Inside Story

Dispatches from a firestorm

An insider’s account of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20 exposes the wider failings of the Morrison government

Tom Griffiths Books 16 December 2021 1880 words

Holding the hose: a Rural Fire Service member near Bilpin, northwest of Sydney, on 19 December 2019. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Firestorm: Battling Super-charged Natural Disasters
By Greg Mullins | Viking | $34.99 | 336 pages

Covid-19 prevented Australia coming to terms with the terror, trauma and grief of the Black Summer of 2019–20. That long, intense bushfire season changed how Australians saw their land, their government and their future, but there was barely a moment to breathe between fire and plague. The fury that Australians felt at their federal government for its wilful neglect of the people in a time of crisis was repressed by good citizens striving to trust one another — and to trust their leaders again — in the face of a different threat. A full reckoning has yet to come for the Morrison government.

Greg Mullins’s account of the Black Summer in Firestorm is therefore significant and timely. Mullins is a former NSW fire and rescue commissioner who gave almost four decades of service as a firefighter before returning to the Terrey Hills RFS brigade, which he had first joined as a teenager. He is now an eloquent member of the Climate Council and well known as the guy who in early 2019 led the prescient request from fire leaders to the prime minister for consultation, resources and action on emissions. Morrison refused.

The firefighter is the antithesis of the prime minister. While Morrison holidayed in Hawaii, Mullins put his body on the line to save property and lives. He is compassionate, learned and practical, serves the national interest and recognises the dire threat of climate change. He does hold a hose, mate, and that’s why his account of Black Summer has particular interest.

Mullins’s story begins in “the good old (predictable) days.” Born in 1959 in semirural bushland on the northern outskirts of Sydney, he grew up with a father who was a volunteer firefighter. Young Greg heard his dad’s stories from the fire front as well as the reflections of revered old-timers about firefighting operations.

Firestorm is partly a homage to his father, Jack Mullins, and a tribute to his gift of bush lore and wisdom. When Jack died aged ninety-three in 2018, his memorial service was announced by three long blasts on the old fire siren. But it was the end of an era in another way, too: a year or so later, Black Summer would definitively rule a line across the past, declaring that as far as bushfire in Australia is concerned, history is no longer a guide to the future.

When I started writing about forests and fire more than three decades ago, I often said that “local history is your best survival guide.” Old-timers knew the worn paths of historical flame, knew the likely direction of the most serious threat and knew the fire ecology of their particular forest. But today even they can be surprised. Firestorm tells of the dawning of the disturbing realisation that we are entering a new era. For Mullins, the climate change penny started to drop when, after more than two decades as a volunteer and then career firefighter, he was caught unawares in the bush.

It was December 1993 and, despite his experience, he didn’t see a bad fire season coming. There had been good rains in November and New South Wales wasn’t officially in drought. But in early January 1994 he was suddenly smoked out of a family bush camping holiday and summoned back to work to help deal with an unexpectedly terrifying time, the worst fires in the state’s history to that date in terms of property loss.

“The 1994 fires were unprecedented,” writes Mullins, acknowledging that the word is now starting to lose its meaning. They “really grabbed my attention.” Even old firefighting hands like his father had not seen this one coming. “The weather was not behaving as it always had.” The fast-changing scene was confirmed by the 2002–03 alpine fires, which were started by lightning and burned through two million hectares of country. They brought home to Mullins that the frequency and length of major fire seasons was changing.

Prior to Black Summer, Mullins acknowledges, Victoria was the state in Australia most affected by bushfires and on the front line of increasing bushfire risk: it had experienced the fatal days of Black Thursday 1851, Red Tuesday 1898, Black Friday 1939 and Ash Wednesday 1983. Then in 2009 Black Saturday unleashed its fury.

In the days afterwards, as the human death toll mounted to 173, Greg Mullins and his NSW colleague Shane Fitzsimmons flew to Melbourne to provide moral support to a “shocked, demoralised command team” overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness in the face of such a violent, uncontrollable, unstoppable firestorm, a blast akin to a nuclear explosion. Many of those firefighters and leaders are still struggling to come to terms with what happened that day.

Black Saturday brought about a fundamental reset of national fire prevention, mitigation and firefighting doctrine. As Mullins reports, a new, overt focus on “primacy of life” made evacuations far more common. Also, there was acknowledgement that on some days firefighters would be able to do little more than convey information and warnings.

Black Saturday also launched a serious conversation about whether fires might be associated with climate change. Mullins was ready to speak about it in 2009 and did so. But as a senior public servant he “quickly learned that speaking publicly about climate change was out of bounds.” He was told “in no uncertain terms to keep out of the climate change debate and stick to fighting fires.”

