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Cleantech and Climate Change Podcast: Interview with Paul Hessburg, Research Landscape Ecologist Talking about the Fires in Australia

Hessburg discusses benefits of fighting fires proactively vs. reactively and how Indigenous cultures managed forest fires in the past


Point Roberts, WA and Delta, BC - January 22, 2020 ( Newswire), a global news source and leading investor resource covering cleantech and renewable energy stocks ( releases today's edition of the Cleantech and Climate Change Podcast, talking about today's problems and solutions for the future.

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Cleantech and Climate Change Podcast: Interview with Paul Hessburg, Research Landscape Ecologist Talking about the Fires in Australia



Today we are talking to Paul Hessburg, Research Landscape Ecologist, USDA-Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Wenatchee, WA.

More info -


Paul, thanks for joining us [again] today. It was September 2018 when we last spoke and we talked about the mega forest fires in North America; California and here in Canada. Now we're witnessing a new kind of mega-fire in Australia, like nothing we have ever seen. Can you talk about the scope of the fires in Australia in terms of land mass/acres versus what our worst fires in North America have looked like?

Paul Hessburg:

Hello Dawn, thanks for having me on the podcast. It is difficult to take stock of the wildfires in Australia due to their rapid speed and the fires outstripping the available resources. The impacts are difficult to fully comprehend until the smoke and dust settles. New information to the outside world lags as the country is mobilized to protect people, property, and wildlife.

Sources currently estimate that in Australia hundreds of homes and more than 18 million acres have burned thus far. In the worst megafire years in the US, more than 10 million acres have burned, and thousands of houses have been consumed or damaged. But fires often number in the 10s of thousands during a bad year. In Australia in 2019, far fewer fires account for the acres burned. In recorded memory, this fire storm year in Australia sets a record for them in acres burned, and in fire severity, and it sets a record for most places on the Earth.

January and February are typically Australia's driest months. 2019 was the warmest and driest year on record in Australia with temperatures exceeding 120 degrees F on individual days and averaging more than 107 degrees for days at a time.

Australia is currently feeling the impacts of one of the strongest Indian Ocean Dipole events on record. When the Indian Ocean Dipole is positive, the waters off Australia's Northwest coast become cooler than average, and this effect moves moisture away rather than towards Australia, accounting for the current very hot and dry conditions. (See the figure below.)

So, it's ordinary for this to be a time of wildfires in Australia and for it be the hot, dry time of year. But the current climate warming trend is not normal, and it bodes poorly for Australia's future.


And following that-is there a different strategy needed for fires of this size?

Paul Hessburg:

When you think of it, few cities, counties, parishes or countries are designed to safely and rapidly stave off or mitigate the effects of worst-case scenarios when it comes to mega-disturbances (wildfires, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes and the like). We are playing catch up over most of the planet right now as we become more aware of this fact.

As with the other natural disasters, pro-action, prevention, and preparedness are keys to success. This is clear from the research literature. Results thus far with reacting to disasters have been poor, and costly in terms of impacts to human life, personal well-being, property, and after disturbances -- post disturbance economies. In the case of wildland fires, pro-action, prevention, and preparedness are the key as well. Research to date as well as human experience points to this fact.


CNN reporting on the fires recently cited that Bill Gammage, an emeritus professor at Australian National University who studies Australian and Aboriginal history, stated that aborigines "can feel the grass and know if it would burn well; they knew what types of fires to burn for what types of land, how long to burn, and how frequently."

Further, they suggest that "Aboriginal techniques are based in part on fire prevention: ridding the land of fuel, like debris, scrub, undergrowth and certain grasses. The fuel alights easily, which allows for more intense flames that are harder to fight."

"The Aboriginal people would set small-scale fires that weren't too intense and clear the land of the extra debris. The smaller intensity fires would lessen the impact on the insects and animals occupying the land, too, as well as protect the trees and the canopy."

Can you discuss something, we talked about this, (something we talked about in our first interview) how controlled burns can be a preventative tool.

Paul Hessburg:

We did discuss this earlier, Dawn. Proactive burning was regularly practiced by Australian aboriginals during periods of moderating weather to reduce fuels, and to break up fuel patterns on the landscapes with barriers to severe fire flow in advance of the dry season.

In fact, research today shows that every native aboriginal culture we know of throughout the world practiced proactive burning. They harnessed the intentional use of fire to meet wildfire on an equal footing. Rather than take fire as it comes, they proactively used fire to diminish its most harmful effects on people and habitats, while deploying its beneficial influences on fuels and habitats.


Since we last talked are you seeing more of this being done?

