Pyrogeographer David Bowman on the art and science of living with fire
Professor David Bowman has made the study of fire his life’s work – from its ecological to its cultural dimensions. He talks with Foreground about how we might begin to create ‘fire safe havens’ in a burgeoning ‘fire scary’ world.
Foreground: You’re Professor of Pyrogeography at the University of Tasmania. Could you explain what pyrogeography is and how you came to be working in this new field?
David Bowman: I changed my title to Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science. Pyrogeography is a field that I’m basically pioneering. As far as I know, I’m the only professor of pyrogeography in the world. And so what do I do? I study fire. What’s fire? That’s a big question. Fire is a very complicated thing. Of course, we know what fire is. If you study fire, for some you’re obviously a chemist or a physicist. But fire has an ecology. It’s also got a biological dimension and an evolutionary dimension. Aboriginal peoples of Australia used fire and Europeans used fire and Maori used fire, and indigenous people in the Amazon. They all use fire in a certain way. So there’s a cultural dimension too.
You realise that one animal on earth makes fire. So there’s a human dimension. What about our ancestors? What about our actual physiology? What about the effect the fire has had on our psychology, on our now culture and the development of language? Before you know it, you’re doing everything. So you could say this guy Bowman is a dilettante. He goes off and works with Aborigines and does a little bit of molecular ecology, looks at isotopes and he does behaviour work and does computer modelling. Why is he doing that? He’s doing all that because it’s part of pryogeography. You actually have to collaborate with lots and lots of experts. You need an umbrella to put that over. Fire science is necessary, but not sufficient, because if you have fire science, where do the humanities fit? Where does art and culture fit? So that’s what pyrogeography is.
Foreground: Can I ask how you came to this? How did you start in this field?
David Bowman: I came to this because I love nature and I’m open minded and I wanted to know where I belonged in the world. I came to Tasmania when I was 17, and did a firefighting course. I did some burning and I was given Rhys Jones’ fire stick farming paper which introduced me to the idea of Aboriginal knowledge. Then I trained with one of the most extraordinary fire scientists in the world who was one of those freaky people who were doing something in relative obscurity. And it turns out that they’re, you know, geniuses. So there was this Tasmanian botanist called Bill Jackson who invented a theory of why south west Tasmania was treeless. In this theory, he anticipated about five major fields in fire science. And he wrote this odd paper which was presented to a conference in 1968, exactly one year after the 1967 bushfires. He didn’t publish a lot, but the 1967 bushfires forced his hand a little bit in the same way that Charles Darwin’s hand was forced by Wallace.
Jackson inspired me and I trained under him and with other people. Then I went to the Northern Territory and was totally immersed there. And then after 10 years, I went to Arnhem Land, then to Harvard. I wrote a book on Australian rainforests, quit my job in government and went to Arnhem Land and worked with Aborigines and then came back to Tassie. So I travelled widely. And then in 2009, I published the first of a sequence of influential papers on recognising fire as a critical part of the Earth’s system. My career wasn’t planned. My aspiration at school was to be a park ranger.
Foreground: You’ve been very clear in stating that a changing climate is affecting how fire behaves in the landscape. What is happening and what can we expect to happen in the near future?
David Bowman: That’s the thing I’m trying to warn everybody about. I’m well-placed to do what I’m doing and to be prominent. I’ve been blessed with good fortune. I’ve travelled right around Australia. I’ve run actually about five or six continental scale projects. I really have thought a lot about fire, at a continental scale. And that’s given me what I would call a pyrogeographic framework. When things started happening over the past 20 years, I was well placed because I was like an astronomer who had a star chart. I could start seeing these new phenomena and new behaviours that are new to literature. So I was lucky in that regard. You know, if you only knew about your own patch, and were not seeing all the other stuff, you might not have realized that what’s happening is so unusual. I then set about doing international travel and collaboration. So actually I was also plugged into what was happening globally.
