As bushfires tear through New South Wales and Queensland, leaving a trail of destruction, we inevitably find ourselves asking: what can be done to stop (or at least tame) them?
It's a simple question with an incredibly complex answer that involves fuel management, firefighting techniques, landscape planning, building design and environmental history.
Climate change is making a bad situation worse.
Bushfires are an ancient presence in Australia, and the landscape is generally able to spring back to life because this regenerative capacity has been honed over time.
For more than 40,000 years, Aboriginal people have skilfully managed fires to sustain biodiversity and reinforce vegetation boundaries, like the edges between forest and grassland.
The ideal approach to bushfire management would be to reinstate these Indigenous burning practices, but drastic changes over the last 200 years makes it an impossible dream in many settings.
Nonetheless, Indigenous people continue to make a critical contribution to fire management across Australia and have a lot more to offer to help shape sustainable solutions.
So, with unprecedented extreme fire weather conditions upon us, what can we do to safeguard ourselves against a more flammable future?
We need creative solutions
One of the biggest changes to occur since 1788 is our widespread settlement across flammable landscapes.
Through careful research, fire scientists have learnt how to design buildings and their grounds to substantially reduce fire risks.
However, challenges remain around how to retrofit established, older build stock to make them (and therefore our communities) safer.
We need truly novel, and creative, financial and social incentives to help individuals and communities undertake the necessary work.
And we need to accept this is a long-range program, not a quick fix.
There are new "outside the box" options to reduce fire risk to communities that need trialling.
These include establishing green fire breaks that create a mechanically treated bushland barrier between homes and flammable bushland.
Green firebreaks can be of high amenity value, including attractive groves of low flammability trees, irrigated parks and golf courses, community gardens, and so on.
Extreme fire weather creates fire conditions that exceed all known firefighting technologies.
This is why major fire disasters are occurring in California, despite the greatest concentration of firefighting resources in the world and billion-dollar budgets.
Concerningly, we are experiencing increasingly unprecedented extreme fire weather conditions associated with prolonged drought, desiccating high temperatures and strong winds.
That ecosystems like rainforests, that rarely burn in nature, are now burning is a clear "warning light" that fire behaviour has changed.
Another danger signal is the increased occurrence of "firestorms" — when smoke plumes create their own weather systems, such as strong erratic winds, lightning, black hail, and in extreme cases, even tornados.
Finally, fire seasons have become longer. Last month, there were uncontrolled fires burning simultaneously in Tasmania and California.
Such overlapping fire seasons increasingly frustrates firefighting resource sharing amongst nations.
The future is here
The deterioration of fire weather patterns, apparent around the globe, closely matches the prediction of climate change analysts.
There is good reason to understand our current situation as an intellectual transition from the stage of "what climate models tell us about the possible effects of climate change on bushfires", to "observing and experiencing extreme, unusual, and ecologically and economically damaging bushfires driven by anomalous climate conditions".
To confirm this transition is now taking place, and to prepare for a much more flammable future, we must learn from fire disasters in the same way investigators seek to determine why aircraft crash.
These post-fire investigations will allow us to understand what strategies work and why.
Associated scientific data provides a factual baseline to evaluate the role of climate change in the magnitude of subsequent bushfire disasters.
We must adapt
Bushfires are burning and many Australians are suffering directly.
It is a tough time to talk about bushfire causes and solutions.
But without respectful, informed discussion — including the linkage between climate change — we cannot effectively adapt to the inherent risk of bushfires.
I want this debate to be beyond sensationalism, blaming and the promotion of simplistic solutions.ABC