Paul Hessburg:

Proactive or prescribed burning is not happening in most places with an active fire regime at anywhere near the extent needed. This is also clearly shown in the research literature. The contiguous US is ~2.4 billion acres in area. To resemble the amount of historical burning that moderated wildfire severity, we would need to see at least 50 million acres burned each year when you exclude large portions of the US that are developed and urbanized. We have more tools that burning alone to get the job done, but you get the picture. The contiguous land area of the continental 48 is like that of Australia.


I read that since fires are a big part of the history of Australia, (certain trees including the gum trees can recover and grow back) but that is under normal conditions. What do you think the future of forests look like there after this season?

Paul Hessburg:

Gum forests evolved with fire down through the ages, and they have lots of apps for fire. Reports suggest that many burn days have been unprecedented in their severity. After severe fires, gum or eucalyptus forests often regenerate from seed or re-sprout from buried roots.

One main effect of severe fire years is that many new forests are regenerated. That is good news for species that live in new early seral forests, but it is bad news for species, plants or animals that make their living in mid or late seral forests.

Where fires are moderate, gum trees often resprout for roots or lignotubers and burned stems. Their seeds are encased in a woody capsule, which makes them fairly fire resistant. Seeds are stimulated to germinate by fire, much like our own ceanothus species.


Turning back to North America, can you talk about your work since we last spoke and where are you seeing a more proactive vs. reactive strategy being deployed?

Paul Hessburg:

Far too few acres are proactively burned both here and abroad. Consequently, escaped severe wildfires are managing most of the acres.

People don't like smoke and there are a lot more people nowadays. When there is smoke made by intentional prescribed burning, folks make a loud fuss. Meanwhile, wildfire smoke gets a pass, and society is not asking, "Could we reduce this wildfire smoke and severe fire effects if we did more proactive burning?" Folks just want all smoke to go away.

In my lab, we are studying the factors that are most influential in creating and maintaining more fire resilient and climate adapted forests. Forested area has dramatically increased and so has its density in western North America. Our modeling suggests that the forested area and density of forests present at the time of Euro-American settlement will not likely be obtainable under climate change. We have work to do.


Let's re-touch on a very important topic we discussed last time; the costs of being proactive versus reactive.

Paul Hessburg:

The costs of choosing reactive over proactive methods are enormous. They can be counted in eliminated forest habitats, forested areas that cannot be regenerated back to forest any time soon owing to burn severity, lost mid and late seral habitats, high human health effects, damage to property and ecosystems, and high postfire bills.

In the US, we often spend 5-6 billion a year preparing for and fighting fires. The postfire costs can be 10s to 100s of times that cost. Modern wildfires specialize in high severity. These are the fires that can escape initial attack.

We have many options moving forward to reduce the severity of many of the coming wildfires we will face. While a steadily warming climate largely influences annual area burned, it is live and dead fuel abundance and its availability to burn that drives the intensity of today's fires, especially as they affect tree mortality, human health effects, and postfire expenses.

To reduce severity, it is critical to address the fuels that have accumulated over the period of fire exclusion. There are numerous methods that can be used:


Our biggest fears are that the Australian fires will trigger weather patterns that play out globally and escalate or accelerate all the climate changes we are concerned with. Are you aware of anyone modeling forest fires globally and creating predictive models, and if so, what are you/they seeing?

Paul Hessburg:

Global climate change (GCMs) models are increasingly incorporating the effects of modern-day wildfires and increasing burned area on greenhouse gas (GHG) accumulation in the atmosphere, and the redistribution of carbon by pool continentally and regionally. Likewise, some individual nations are doing high quality knowledge discovery work to that end.

Wildfires are no longer being given a pass in live forest carbon storage calculations, and some countries are beginning the work of revising those calculations. The reasons are that wildfires are no longer a background but a major landscape reshaping influence. Wildfires are burning lots of new area in the US and Canada, for example. We have a new project with a Canadian laboratory to do this work. The concerning detail now is that wildfire emissions have surpassed total fossil fuel GHG emissions in several recent years. It means that we may have significantly underestimated the contribution of escalating GHG emissions from wildfires to global climate change.


In closing, I ask again, what can we all do personally so we don't sit back helplessly and watch this?

Paul Hessburg:

Global climate change is ongoing and worsening and we have an opportunity to reduce our personal and local community carbon footprints. We also can support sound forest ecology and climate change adaptation efforts on state and federal lands to reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change in our country and world.

Climate change is a key. There many opportunities for us as individuals to reduce our contribution to the problem. We can reduce our Jet A footprint by flying less. For many of us, that is our primary contribution to our personal carbon footprint. We can drive less, recycle and reuse more, and drive smaller cars. We can walk more.

Thanks, that's it for today. Do something good for this beautiful planet each and every day.

Podcast host: Dawn Van Zant

If you would like to be a guest on this podcast and tell your story please call me at 800 665 0411

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