The large billowing plumes of brown smoke in the distance were turning black against the dome of blue sky. Even as a boy of 12, standing in his front yard in Sydney on a hot, windy morning in October 1971, Greg Mullins knew that this meant trouble, that the flames were jumping into the tree canopies, igniting tinder-dry branches, leaves and bark, forming fiery mini-meteors that were propelling the blaze forward.
The evening before, a bushfire had broken out in Ku-ring-ai Chase National Park, about eight kilometres west of where Greg lived in Terrey Hills with his parents and three older siblings. Fanned by a westerly, the now 400-hectare blaze was torching its way towards Duffys Forest after jumping Cowan Creek.
For as many summers as he could remember, Greg had watched his dad Jack, a volunteer firefighter who worked full-time as a builder, head off in his overalls and heavy boots to fight fires. Young Greg would climb on top of Jack’s Vauxhall and survey the crimson glows dotting the horizon, trying to work out which blaze his dad might be battling, dreaming of the day he could join him.
This time, the call for help was personal. Two teenagers known to the Mullins family – Greg’s older brother Terry’s best friend, Geoff, and his sister Jenny – were home alone (their parents were away for a few days) and their bungalow, which backed on to the national park, stood in the direct path of the fast-moving inferno. Jack could get there much faster than the local fire trucks, which were carrying out a backburn on the other side of the park, nearly an hour’s drive away.
“Are you ready?” Jack asked his son, as he loaded up the Hillman Hunter station wagon with rakes, shovels, axes and hessian sacks. During the 10-minute drive to the house the smoke was drifting across the road, trees bending in the wind gusts. By the time they pulled into a cleared area at the side of the house and Geoff and Jenny rushed out, ash was cascading over them like confetti.
Although still some distance away, the fire was moving up the hill fast. Jack started filling the gutters with the garden hose, after first clearing them of leaves, explaining to his son how fire can swiftly take hold in the ceiling cavity if the vegetation catches fire. He told the youths to soak the hessian sacks in water and use them to stamp out any small spot fires.
They could all hear the deafening roar of flames – akin to the thunder of a freight train – before they could see it. The scene was surreal. Sunlight barely filtering through the thick haze of smoke. Flames soaring twice as high as telegraph poles. Fireballs high up in the trees as the volatile eucalyptus oils in the leaves exploded. Spot fires around the house, which they were running around, dampening out. And then – phew! – the fire trucks arriving.
If the house caught fire, Jack told them, they should stay inside for as long as they could, then run outside onto burnt ground. Greg became scared and his dad put his hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, mate. I’ve seen a lot of these. I’ll be right outside with the hose.”
And they were all right. By nightfall, mentally and physically exhausted, father and son loaded up the station wagon and headed home to a relieved wife and mother. The official fire season had only begun the day before, but it was on this eventful Saturday, October 2, 1971, that Greg knew he was destined to become a firefighter.
The following year, aged 13, he joined the Duffys Forest bushfire brigade, becoming an equipment officer, and later joined the Terrey Hills brigade with his dad. At the end of high school he joined the full-time fire brigade; from Manly, his first fire station, he rose through the ranks from station officer to inspector to superintendent. In 1996, he became the youngest ever assistant commissioner; in 2000, he was appointed director of state operations; in 2003, he became commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW.
Mullins has worked with bushfire authorities in the United States, Canada and Europe, and helped with clean-up operations after the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, the tsunami in Japan in 2011 and the earthquake in New Zealand in 2011. Three years ago, at 57, he retired, tracing a full circle by re-joining the volunteer bushfire brigade he’d belonged to as a teenager.
The scale of the 1994 Sydney bushfires, which shocked many firefighters, triggered a major turning point in Mullins’ climate-change consciousness. He’s been a member of the NSW Government’s Climate Change Council since 2007, was approached in 2018 to join Australia’s Climate Council, and early last year formed the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA), a non-profit lobby group composed of former commissioners, chief officers, and their deputies from urban and rural fire services across Australia.
Cut to the cataclysmic bushfire season of 2019-20. It began way too early, in late June in northern Australia and late August in NSW and southern Queensland, sparked by an unholy mix of extended drought, bone-dry vegetation and record-setting temperatures.
Over the decades the now 61-year-old Mullins has watched bushfires become bigger and hotter, and burn for longer than ever before. He’s seen the landscape along the eastern seaboard – one of the most fire-prone areas of the world –grow drier and drier. He thought the fire season of 2018 had initially looked ominous after major fires broke out in early August, but healthy rainfall in NSW and Queensland in October saved the day.
