Australia’s current forest fires are unprecedented in several respects: They are unparalleled in scale and extent, ferocity and behaviour, damage and devastation without doubt. These fires are also unprecedented in part because their likelihood was predicted, and the extent of their impact was inevitable. Australia is in the midst of a deep drought, with much of the nation at its driest on record. Moreover, 2019 was the hottest year on record in Australia.
The fires began in earnest in September 2019, which is well ahead of the established convention that the season commences in November. Four months later, conditions are such that in early January, the nation reasonably anticipates the fire season will continue until at least the end of February and probably longer.
Because the dry weather conditions have been in play for years and have been intensifying, the number of days available for fire services to reduce hazards (through controlled burns and other preventive measures) in the forest landscape has also been reduced. In populated areas that are adjacent to large forests, there simply has not been an opportunity to reduce the amount of fuel in the landscape. When fires take hold of an area, they are often all the more ferocious as a result.
Though events of this magnitude always provide shock and come as something of a surprise, in this case they were predictable, as fire chiefs and former fire chiefs had been warning for more than a year. To place the scale of the fires into context, it is relevant to know that Australia and the USA have roughly the same landmass; the US comprises approximately 9,833,517 square kilometers (km) while Australia comprises approximately 7,741,220 square km.
There are various ways of displaying the extent of the fires but in many respects, that misses the point. Like the US, Australia is so vast that any map showing the fires at a national level would diminish their scale. Yet due to the extent of the fires, no local map can illustrate them all. To get a rough visual of the scale of these fires, they are now roughly eight times the size of the total estimates for the Amazon fires in 2019.
At the end of the first week in January, satellite imagery provided estimates that around 16 million acres have burned, hundreds of millions of livestock and wildlife have been killed, more than 1,700 houses have been destroyed and at least 24 people have died. (For reference, 16 million acres is roughly five times the size of Connecticut.) This is a developing situation, so the devastation wrought by the fires is continuing, making hard numbers instantly out of date.
One important note for the forest industry is that the most significant impact is being experienced in areas of temperate and wet eucalyptus forest in the fire-prone southeastern corner of mainland Australia. Regeneration of these forests is generally an eighty-year cycle to maturity.
The current fires appear to be burning strong and there will be more fires before the season ends; some of these fires have already connected to become fire complexes. Those burning in remote regions simply cannot be actively fought or suppressed, so they will either burn themselves out or rain will extinguish them in time. There is no significant rain on the horizon, however, and several of these fires are of sufficient magnitude to create their own weather systems.
Implications for Australian Forest Supply Chain
Implications for productive native and plantation forests are, at this point, not clear. We do know that areas of productive native forest are at the center of some of the fires and there are active fires in, or adjacent to, major plantation assets. With every forestry resource focussed on contributing to addressing the current crisis, it will be some time before there is any clarity of the magnitude and location of specific asset losses. One smaller plantation owner has reported twenty percent of their estate has been destroyed, and some significant regional infrastructure has also been engulfed.
The collective national fire-fighting endeavor, care and recovery effort — including the contributions from harvesting and haulage contractors all the way through landowners and managers — is also ongoing. Much of it is provided by volunteers whose resources are stretched thin, placing their resilience under constant pressure. However, crews are not actively working in the forests and plantations as a result. First quarter log and woodchip exports are therefore likely to be reduced as a result of the fires.
Longer term impacts on the Australian forestry and wood products industry are unclear and will not be known for some time. Australia is not self-sufficient in its own supply of wood products, so any reduction in resource availability will significantly impact regional communities where sawmills and other processing facilities and jobs are located. This is a common secondary blow for communities that face the brunt of forest fires.
Ultimately, reduced resource will result in demand being met by increased imports of lumber and other wood products. There may be longer-term implications for exports of logs and woodchips. Similarly, the implications for public policy moving forward are unclear at this time.
At a minimum, we can be certain that the future will hold increased mitigation and adaptation planning and expenditure, including added risk management and controls. Opposition to controlled burns and other management practices may temporarily decline. Whether that leads to a meaningful re-examination of public policy that has seen native forest harvesting all but cease in some states, is another matter altogether. Inevitably, there is discussion about the contribution of climate change.
Fires are, of course, naturally occurring events in the forest landscape. However, in an historical sense, the current Australian wildfires are simply not normal. These fires are as extraordinary as the havoc they have wrought, as well as the heroic efforts to combat them. In so many respects, these are already unprecedented fires, and Australia is only halfway through its fire season.
Tim Woods is Managing Director of IndustryEdge Pty Ltd, which provides data analysis, business intelligence, reporting and consulting for the forestry and paper industries in Australia and New Zealand.