Every summer in Australia one thing is certain, there will be bushfires burning somewhere on the continent. And while fire damage to forests can look devastating, it is actually a natural process that helps regenerate the Australian bush. Plants have adapted to the harsh climate to the extent that it is an important part of the survival for a number of plants as well as animals.
The seeds for many Australian plants actually need fire for dispersal and germination. Fire also helps clear forests of older hollow trees and provides room for newer trees to take their place. This process helps some animals as newer trees provide more leaf mass which is a food source for native animals like the koala and wombat.
As a way of managing the Australian forest, the Australian Aboriginals engaged in periodic controlled burning of forests and have done so for thousands of years. The benefit of this ancient practice has now become part of the strategy employed by Australian fire and emergency services. The idea is simple. It is better to have many smaller fires than one or two larger events. Periodic burning also helps ensure balance of the forest and its native inhabitants by having different stages of regeneration rather than one mass destruction event where large swathes of forest are destroyed leading to a mass die off of some animal species too. Periodic burning also lessens danger to human life and destruction of property as you lessen the chances of getting huge fires.
Australia's forests are susceptible to fire for a number of reasons. The country endures regular heatwaves with temperatures reaching up to the high 40°s (110 °F+). These heatwaves can also be preceded by prolonged periods of drought. Not everything is the fault of the climate though as the predominate species in the Australian forest, are the many species of eucalyptus tree which shed bark and leaves to make a perfect layer of tinder on the forest floor. More importantly, when the oils in the tree heat up, it releases flammable gas which can easily ignite into a fireball. Ignition is often caused by carelessness of human activity, but fires can also start from lightening strikes.
While bush management has vastly improved in Australia, massive fires still occur. Saturday the 7th of February 2009, will forever be etched into Australia's memory. Given the name 'Black Saturday', the state of Victoria experienced the worst bushfire and worst weather conditions in the nation's history.
Following a week of extreme heat, low humidity, and two month severe drought, a number of small fires broke out that eventually merged into one huge firefront. This caused the greatest loss of life from a bushfire event, mass destruction of property, and even wiped whole towns off the map. This was the world's worst bushfire, the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshima atom bombs exploding.
On Black Saturday, the mercury hit a state record at 46 degrees Celsius (115 °F) and the fires themselves whipped up winds in excess of 100km/h. A change in direction caused them to merge together and burn areas that had previously escaped destruction. Overall, 173 people died that day with 120 people being killed by a single firestorm.