But by early 2019, the Long Dry had returned with a vengeance. Mullins feared this would be the Big One. In April, May and June, he and 22 other former fire chiefs requested a meeting with Scott Morrison (in two letters, followed up by emails and phone calls) to discuss Australia’s lack of preparedness for an imminent major bushfire disaster.
They wanted to discuss better use of the ADF, leasing more aerial fire tankers from the northern hemisphere for the coming fire season and funding for a fleet of water-bombing aircraft for the years ahead, because the danger months in the northern and southern hemispheres were increasingly overlapping.
In an interview with the ABC, he warned that “we’re coming into what I think is the most dangerous build-up to a fire season since 1994, when NSW was devastated.” (Mullins and his team were finally granted a meeting with Energy Minister Angus Taylor and Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud in December, as the fires raged.)
“It was utterly frustrating being ridiculed by politicians, and being told by the PM that he only ‘took advice from the current chiefs’.”
What materialised was the mother of all fire seasons, with thousands of fires sprouting up across the country, levelling an estimated 18.6 million hectares, an area greater than the size of England. Thirty-four people were killed, and a further 417 died as a result of smoke inhalation. We lost nine firefighters, three of them from the US who died when their plane crashed during a water-bombing operation over the Snowy Monaro.
For wildlife, it was the biggest single cataclysm in recorded history, with an estimated 143 million mammals, 180 million birds, and 2.46 billion reptiles killed or displaced, according to a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) July report.
Mullins is sitting in his volunteer fire truck in Terrey Hills almost 12 months later, on call on a sparkling spring morning. Only weeks before, the NSW bushfire inquiry reported that the 2019-20 bushfire season was of a magnitude not seen in recorded Australian history.
In August, the inquiry made 76 recommendations, including faster detection of fires, night-time water bombing and trialling different firefighting aircraft. It concluded that the unprecedented conditions were driven by climate change. Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared she would adopt the recommendations in full. (In Victoria, a two-phase bushfire inquiry into preparedness, response and recovery, the first part of which is now complete, is running until April next year.)
Mullins is concerned that enabling easier land-clearing and more aggressive hazard reduction could easily lead to more forest destruction. “A 20-year drying trend and increasing temperatures have meant the window for hazard reduction is quite narrow now, and in the worst weather conditions, fuel reduction makes little difference to fires,” he insists.
In launching the WWF July report, Professor Chris Dickman called for policy changes such as stopping “manic land-clearing” that depletes native biodiversity.
He emphasised the importance of preserving habitat corridors to enable animals to escape during blazes and called for the establishment of rapid response wildlife teams “that will act to mitigate impacts on threatened species”. Mullins has an additional concern: “The reduction in forestry and national parks personnel has meant hazard reduction has fallen to less experienced volunteers.”
Last November, in one of the most memorable press conferences of the year, Mullins fronted the cameras with a number of former fire chiefs standing behind him, warning that the government’s climate change scepticism and lack of funding had led to the current disaster.
“It was up to the retired fire chiefs who are unconstrained to tell it like it is and say ‘This is really dangerous,’ ” Mullins reflects. “It was utterly frustrating being ridiculed by politicians, and being told by the PM that he only ‘took advice from the current chiefs’.”
Mullins looks remarkably relaxed, no doubt helped along by a loving family and the mental discipline of karate, which he’s been practising since he was a boy, leading to a silver medal in the World Firefighter Games in 2012. He met his wife, Erris, who’s also a black belt, at a karate class in 1983. “It was love at first sight,” Mullins laughs. “She kicked me in the stomach, winding me.” The couple have two children in their 30s.
All his life, he’s drawn emotional sustenance from the example of his parents, Jack and Patricia, activists who in the 1960s and ’70s demonstrated for Indigenous land rights and equal pay for women, and against the Vietnam War. They inspired him as fire commissioner to introduce equal male-female recruitment and a career pathway for Indigenous firefighters, leading to Indigenous crew at stations like inner Sydney’s Redfern.
Mullins says his worst moment during what’s been dubbed “the summer from hell” was on New Year’s Eve at Batemans Bay. “I felt utterly powerless as homes burned around me, water ran out, power and phones shut down, and we heard people were dying nearby,” he recalls. “Then seeing some black objects moving beside the highway, and realising they were kangaroos, some still burning, dying a horrible death after being unable to outrun the flames – I have never seen this before in nearly 50 years of fighting fires.”