What we’re now seeing is in transit. The better way of explaining it is that we’re transitioning away from the old climate into a new climate. But to see and understand that transition and the rate of that transition, is actually really intellectually complicated. You can’t easily comprehend that transition. It’s like observing these hypothetical wisps coalescing. You’re forewarned. But the problem with the climate models is grasping what the climate models mean. How do you sense, taste, feel the climate model? But you can sense, taste, feel the changes as they happen. It’s almost like you’ve got a musical concert program. You don’t exactly know what the music’s going to sound like, but you know it’s coming.
Foreground: You’ve called for ‘creative solutions’. Should we investigate and act beyond the scale of individual buildings and properties? How should we plan and design the landscape of our cities and communities?
David Bowman: A guy I knew when I was a teenage bushwalker was an environmental consultant and an amazing guy, real salt of the earth. I bumped into him at a conference and said I heard he was moving. He was living on the outskirts of Melbourne and just realised it was game over and he moved into an apartment in town. This guy – who’s a bush guy – has gone to live in town, because he can see the writing on the wall. We’ve got a particular model of urban sprawl. And we haven’t really thought about what happens when the climate changes and that sprawl becomes dangerous. People don’t think suburbs are going to burn down. But we’ve seen the photos in California and suburbs have burned down.
A fire doesn’t really care what burns. There are now a new emerging class of fires. We have forest fires. We’re soon going to have suburban fires. Coffey park in California is a suburb being wiped out right now. And then, of course, what about towns? Look at Paradise [in the Sierra Nevada] – eighteen thousand structures gone. Now, the weird thing about Paradise is, if you look at the photos, the trees weren’t really affected. It was a ground fire of houses.
The American insurance industry has been studying the vulnerability of houses. They put houses on a great big trolley and wheeled them into an aircraft hanger and they get an ember gun and they blast embers at the house. They have cameras to see how it burns. So it’s been said we’re going to have to completely retrofit and redesign housing stock. We’re going to have to start thinking about bunkers. Consider the award-winning bunker at Geelong Grammer’s Timbertop campus in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range in Merrijig.
Structures are going to need leading edge design. But we also need to think about urban green space, and about how green space can be fire safe and create cordons between our suburbs and bush land. That’s going to be the green halo. The fire breaks will be golf courses, bike tracks, community gardens, and other green space amenity. But even those green firebreaks are still going to be vulnerable in a catastrophe. They’re going to require an enormous amount of good husbandry and design.
I’m anxious that if disaster happens sooner rather than later then people are so traumatized that they’re not prepared and they just do stuff with bulldozers. So really there’s a real opportunity for imaginative thinking. What I would like to see is landscape architects really cutting loose and doing some imaginative stuff. Their brief is to imagine a fire-scary world and then imagine fire-safe havens in this fire-scary world. Because without vision we’re lost.
The end point you want is a fail safe and we’re not thinking about that. It’s like building a nuclear reactor that’s fail safe, self-correcting. We need a self-correcting landscape where the fire is inevitable, but the consequences of the fire don’t matter. You know, everybody knows what to do. We’re warned and we feel safe because we’ve built our defences and have good communication and training. At the moment it will be just pandemonium, with a fire agency in crisis effectively saying to people you’re on your own.
I have two meaningful memes. One is the Capability Brown of fire. Where is she? That’s who we need now. How do you make a new type of estate that is actually fireproof? Now, isn’t that a crazy idea? The other memorable meme is to hybridize fire management with permaculture. I’d like to see where that could go.
I have a piece of wood hanging in my study to remind me what I do. It’s called ‘petit feu’, which is ‘little fire’ in French, and there’s a quote about affectionality in tending the earthly garden. It’s like a word poem. Affectionality is a really a great word. To do something with affectionality is to do it with with sentiment, not mechanically. You can approach fire with reverence, fear, all sorts of emotions.
And that’s where landscape design and architects come in, to talk about emotion; the form and the feeling. That’s what’s needed. We need a new vision of things. And a bright future. And be bold enough to dream. You know, this whole don’t let go, heroic masculinity towards fire attitude is not useful. An approach to fire can be affectionate and loving. It’s having some sort of emotional dialogue. And in fact, if you translate that into Aboriginal English, it’s called talking to Country.
David Bowman is Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science and Director of the Fire Centre, School of Natural Sciences, The University of Tasmania