Review: Flames Of Extinction by John Pickrell

I remember those eerie days in the summer of 2019-20 when Melbourne was filled with smoke, a time when some people began wearing masks (we’re still wearing them, now against disease, a year-and-a-half later). The city towers were half-hidden in the brown haze; the sun was red; the squares were uncannily silent. Mostly I avoided the news, but some of it was inescapable. It was clear that something cataclysmic was happening out east, in New South Wales and Queensland, in Canberra and Kangaroo Island. I felt strangely calm and disembodied, like the smoke was passing through me. Later, after the fires, the toll started to be counted, and it was again hard to look it directly in the face. That winter weird birds starting showing up in the city, gratifying but lost, displaced from the scorched earth.

Which is a long way of saying that only now, with time and distance, have I been ready to take a longer look at what happened to Australia’s ecosystems in the bushfire season that has become known as the Black Summer. It is, as John Pickrell writes in his intro to this urgent account, a surprisingly hopeful story. But first there are the sheer numbers. Eleven million hectares. Three billion animals (that’s just the birds, mammals and reptiles). Seven billion trees (slightly less than one for each of us). Twenty one per cent of Australia’s forest cover. More than half of the ancient Gondwanan rainforests, 80 per cent of the Blue Mountains. Six-hundred-and-fifty to 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. Previously I had digested these numbers piecemeal; it is a lot to read about them one after the other.

The Black Summer actually began in winter, with fires breaking out in Queensland rainforests in July and August. Off the back of Australia’s driest and hottest recorded year, they made their way down the east coast, reaching southern NSW and Victoria in late December and January. The fires were unprecedented in their breadth and severity. One, Gospers Mountain, was Australia’s largest ever wildlife, at one million hectares. They burned habitats like rainforest usually protected in moist gullies. The fires would have been near-impossible without climate change, but their destruction was aided by other human activities: logging, the fragmentation of the landscape. The fires happened at a time when Australia’s ecosystems are in a long-term state of decline, the result of over 250 years of colonisation and extraction, aided by lax environmental laws. As conservation scientist John Woinarski says towards the end, “We can’t do much worse”.

Pickrell tells the story of the Black Summer through eleven species, focusing on different fires and different aspects of them. Koalas introduce the astonishing toll on wildlife; the Nightcap Oak reveals the impact on the Gondwanan rainforests. The adorable fluffy white Lemuroid Ringtail Possums of far north Queensland’s tropical mountains tell the story of the climate disaster unfolding in the rainforest, as bad as what’s happening on the Great Barrier Reef. The Wollemi Pine recounts the stories of extreme interventions to save endangered species, while the Bare-nosed Wombat tells of the incredible response of wildlife carers to injured animals in the face of bureaucratic apathy. It’s a useful structure that allows room for specific stories to breathe while covering the extent of the fires.

One of the things that comes through is that in the short-term many of the impacts were not as bad as conservationists feared. Dazed animals wandered out of the ashes, showing remarkable resilience and adaptability. Habitat for threatened species survived. Barely scorched refuges were found. Trees resprouted when the rains came. Remarkable conservation efforts – taking whole populations into captivity ahead the fires – were a success. Cared-for wildlife was released. But in the long-term the situation is less certain. There will likely be some extinctions. Some ecosystems subject to repeated fires well beyond what they are adapted to, like the alpine ash forests, will transition into different, less diverse kinds. “Even when ecosystems appear to be recovering,” Pickrell writes:

that recovery may be superficial because deeper connections may have been lost. Beyond losing individual plants and animals from landscapes, we may also be losing important interactions between species which could have unforeseen impacts on the functioning of ecosystems and their ability to recover.

Of particular concern are the waterways, which fill with slumps of ash and debris that make their way only slowly down streams and rivers, suffocating wildlife in their path. And then there is the question of what happens when this happens again, sooner than we can imagine.

By focusing on individual species, Pickrell humanises the creatures. I was struck anew by the thousands of birds that flew out to sea to avoid the flames, only to drown and wash up on beaches; by the wombats that emerged dazed from the burrows after the flames had passed into a world unmade; the confused koalas that burnt their paws when they clambered down the still-burning trees. The fires were also a human tragedy, but in cases like these you begin to feel the catastrophic upset in their lives the fires must have been for animals too. The dedication of the people who care for the environment shines through.

I was also struck by how much control we now have over the fate of the environment. Technology has advanced to the extent that we now play god, choosing which fires to fight and which species to spare, the question mainly of resources and priorities. There is despair in that, as well as hope. But it has always been the case, and in fact perhaps the environment is suffering so much because we’ve stepped away too much. As Wunambal man Sylvester Mangolomara says in the Kimberley, “If you just walk away from [the environment], it will all die”. Among the solutions Pickrell considers is a much-discussed return to Aboriginal landscape management, which would turn the landscape into a mosaic of habitats burned at different times, acting as natural firebreaks. During the same fire season on the Wunambal Gaambera lands, only 7 per cent of the country burned, testament to the possibilities elsewhere.

There a facts appalling and aplenty, and always fascinating. I learned, for instance, of the Australian birds that seem to deliberately spread fire on the northern savannahs, and the age and diversity of the east coast’s forests. I felt, ever so slightly, the creep of scientific and bureaucratic jargon into Pickrell’s account. But not to the extent that it prevents the book doing its job: the first full and accessible account of the fires that changed Australia, in ways known and ways to be seen. The fact that Pickrell completed it during the pandemic and around lockdowns only adds to the urgency. Whether the Black Summer spurs us to greater action on climate change and a better relationship with our environment, or further along the path of ecological collapse, is the choice.

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