The 2013 fire season along the east coast, especially Tasmania, unnerved him. He sees it now as a further wake-up call. It was not an El Niño summer yet the season was super-charged anyway. With the norms of weather and climate changing, what would an El Niño–driven fire season look like in these conditions? Yet it still seemed unlikely that New South Wales would soon experience life-threatening fires and property losses on a scale like those in Victoria and Tasmania. As Mullins explains, “we had never experienced the confluence of drought, weather and fuel conditions capable of producing such firestorms.”

Victoria is the firestorm capital of Australia. The most frightening and fatal firestorms have all roared out of “the fire flume,” as historian Stephen Pyne calls the region where hot northerly winds sweep scorching air from the central deserts into the forested ranges of Victoria and Tasmania. Firestorms are bushfires of a different order of magnitude; they cannot be fought; they rampage and kill. In 2019–20, the firestorm came to New South Wales.

Greg Mullins gives a personal, thoughtful, harrowing account of his work at the myriad fire fronts throughout the Black Summer. Tried and true firefighting techniques were no longer working and “pyro-convective events” (fire-generated lightning storms), once rare, erupted frequently. He was constantly in the bush working beside dedicated teams he admired, releasing people from smoke-filled homes and always ready to use his “firefighter’s master key” (his boot to kick a door in).

Black Summer, explains Mullins, wasn’t really a summer but a fire season that lasted half a year, from July to late February and early March. Australia was burning from the end of winter to the end of summer, from Queensland to Western Australia, from the Adelaide Hills to East Gippsland, from the NSW south coast to Kangaroo Island, from the Great Western Woodlands to Tasmania. Everywhere, suddenly, bushfire was tipping into something new.

New South Wales experienced six days of Catastrophic Fire Danger (the new level invented after Black Saturday), twenty-two days of Extreme Fire Danger, and seventy-two of Severe. Fifty-nine Total Fire Bans were declared.

As spring edged into summer and the fires worked their way down the Great Dividing Range and turned the corner into Victoria, people who remembered Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday braced themselves. January and February are traditionally the most dangerous months in the southern forests. But this time central Victoria’s good winter rainfall and wetter, cooler February prevented the flume from ripping into full gear. Therefore an unusual aspect of Black Summer was that these “Great Fires” did not explode out of the firestorm forests of Victoria and Tasmania.

This was a major reason why the death toll for such extensive and enduring fires was relatively low: they didn’t break out in the most fatal forests. Another reason, as Mullins acknowledges, was that Black Saturday introduced a new survival policy: to leave early rather than stay and defend. Early evacuation thus became the enforced strategy of authorities well beyond the original firestorm forests. The experience of Black Saturday powerfully shaped the management of Black Summer and undoubtedly saved lives.

That recent NSW experience of a firestorm impressed itself on the national imagination. Greg Mullins has used that word as the title of his book. It’s a good homegrown word, much better than the American term “mega-fire.” It captures the distinctive ferocity of a weather event intensified by its own frightening physics and chemistry. It describes a quite different phenomenon from a bushfire. And the full manifestation of a firestorm is still to be found in the flume, in the highly combustible tall ash forests of Victoria and Tasmania where it takes its most deadly form. If I were to make one criticism of this book it would be that, like much fire management literature, it is insufficiently attuned to these regional and ecological differences.

But Greg Mullins is understandably focused on national policies, and he addresses both fire management and climate change. Firestorm finishes with recommendations — short-, medium- and long-term — about how “we must stop the climate emergency becoming a climate disaster.” And at the heart of the book is a calm, reasonable and utterly scathing account of the federal government’s failures before, during and after Black Summer.

In early 2019 Mullins started calling former fire chief colleagues — a stellar cast of experienced senior fire officers from the states and territories — and asked whether they would come together to form a group called Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, or ELCA. In Firestorm, the government’s response to these civic-minded, courageous experts has been carefully recorded, and it is worth detailing it here.

The prime minister rejected ELCA’s requests to meet (he was “too busy”), dismissed their calls for strategy and resources, did not respond to their offers of briefings, refused bipartisan action, fobbed them off to ministers who fobbed them off to staffers, stood by while his deputy called them “time-wasters,” misled the public about the level of government response, abided false personal attacks on ELCA members by the Murdoch press, and was altogether so consumed by the busywork of spinning, dissembling and gaslighting that neither the national interest nor the welfare of fire-ravaged communities ever seemed within the vision of the man occupying the highest office in the land.

That is my condensation of the damning evidence given in Firestorm. Mullins, however, is always courteous, patient and constructive. But consider that this is how the Australian prime minister treated our most revered public leaders at a time of national crisis, a crisis that remains with us. Not to mention the report that not one cent of the $4.7 billion of federal funding promised for bushfire recovery after Black Summer has been spent. And remember also that this do-nothing federal government has done everything possible to frustrate climate action.

There is an election coming and I hope you read Firestorm before you vote. •