There were so many months of heartbreak that it took time to absorb it all. “Knowing that many people had lost their lives, knowing that thousands of people had been made homeless and that recovery would drag on for years.”
The death of his fellow firefighters struck him particularly hard. “I was just leaving the fires at Bargo on the night two were killed by a falling tree.”
Many Australians could sense how things were changing when subtropical rainforest, by its nature a fire retardant, started burning last spring, notably in the Hyland Nature Reserve near Dorrigo in NSW, and in the Gold Coast hinterland, where satellite images showed considerable damage within the World Heritage-listed Lamington National Park.
This followed fires in the subtropical rainforest near Mackay in 2018 and the World Heritage Gondwana rainforest in Tasmania 2016, where 14,000 hectares were lost, including ancient, slow-growing native pine.
“The ecological impact of rainforest fires is unknown, as these areas have never before experienced intense fire, and therefore are not adapted,” observes Mullins. “They may never recover after a major fire.”
As I’m talking to Mullins, wildfires are raging across northern California, with 13,700 firefighters battling nearly two dozen major fires. A massive wildfire is sweeping through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and it’s feared many trees in a grove of old-growth redwoods up to 2500 years old might be destroyed. The park has lost its historic headquarters, but the forest as a whole was spared, with the trunks of some redwoods seared and hollowed out.
Disturbing images of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge enshrouded in a thick orange haze from the wildfires are also all over the news, a dramatic reminder of the thick smoke enveloping Sydney last November.
In late October last year Mullins was in California, assessing the damage caused by the Kincade fire north of San Francisco, which had scorched large swaths of the state’s famed wine country for the third year in a row. In 2018, the town of Paradise, 270 kilometres north of San Francisco, had been obliterated in a single inferno in which close to 19,000 homes were destroyed.
Mullins looked at how the firefighting services in California, arguably the best equipped in the world, with Elvis helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft like 737s and C130 Hercules carrying 1500 litres of water and fire retardant, were struggling to control the blazes. This year, the California wildfires have already burnt nearly 900,000 hectares – a grim record.
I mention a 2020 study in Environmental Research Letters, which found that increased temperatures combined with a 30 per cent decrease in precipitation over the past four decades in California has resulted in a more than doubling of the number of days with extreme fire risk.
“Simultaneous fires are now commonplace and stop jurisdictions from assisting each other,” says Mullins. “We now overlap with US and Canadian fire seasons, which is problematic as we source all but one of our large firefighting aircraft and helicopters from them. We can’t get the equipment early in our season as they’re still being used up to fight theirs.”
One of the worrying trends has been that fires can now burn as intensely at night as during the day, because of higher temperatures after dark.
Climatologists have long warned that Australia, the second driest continent on the planet after Antarctica, with huge areas of flammable forest and grassland, is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, putting it at a far higher risk of bushfires. To make matters more challenging, we’re sparsely populated, and it can be logistically difficult to move firefighting equipment across large distances, notes Mullins.
One of the worrying trends over the past couple of decades has been that fires can now burn as intensely at night as during the day, because of higher temperatures after dark. “This seriously impacts traditional fire tactics, which rely on milder conditions at night to conduct backburns and create ‘control lines’,” he explains.
Extreme fire behaviour, the type that creates its own weather systems, is also becoming more common. Between 1978 and 2001, Mullins tells me, there were only two confirmed instances of fire-caused storms; in 2019-20, there were as many as 45. “Fire-caused storms can drastically change the behaviour of a bushfire and can be deadly. We’re talking cyclonic wind bursts, squalls and lightning causing fires 30 kilometres away. Most of the large fires last summer were started by lightning, such as what happened at Gospers Mountain. The long-term drying trend has made fuels more prone to ignition by lightning.”
Fire authorities have been dealing with the new reality for some time, he adds. Policies in NSW that had been in place since the January 1939 bushfires, recommending that people stay to defend their home (the “Stay or Go Policy”) were finally abandoned after the deaths of 173 people in the 2009 Victorian blazes. On days of catastrophic fire danger, residents in bushfire-prone areas would be asked to leave the day before and new emergency warnings were introduced.
