Australian wildfires: Is the term ‘bushfire’ out of date?

Fires are changing so does that mean the way we refer to them should too? It could soon be a hot topic.

Huge, fast-moving fires which rip through communities destroying all in their path are becoming more common around the globe. Canada, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Greece and even Hawaii have all suffered in 2023.

Australia, of course, has never been immune to fire. Indeed, there is an acceptance that bushfires are part of Australian life.

But as climate change causes these fires to become more frequent, more widespread and more destructive, the way we talk about them might need to change as well.

Australia is heading into what is predicted to be a very dry, hot summer with increased fire risk, partly due to El Nio. Spring has already brought serious fires to several Australian states, providing an early warning sign.

There are questions whether the term bushfire is still an apt description of the fires which threaten Australians each summer and whether a change in the words we use to describe fires might increase community safety.

Australia dubs bushfires with names as memorials, like 2009’s Black Saturday and Black Summer of 20192020.

It is the only English-speaking country to do so.

To create these Australian memorial names, a product of fire think ‘black’ or ‘red’ is added to a day or, in the case of Black Summer, an entire season. Black Tuesday, Red Tuesday and Black Christmas spring to mind.

Australians often don’t realise these names are unique, including at one time, me, and I study the language of disasters. But a few years ago, a Danish colleague asked: “These names are remarkable, what’s their story?”

Black Thursday of 1851 was the first bushfire memorial name. It comes from a pattern of ‘black’ plus a day to mark a disaster, like a military defeat or a stock market crash. More recently, then Australian prime minister Scott Morrison played a key role in cementing the name Black Summer for the 20192020 bushfires.

At the time, some wanted to call these bushfires “the forever fires” to capture the trend they set worldwide and their connection with climate change. Yet Australia fell back on the habitual name of ‘black’. Unlike past fires, the disturbing difference here is that the name referred to an entire season, not just one day.

“Bushfire” is a resonant Australian word dating from at least 1832. It builds on the culturally important Australian word “bush”. The most relevant meaning of “bush” to “bushfire” is a mass of dry vegetation, mostly eucalypts. But the word “bush” can also be used to denote a cultural style, like a “bush dance”, or a catch-all for areas outside the city.

A lot of species found in Australian bush vegetation need fire to reproduce, so Australians expect and accept some bush to burn. Before colonisation, First Nations people burned country to manage the land and still do today through cultural burning.

A vast web of words surrounds the word “bushfire”. These words range from the scientific like “fuel load”, to community safety terms like “bushfire survival plan”, to the informal like “firies” for firefighters, to names like “Sam, the koala” who was rescued during 2009’s Black Saturday fires.

So, “bush”, “bushfire”, and all the associated concepts, especially the country’s volunteer firies, sit close to the hearts of many Australians.

Yet some of these concepts may need revision due to the more severe fires brought by climate change.

“Wildfire” implies a fire that is “out of control” and may be more accurate. In North America, “forest fires” became “wildfires” to take in a broader context.

In Australia, fire more and more threatens the suburban fringe. Residents there don’t see themselves as living in “the bush” but rather in a city. So, they may lack readiness for a fire emergency if they don’t think bushfire warnings apply to them.

More recent fires have not only ravaged the typical dry Australian bush vegetation. In 20192020, fire ripped through rainforest in areas that had never burned before.

There is another dimension. Recent migrants can face a steep learning curve when it comes to Australian disasters.

Maybe being introduced to the pan-English “wildfire” is simpler than getting to grips with the specifics of Australian cultural history.

If we are going to update our language to better reflect the realities of climate change, language reformers need to remember that change is hard to impose.

Alterations are easier if people think that an older term might hurt someone. Yet, no one could say that “bushfire” is offensive exactly.

Some people dislike “wildfire” because Americans say it. Perhaps they are being unfair. But they may be attached to the rich concept of the Australian bushfire.

Igniting controversy with a wholesale change could be counterproductive.

More recently, we have seen the rise of the novel word “megafire” for the new, large fires brought by climate change, so speakers can move with the times.

Language is wild itself, so it is hard to predict whether we will stick mostly with “bushfire”, move to “wildfire”, or have the two sit side by side. 

(360info.org: By Helen Bromhead, Griffith University)