AS fireworks shot through the air over Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve, Corkman Morgan Roche was witnessing a more ominous firework display in Nundle, to the north of New South Wales (NSW).
As a trained firefighter working with the NSW Forestry Corporation, he was face to face with one of the bushfires ripping through Australia’s forests.
“It was a terrible kind of beauty,”Mr Roche said, recalling the evening, a week after the NSW government declared its third state of emergency.
“Ironically, it was some of the most beautiful fireworks you could imagine. The fire was coming up to a fire break in native bushland, with big eucalyptus trees. Some of them are hollow, so the fire gets inside the tree and throws sparks up into the sky.
“Flames were easily reaching two or three stories high. It’s awe-inspiring to see a bushfire like that at night,” Mr Roche said. This was not his first foray into the line of fire, nor is it likely to be his last.
Since arriving in Australia 20 years ago, he has dedicated his working life to preserving and promoting NSW state forests and the timber they yield.
However, firefighting is not a normal part of his daily routine (he has a masters in forestry science). Though he is a trained ‘advanced firefighter’, he spends his days being dazzled by pixels rather than flames, as an information systems and frameworks manager for the NSW Forestry Corporation, which is state-owned and has responsibility for the management of over two million hectares of native and plantation forests.
“One of the great things forests do is sequester carbon, and it’s something I still find incredibly exciting about forestry, because we don’t just sequester the carbon in the forests, but also in the timber products. It’s better than that, because using timber products means you don’t use other products, which require more carbon to be released in their production,” Mr Roche said.
With 147m hectares of native forest, covering 19% of the continental land area, Australia’s forests and forest industry play key roles in mitigating the country’s carbon footprint.
But these are not normal times. “I’ve never had a season like this,” he said, as he describes his days working with the corporation staff currently deployed to the fire, the NSW Rural Fire Service, and teams from New Zealand and Western Australia.
Notwithstanding the seemingly endless task ahead of them, team spirit remains high. “Morale is really good, particularly considering people are often doing 12-hour shifts, five days on, one day off. People are very steadfast, very determined, very professional, and it’s been really impressive,” he said.
“We all know what’s at stake. Not only can these fires threaten and destroy lives, property and wildlife habitats, but, for us, managing the fires to the best of our abilities and doing the best jobs we can is protecting our livelihoods. This is our profession,” Mr Roche said.
Every now and again, as he speaks, the athletic 47-year-old, who runs marathons and triathlons, lets out a short cough, a reminder of the atmospheric conditions for which Sydney has been compared unfavourably with China.
The season he refers to is Australia’s near-annual tussle with its own environment. The country’s hot, dry, and drought-prone climate means that at any time of year, some parts of the continent are liable to be aflame, with devastating consequences for humans and wildlife, property and land.
More than 800 people are known to have died in Australia’s bushfires since records began, in 1851. This season, 27 people have died, more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed, and 17m hectares of land burned out, an area almost two-and-a-half times the size of the Irish Republic, which includes hundreds of sacred indigenous sites.
In the face of such devastation, it’s hard to imagine that fire is a part of the natural processes that sustain Australia’s ecosystem, and one to which many of its plant, and some of its animal, species have learned to adapt and, in some cases, even depend, for its ground-clearing, regenerative, and soil-enriching powers.
The problem now is that mixing naturally occurring phenomena with evolving climate change patterns is proving a highly explosive combination. Among those phenomena, the Indian Ocean dipole — defined by disparate surface temperatures across the eastern and western poles of the Ocean — is a significant contributor to rainfall variability in the region surrounding the ocean, including Australia.
The conditions that led up to the droughts in south-east Australia used to occur, on average, every 17.3 years.
Scientists are now forecasting that that frequency will increase to once every 6.3 years over this century, which means more fires, burning more intensely and for longer.
Mr Roche’s first real encounter with Australia’s fires came a little closer to home.
Fourteen years ago, he and his wife, Amanda, moved into their house, beside Garigal National Park, to the north of Sydney, where they still live with their three sons, aged 14, 12, and 9.
“We were aware that four houses on the street had burned down in the fires of 1994. You can still see the burnt post stumps from that fire in the garden,” said Mr Roche, noting that the street is also a cul de sac.
This year, his sons helped him to rake and burn leaves around the property, for which he needed a licence. He also has special, wide-gauge hoses installed at both ends of the house, sprinklers on the roof, gutter guards, and other hazard-reduction measures, though he will need to do more after what he has seen this year.
Morgan’s home is still fine, though some of his colleagues have not been so lucky. Two of them lost their family homes on New Year’s Eve, while another lost his a few days later.
Anyone who has seen news videos of fires seemingly raging out of control must wonder how one could keep cool, mentally and physically, in the face of such fury.
But out in the field, where he dons protective gear, Mr Roche’s training has served him well.
“It’s not frightening, really. With the training and the people around you, you know what’s going on, you feel confident in your crew, and you feel safe.
“It’s like sailing,” said Mr Roche, who learned to sail around Oysterhaven.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing and the boat keels, it can be terrifying.”
Out in the field, the old axiom holds true: one of the best ways to fight fire is with fire. This is as true for the box of matches that forms a key part of his personal safety kit (so that he can light a fire to starve an approaching fire of potential fuel) as for the hazard-reduction burns that state agencies carry out in order to reduce future fire risks.
“Hazard-reduction burns are an important management strategy.” said Mr Roche. These burns are less intense and reduce fuel in the forest. This means that if a wildfire does occur, it’ll be easier to control and to put out.
But notwithstanding the concerns and the cough, the risks and long hours, Mr Roche won’t be trading in Australia for the cooler, calmer climes of Cork anytime soon. “I love Australia and am grateful to be able to live here. One of the things that deeply frustrates me, personally, has been the reluctance of our politicians, and many individuals, to accept and take responsibility for the reality of man-made climate change,” Mr Roche said.
If you would like to help Morgan Roche’s colleagues rebuild their lives, there is a donation page at www.gofundme.com/f/condie-house-recovery.