While Mullins was commissioner, he introduced modern technologies such as robotics, drones and real-time satellite tracking of fire engines. What is the place of Indigenous fire management, I ask. “Indigenous fire practices come from a deep connection to country and some of the techniques aren’t transferable,” he says. “What works in savannah in northern Queensland won’t necessarily work in subtropical rainforests in northern NSW or eucalypt forests in Victoria; in other areas closer to the cities the knowledge has died out. It’s highly nuanced and can’t be done at scale across the landscape. But it does provide hope for healing the country, more research needs to be done, and there are lessons.”
Mullins will continue to speak out. If his attempts at being an early warning system for the government failed last year, this doesn’t mean he won’t try again. While healthy rainfalls over the winter have probably saved us from another brutal fire season this year, of one thing we can be certain, he reminds us.
The fires will return.
HOW THE “AGE OF FIRE” WILL CHANGE US
Stephen Pyne, who coined the term “Pyrocene” in 2015 to describe a new age of fire he believes we are now entering, is widely considered the world’s foremost expert on the history of fire. An emeritus professor at Arizona State University, Pyne fought blazes in Grand Canyon National Park every season from 1967-81, before writing several landmark books, including Fire in America and Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia. An updated edition of his book, Fire: A Brief History, with an introduction on Australia, has just been released.
How is this new age of fire – the Pyrocene – going to play out in coming decades? Simple persistence forecasting suggests that the near future will look like the near past, intensified. Beyond that it depends on what people do, or don’t do.
Where is most at risk? The fire scene will change for nearly all countries. Those that already have lots of landscape fires will likely have more, and these will burn more often and intensely. Think Australia, America, Canada, Russia. Everywhere, as fires return, the vegetation will change, so the character of the fires will shape-shift as well, and keep morphing as long as the controlling factors continue. It isn’t just that there will be more big burns of greater savagery. Fire will catalyse a remaking of the land.
What have been the contributing factors? With the advent of the most recent interglacial [a warmer period than an ice age], a fire-wielding species has been pushing the planet toward greater fire-proneness ever since. Some interesting studies have been exploring how demographic collapses in the 14th through 16th centuries may have helped spark the Little Ice Age. But a major phase change occurred with the wholesale burning of fossil fuels.
We began taking stuff out of the geologic past, burning it in complex ways in the present, and releasing its effluents to the geologic future. We don’t appreciate how pervasively we have influenced earth with our capacity to manipulate combustion.
“We can learn from how people burned successfully for hundreds and thousands of years. They didn’t do it the way we do now.”
You’ve spent considerable time in Australia studying the nature of fire. What are the differences with the US? Australia has an unrivalled cultural engagement with bushfire; fire paintings, fire poems, fire literature, world-class fire science, and fire politics. I can’t think of any other place with anything like the volume of official inquiries. That doesn’t mean Australians have learnt “to live with fire”.
Australia has more fire of various kinds than the US, and its blowout fires are bigger and more savage. Firefighting, too, differs. America has a stronger national presence through federal agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Prescribed burns are used to reduce accumulations of dry underbrush that could ignite in a flash. Do we need more? This is – as you know – a fraught topic. I find it a fascinating one in the Australian context. Prescribed burning takes many forms. What you are describing is one practice intended to help contain the worst blow-up fires. But it can also be employed to enhance ecological goods and services, to promote tradition (as in cultural burning), to assist agriculture and pastoralism, and so on.
Evaluating wind conditions, temperatures and weather patterns can make prescribed burning safer, and greatly reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire, but they can never be foolproof, can they? We should think about different ways to do landscape burning; the set-piece model most developed countries use is too narrow. We need to be more nimble, to “forage” (in a sense) across the landscape. We can learn from how people burned successfully for hundreds and thousands of years. They didn’t do it the way we do now.
Firefighting is a dangerous occupation. Have you had any near misses?
One night I was clobbered by a falling branch, a so-called “widow maker”. It smacked my hard hat and blew embers inside my fire shirt. I dashed away, ripping my shirt off. A squad of Navajo [Native American] firefighters thought it was the funniest thing.
Rapidly advancing forest fires in California recently put at grave risk some of the tallest living things on the planet, the redwoods. When I was young, a visit to the Sierra redwoods was usually part of our family vacation. Sequoias are well adapted to fire, but the fires around Big Basin may be burning with intensities outside the historic range they can tolerate.
What will the future look like? It’s not as if the earth will go up in flames if we don’t do anything. But it won’t be a pretty picture.
Greg Callaghan is a senior writer and the Associate editor with Good Weekend.