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Bushfire expert was the “voice of scientific reason” guiding us in crisis

Professor David Bowman

For most Australians, the recent summer of unprecedented bushfire activity across the country was a transformative event that will live long in the nation’s collective memory.

But for the University of Tasmania’s Professor of Pyrogeography David Bowman, the continent-wide crisis represented the great professional challenge of his career.

Alumnus Professor Bowman (BSc Hons 1981, PhD 1985, DSc 2001) became the “go to” Australian fire expert for national and international media outlets.

The University’s media monitoring reveals that over the past three months, Professor Bowman’s name has been captured almost 1000 times, in outlets including the ABC and The Conversation in Australia, and the BBC and The New York Times overseas.

Professor Bowman, who is the Director of the University’s Fire Centre Research Hub, said the responsibility of providing a deeply concerned public with a voice of scientific reason during the ongoing crisis was both humbling and thoroughly exhausting.  

It began, Professor Bowman said, with an online article he penned for The Conversation, in which he suggested that longer and more intense bushfires seasons would eventually result in the rescheduling of the traditional Australian summer school holidays.

“My phone was ringing continuously, with quirky enquiries from Norway, Ireland, Scotland, and America,” Professor Bowman said from his Fire Centre office on the Sandy Bay campus.

“I spoke to as many people as I could - there were enquiries from all over the world.

“And I think what was really going on was that something momentous was happening, but there wasn’t really a way of understanding it.

“The advantage I had is that I have been speaking in the media a lot over the last 20 years … and I inadvertently became to the go-to guy.”

Professor Bowman said that the key messages he sought to convey during the media frenzy related not just to the role climate change was playing in creating the fire conditions, but the importance of starting national conversations about adaptation, co-existing with flammable bushland, the importance of Indigenous cultural burning, and the reality of climate anxiety among the nation’s younger generations.

He said that much of his exhaustion during the season-long event was due to listening to the “heartbreaking” tales of suffering told to him – through emails, phone calls and texts – from ordinary Australians whose properties and livelihoods had been impacted by the fires.

During this period in the national spotlight, Professor Bowman worked overtime, in not only staying updated on developments on multiple fire grounds across the country, but in providing an authoritative scientific voice that remained accessible to viewers and listeners.

“It’s quite a balancing act to be a reputable scientist but also interesting and entertaining and getting people’s attention,” he said.

“And I think the school holiday article was so obvious in a way … it was on the tip of everybody’s tongue and people knew something was wrong.

“It was like a parable - it was about the school holidays, but it was also about climate change adaptation and dealing with the consequences of global heating.

“So people could relate to it on many levels, and I think they are still reflecting on what this could possibly mean.”

Professor Bowman says that while he would need some time to fully process the significance of the recent fire season, his more immediate focus was on the series of speaking circuit dates he has been invited to over the next few months, and which are already underway.

Having recently featured on a panel at the Opera House and then addressing the World Council of Churches via videolink, Professor Bowman will head to Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane over the coming weeks to speak at different events.

That’s all before the keynote address he is due to give in Vienna.

“There’s a huge demand for me to speak, I’m getting lots of invitations,” Professor Bowman said.

“And this has absolutely come out of the media exposure over summer.”

Image: Professor David Bowan by Matthew Newton.

Published on: 13 Mar 2020 2:53pm