Once-in-a-lifetime, over and over again

Wake up. Get ready for the day. Open the door. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Work is just a step into the front yard. In the 1990s, this is the perfect place to raise your kids. Big open bushland. Remote, but only an hour and a half drive from Canberra’s city. What a wonderful, safe, and unique place to place to be.

Early 2003. Wake up. Get ready for the day. Open the door. Fire. The flames lick the hills around Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Fill the gutters with water. Put a containment line around the house. Pick up everything quickly, including the kids, and move it all far, far away, into the safety of the city where the fire can’t reach it.

The flames begin to salsa dance across the bushland, until they reach the height of the roof and the distance to the front doorstep. Fires have been beaten before, so the decision to stay and fight is made. But the flames become unstoppable, and the future of the family home looks as black as the fire’s path.

As the fire approaches, the embers intensify. On the 18th of January 2003, Brett McNamara was protecting his home when an ember caught his protective facial cloth alight, and life flashed before his eyes brighter than the flame itself.

For many, this story would sound like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But for Brett McNamara, it wasn’t.

At the age of 14, Brett discovered his interest in bushland through his hobby of bush walking around Canberra. This interest grew into a future plan, and set Brett on the path towards a ranger traineeship in the Northern Territory. After nearly nine years, Brett began to miss the bushland around the Nation’s Capital and decided to make his way back home, beginning his career with ACT Parks and Conservation in the 1990s.

In his over 30-year career, Brett has taken on several managerial roles, but is currently the manager of Namadgi National Park. Brett says his role is as much about people as it is about the park itself.

“We really aren’t managing the environment when you think about it, because nature has been doing a wonderful job for millenniums,” he says.

“What we do as agencies is manage the impact of people. We are not really park people, we are people people, we manage the influence and the impact of people.

“We don’t manage the environment, the environment does it itself, it has done for many years, and it will continue to do so.”

Brett’s role includes feral animal control programs and weed spraying to deal with species introduced by people, and bush fire programs to manage sparks caused by human hands. But the biggest impact caused by people is that of the changing climate, and 2003 showed Brett what this would look like in a Canberra context.

“Fire has always been part of the natural environment. It has moulded these mountains for millenniums, even before we got here,” Brett says.

“Fire is a natural part of the landscape. What’s not natural now is the frequency and intensity of fires. That’s what’s changing.

“You go back through history and it’s clear that we have had big fires in the 1930s, but we didn’t have another big landscape fire for 40 to 50 years. We had small fires, but not landscape fires.

“That’s what is very different. The frequency and intensity of those fire events, that’s what’s changing. That’s what the climate is doing to us.”

Climate change causes hotter weather, which in turn causes a drier landscape, creating the perfect concoction for large scale fires that can’t be controlled the way that they used to be. Fire Behaviour and Weather Analyst at the ACT Rural Fire Service, Katherine Jenkins, says that this element of climate change will impact future bushfires in places like Namadgi and Tidbinbilla immensely.

“We are more likely to see extended periods of drought and extreme weather conditions that really feed into extreme fire behaviour,” Katherine says.

“We are expecting to see longer, more severe fire seasons, and we also expect to see reduced opportunities for hazard reduction burning and other activities to try and manage fire and help our fire fighters take control of a bad incident.

“You have to think of fall-back options. We are having to switch to more defensive tactics to stop the incident rather than the direct attack that we would use under normal fire conditions.”

This is what Brett discovered in his second once-in-a-lifetime experience, when he was protecting Tidbinbilla and the surrounding region in the 2019 to 2020 Black Summer bushfires. The land was dry, and what Brett calls the ‘cornflake crunch factor’, how close the land resembles the crunchiness of cornflakes because of its dryness, was immense.

2019 was the ACT’s warmest year on record and had approximately 40% below average rainfall. The fire season started as early as July. On top of this, the average temperature in the ACT was 1.5 degrees hotter than early in the 1900s.

Just because the Orroral Valley fire in January 2020 wasn’t naturally occurring doesn’t mean that extreme climate didn’t play a vital role in its severity. The drought, and the extremely hot weather and wind conditions, meant that when a fire inevitably sparked, it was going to be a doozy.

In a regular fire scenario, fires are boxed within containment lines to stop them from growing. But in the 2019 to 2020 fire season, the only option to control the fires was by steering them as best as possible, while protecting the lives of the fire fighters who were now more in danger than ever before in their careers.

“To experience 2003 was devastating. But then to relive it again in 2020 was just gut-wrenching. You shouldn’t be able to see something as devastating as that twice in your career. But I did,” Brett says.

“It was inevitable. The cornflake crunch factor was extreme. We were almost just waiting. The Murrumbidgee River in Tharwa stopped running. I knew then, because of 2003, it was going to be history just repeating itself.”

In the perspective of a human life, 17 years between severe fire events may seem like a large chunk of time. But in comparison to time in the perspective of the environment, fire events with 17 years between them constitutes a very small period.  

The natural environment is, and will remain, extremely good at healing itself after fire events. But the relatively short time between them means that the land only gets limited time to grow back before it is completely burned and destroyed again.

When Brett started his career with ACT Parks and Conservation in the 1990s, Namadgi National Park and the surrounding regions consisted of mature forests, and was a dynamic and diverse environment with vast ecosystems. But the Namadgi that Brett knew back then is not the Namadgi that Brett knows now.

“What 2020 was to me, on a professional and personal level, was a sense of loss. The park that I knew so well when I started my career in the 1990s is not the park I will leave when I finish my career. It’s a very different environment now,” Brett says.

“We don’t appreciate time, and all we see is what’s there now. Overtime, we are going to lose key features of the alpine environment.”

Watching climate change intensify throughout his career has encouraged Brett to explain the importance of protecting what we have to those who may not understand the science of the changing climate. Brett tells the story of the life of the raindrop as an attempt to do so.

The raindrop falls from the sky, where it travels to the Earth through natural land, and eventually meets a water catchment. This catchment is placed high within the alps, a largely fire affected region. The raindrop will flow naturally down the catchment until it reaches a dam, where our water is stored. Eventually, this raindrop ends its travels by contributing to the process of making a coffee at our favourite cafes, or boiling pasta at our favourite restaurants.

“That’s the generational conversation we need to have,” Brett says.

“We are all about the here and now. And yet, we are connected in an environment that works on a completely different time scale. It’s about taking things for granted until we don’t have them anymore.”

The surge in conversation around climate change in the younger generations has given Brett something to hope for. However, its impact on Namadgi will affect him for the rest of his lifetime.

“I am optimistic, because there is that awareness about climate change, but I am sad about the sense of loss, what I experienced as a young ranger will not be experienced by people again,” Brett says.

By keeping the conversation going, Brett believes there will be more action around controlling the impact of climate change. But what truly needs to be done is on a global scale. The reduction of global CO2 emission is the best chance of stopping the temperature from rising, and the best opportunity to save the future of places like Namadgi National Park. The time to act was yesterday.

Unless something is done globally to combat our changing climate, once-in-a-lifetime fire events like those in 2003 and 2020 will become something all Australians experience over and over again.

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