same methodology used to spot supernova explosions in galaxies millions of light-years away. Satellites peer down to earth rather than out to space. He’s already got a system up and running in California, with 800 cameras on the ground.
In January, Tylor tested it out here in Australia by setting a tiny drum on fire in an unused airfield in Noosa, Queensland. “We put charcoal on the bottom, hay bales on top and placed cameras up on the mountain about 10km away and another one on the other side of the lake. And then, we fed these camera images into artificial intelligence and detected the fire. It was a horrible day, windy and raining, but the system detected it within three minutes.” Currently, Fireball is using geostationary satellites already in space, but it plans to launch its own from Australia in the first half of 2022. It all goes well, Tylor will have a constellation of up to 48 when complete.
Its development, which now stretches back eight years, was anything but easy. At first, Tylor thought it would be as simple as identifying the smoke but then realised the hills got in the way of the ‘flat’ photos the satellites took, meaning they had to analyse heat signals, too. “When we started this journey, I said to my team, ‘Hey, come on, don’t tell me it’s hard! We can look in a soccer stadium with 50,000 people in there, zoom in on one face and the system tells you his social security number. How hard can it be to find smoke in the landscape? And it turns out, it’s really hard! I ate my own words.” The system had to be constantly tweaked to distinguish smoke from, say, a foggy morning, or the dust generated by a four-wheel drive car on a country road. “The system is very reliable now.”
I ask what needs to happen to get the system up and running to cover all of Australia? “It’s a good question,” says Tylor. “But I would strongly recommend not to do that.” At first, he thinks, we should only focus our efforts on areas where a fire department is in range to make sure the fire could be extinguished. But he’s already in discussions to cover the whole island of Tasmania as a test case. How much would all of this cost? Well, he thinks he could potentially protect Queensland for just $20 million – a minuscule amount compared to the Black Summer losses. Tylor is so confident he and his wife have put all of their money into the project, and he received an Australian government grant for $500,000.
Tylor’s project is one of several in Australia attempting to use technology in space to help firefighters on the ground and in the air. The Australian National University has created a Bushfire Research Centre of Excellence to work on a range of projects that, aside from spotting fires early, also hope to detect areas of forests that seem particularly ripe for ignition. When completed, it will detect changes in Australian plants and trees such as eucalypts, which are highly flammable. It means firefighters can perform controlled burns at safer times of the year. “If you can predict that a month in advance, that will be very helpful to strategically place resources,” Dr Marta Yebra, who heads the project, tells me.
Coulson, too, is revolutionising the way they fight bushfires by equipping their pilots with military-style night vision goggles that let them continue to operate 24-7. “I can’t believe they haven’t been fighting fires at night for the last 40 years,” enthuses Davies. “It’s cooler, typically the winds are calmer, and the fire sits down more.” Incredibly, the tech means visibility improves at night because pilots react to heat sources to direct them to their hotspots rather than allowing smoke to cloud their vision. The business began work on the tech following the 2009 Black Saturday fires when pilots grew frustrated that they had to stop working when the sun went down. It’s more than just the goggles. Coulson employs a two-aircraft tag team: a Sikorsky S-61 drops the water while a Sikorsky S-76 follows in front to supervise.
In reality, the future of fighting bushfires will involve a combination of all these technologies. Still, though, I’m keen to ask Tylor in particular how he plans to distinguish between the flames we should extinguish and the ones we won’t? Right now, he says, he’s relying on the experience of the incident commander. He looks at the weather pattern and the direction of the wind and makes a judgement call. “However, what some companies are working on is a fire prediction model so we can predict where the fire will go in the next half an hour very precisely.” Soon, technology will dovetail with the judgement of old hands like Mullins to make the call.
Since I started researching this article, climate change has become big news in Australia, with the country agreeing to net zero by 2050. To its supporters, it’s a vital first step on a change of attitude from politicians. To its detractors, its “technology-driven plan” is light on details. When I spoke to Mullins in October, I asked him why he spoke up so vocally in 2019? “I’ve got two grandsons, and I’m not going to sit back. I’m really scared about the future they face,” he says. In particular, he tells me how he was shut down for bringing up climate change while the fires were still raging, and people were losing their homes. “We’re firefighters and emergency workers. We know how people feel who suffer terrible losses. And they want to know why. It’s one of the first questions, and it’s the same with bushfires. We’re going to tell the truth.”