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Australian bushfires prompt conversation about land management practices

Bushfires are still burning in parts of Australia. So far this season, they have claimed the lives of more than 30 people and destroyed tens of millions of acres of land. The ensuing toll on forest and wildlife has prompted new conversations about how Australian land should be managed -- and whether a return to Aboriginal practices might be beneficial. Miles O’Brien reports from Australia.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Australian bushfires are still burning in parts of that country.

    The fires have claimed the lives of more than 30 people, including three American firefighters who died in an air tanker crash. Tens of millions of acres of land have burned so far this season.

    The toll on the forest and the wildlife has prompted new conversations about how the land should be managed.

    That's the focus of Miles O'Brien's latest piece, produced in collaboration with the weather app MyRadar.

    It's for our Leading Edge series.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    With help from an eager platoon of volunteers, Noel and Trish Butler are taking the first steps back on a long road to recovery. The day they lost nearly everything is seared forever in their minds.

  • Trish Butler:

    We did come out here a couple of hours before, maybe even one hour before, to collect some more items. Noel wanted to hose everything down again, and…

  • Noel Butler:

    But you said no.

  • Trish Butler:

    I said, no, something doesn't feel right. And I think it was only like an hour later that this all came through, and we are so fortunate that we weren't here, because we wouldn't — you wouldn't survive.

  • Noel Butler:

    We would have never got out of here.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Before the fire, their now denuded valley looked like this, lush, green, home to some friendly marsupials, their little patch of paradise, and even more.

    Noel Butler is a proud Budawang elder, a famous artist, teacher and practitioner of Aboriginal culture. Their home was also a widely known educational center focused on history and traditions that date back more than 100,000 years.

    With the fire approaching, they frantically filled this shipping container with artwork, tools and ancient artifacts, hoping they would be protected.

    But this is all that survived.

    Is it kind of hard to fathom it all?

  • Trish Butler:

    It still is. I don't know. I guess, it's still a bit surreal that we're here and we're looking at it.

  • Noel Butler:

    And we're alive.

  • Trish Butler:

    And we're alive. And we're very grateful for that.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For Noel Butler, the loss is a poignant reminder of the lessons of ancient Aboriginal history. Fire is a part of a natural cycle in the forests of Australia.

  • Noel Butler:

    This whole continent is designed to burn, and 80 percent of our flora needs and benefits from fire to regerminate the seeds, crack the seed pods, or regenerate.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    His ancestors used that insight to their advantage by setting low-intensity fires, prescribed burns, carefully considered and controlled.

  • Noel Butler:

    When you think, for 100,000 years, Aboriginal people have more than kept this in such perfect environment by managing it correctly by the use of fire, by burning it when it needs to, and knowing what animals live where. You never interfere with a breeding cycle.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    As Australia burns this horrible, historic summer, there is much debate about land management, or mismanagement.

    Noel Butler is among those who wonder if a return to the Aboriginal practices might have deprived the megafires of fuel, reducing their intensity. Perhaps.

  • Mike Clarke:

    It's not the panacea people are hoping for. The trees all around you have been planted.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Mike Clarke is a fire ecologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He says large-scale forest thinning and controlled burning is widely recognized as a good idea, but it is neither cheap or easy to implement.

  • Mike Clarke:

    No, it's not. Australia has changed profoundly. We have added another 20 million people to the landscape. We have got infrastructure all over the countryside of bridges and power lines and reservoirs.

    We can't simply have large-scale burning. That may have been possible when indigenous folk were in charge.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The media here is dominated by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. It usually omits or discredits the impact of climate change.

  • Man:

    This is not chasing facts and applying rational scrutiny. This is an insult to our intelligence.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Instead, it focuses on arson statistics and falsely alleges environmentalists are to blame for blocking controlled burning.

  • Mike Clarke:

    They're not being constrained by some mythical powerful green movement. They are being constrained by climate change and the weather.

    The window in which you can do safe controlled burning has got shorter and shorter. It's either too dry and it's dangerous to light a controlled burn, or it's too wet and you can't get the darned thing to ignite.

    And the window in which you can safely do it is down to handfuls of days in spring and autumn.

  • David Karoly:

    Look, Australia has been described as the country that is likely to suffer the worst impacts of climate change over any developed country.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    David Karoly is a climate scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia's national science agency.

  • David Karoly:

    2019 was the hottest year in recorded history in Australia, hotter than any other year. And it was also record low rainfall. It didn't start the fires, it didn't light the fires, but it provided the background environment for extreme fire danger.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Concern that facts like those are not getting enough public attention prompted sociologist David Holmes to find an alternative means of communication: TV weathercasters.

  • David Holmes:

    And why they are important is because not only are they trusted, but they also a skilled communicators, and they have access to a very big audience.

    You see them every day on your television screens. You get to know them. And they are skilled at talking about climate change. They are the most important people to communicate the science.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Holmes and his team from the Monash Climate Change Communications Research Hub are developing presentations linking weather events to climate change for 14 Australian weather presenters, reaching a third of the nation so far.

  • Woman:

    Our average daytime temperature for September was 24.9 degrees. This is an increase on the long-term average, which is quite substantial when you look at our top temperature history trend, dated back to 1995.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Weathercasters like Paul Higgins of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation say the data alone speaks volumes.

  • Paul Higgins:

    We just basically provide evidence-based scientific facts, peer-reviewed scientific facts, and present those to the audience, without saying, hey, this is climate change. Look what's happening.

    We just simply show what has happened over the last, say, 50 years, and people can then make up their own minds.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's an important message, and they are convinced this is moving the needle on public opinion.

    And in this hot, dry Austral summer filled with inferno after inferno, people are looking for answers, while looking for the strength to start over.

  • Trish Butler:

    It certainly is really daunting, and I have had moments where it's not that I don't want to live on this land again here on our property.

    It's just that whole daunting feeling of how long it's going to take at our stage in our life. But I'm pretty sure that we can bring it back. I don't want to be negative about it. I think, that, you know, we're positive, and we will rebuild it together.

  • Noel Butler:

    We can. I know we know we can, because we're still here.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    This is a country on the front lines of the climate emergency. What's happening this summer could be a crystal ball to a future world.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien in Southeastern Australia.

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