A comprehensive debrief on the Australian bushfire crisis
Words || Saliha Rehanaz
In November 2019, the Australian government declared a state of emergency when dozens of fires erupted in New South Wales. The fires rapidly spread across all states to become some of the most devastating in the last few decades. At least 27 million acres of Australia has been burned, a surface area almost equal to Portugal.
On January 4th 2020, The Guardian reported that due to the fires, at least 23 people had died nationwide and in New South Wales alone, more than 3,000 homes had been destroyed or damaged. And according to an estimate from the University of Sydney, more than 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles have likely lost their lives in blazes. The blazes from the fires have ravaged through bushland, wooded areas and even national parks like the Blue Mountains. Some of the bushfires could be contained within days of starting, but the biggest blazes have been burning for months.
Alongside the dangerous flames from the bushfires, the smoke has become another disaster. On January 1st, Australia’s capital recorded the worst pollution it has ever seen in history. The air quality index was noted 23 times higher than the ‘hazardous’ level. At one point, Canberra health authorities had advised all residents to “spend more time indoors”. Additionally, the smoke in the city was so extreme, it had made its way into birthing rooms and stopped MRI machines from working. The smoke had also reached New Zealand, where it created an eerie scene atop glacier-covered peaks.
In Australia, summer extends from December to February, with the fire season typically peaking in late January or early February. Bushfires and grass fires in Australia are a regular and widespread occurrence that have significantly moulded the nature of our continent over millions of years. According to the Geoscience Department of the Australian Government, natural ecosystems have evolved with fire, as the landscape, becomes more biologically diverse.
Apart from the hot, dry weather which makes it easy for blazes to start and spread, natural causes have been blamed in the past for most bushfires. Often this is lightning strikes in drought-affected forests. In late December 2019, Victoria State Emergency Service had reported that dry lightning was responsible for starting a number of fires in Victoria’s East Gippsland regions, which travelled more than 20 kilometres in just five hours. Additionally, a police statement indicated that the New South Wales police had charged at least 24 people with deliberately starting bushfires, and have taken legal action against 183 people for fire-related offences since November 2019.
Over the past few decades, fire season in Australia has always been dangerous. In 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires killed 173 people in Victoria, dubbing it the deadliest bushfire disaster on record. Conditions have been unusually severe this year, the flames have been spreading and destroying thousands of acres of land. Australia is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades. In December 2019, the Bureau of Meteorology stated that last spring was the driest on record. On the other hand, the heatwave which took place in December 2019 broke the record for highest nationwide average temperature. Some areas reached burning temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius.
The Real Cause
Experts say climate change has worsened the scope and impact of natural disasters like fires and floods, as weather conditions are growing more extreme. For years, the fires have been starting earlier in the season and spreading with greater intensity. Dan Pydonowski, a Senior Meteorologist at AccuWeather, states that Southeastern Australia has been “abnormally dry” since September 2019, meaning significant rainfall would be needed repeatedly over a period of weeks to become damp enough to cut down the risk of fires. Pydynowski also added that “everything is so dry right now, it doesn’t take much for a fire to spark and blow up and spread”.
Stefan Rahmstorf, the department head at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and lead author of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report spoke to TIME News and believes the Australian bushfires were exacerbated by two factors which have a “well-established” link to climate change: heat and dry conditions. “Due to enhanced evaporation in warmer temperatures, the vegetation and soil dry out more quickly,” says Rahmstorf, “even if the rainfall didn’t change, just the warming in itself would already cause a drying of vegetation and therefore increased fire risk”.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has resisted calls for the country to reduce its carbon emissions, has been accused of de-emphasizing the link between bushfires and climate change, mentioning during an interview in November 2019, that there isn’t “credible scientific evidence” that reducing carbon emissions would diminish the fires.
Peter Glieck, a climate scientist and co-founder of Pacific Institute in California, commented on Morrioson’s denial. “There are now disingenuous efforts to downplay the clear role of climate change in worsening the intensity and severity of the Australian fires. These efforts should be called out for what they are: gross climate denial”. Glieck also emphasized that the bushfires are a “very clear example of the links between climate change and extreme weather”. He pointed out that these fires are very similar to recent high destructive fires in Brazil and China.
Climate change in Australia has been a critical issue since the beginning of the 21st century. In 2013, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) released a report stating that Australia is becoming hotter, and that it will experience more extreme heat and longer fire seasons due to climate change. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Australia has experienced an increase of nearly 1 degree Celsius in average annual temperatures, with warming occurring twice as fast over the past 50 years than in the previous 50 years. Rainfall in Southwestern Australia has decreased by 10-20% since the 1970s, while Southeastern Australia has also experienced a moderate decline since the 1990s. Water sources in the southeastern areas of Australia have depleted due to increasing population in urban areas coupled with climate change factors such as persistent prolonged drought. At the same time, Australian greenhouse gas emissions continue to be the highest per capita as reported in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
A carbon tax was introduced for Australia in 2011 by the Gillard government in an effort to reduce the impact of climate change. Despite some criticism, it successfully reduced Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions, with coal generation down 11% since 2009. Moreover, under the government of Malcolm Turnbull, Australia attended the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference and adopted The Paris Agreement, which includes a review of emission reduction targets every five years from 2020. In 2014, the carbon tax was repealed and abolished by the Coalition Government. Since then, carbon emissions in Australia have been rising yearly.
The Political Stakes
Scott Morrison has faced extreme scrutiny for his stance on climate change throughout his entire political career. After his miraculous victory for the Liberal Party in 2019, numerous climate activists have expressed their anger and concern over the state of Australia’s ecological society in the future. Morrison is consistently under the crucial disapproval from the public as he refuses to accept the impact of climate change and does not enforce policies to reduce carbon emissions.
Apart from attempting to manipulate the minds of the public into believing that climate change is “unreal”, Morrison has also branded environmental protesters as “anarchists” and threatened a radical crackdown on the right to protest in a speech claiming progressives are seeking to “deny the liberties of Australians”. In November 2019, Morrison told Australian corporations to listen to the “quiet shareholders” and not environmental protestors, who he suggested could shift targets from coal companies to all carbon-intensive industries including power generation, gas projects, abattoirs and airlines. Moreover, in Tasmania the Liberal government intends to legislate sentences of up to 21 years (more than many get for murder) for environmental protest, legislations typical of the new climate of ‘authoritarianism’ that has flourished under Morrison.
Regardless of Morrison’s efforts to prevent the public from pushing the government to take climate action, Australians have gradually taken matters into their own hands to make sure their voices are heard. In September 2019, over 300,000 Australians gathered at climate change rallies around the country in one of the largest protest events in the nation’s history. This climate strike was fuelled after the Prime Minister’s decision to not attend the United Nations Climate Summit despite being in the United States at the time of the event.
In light of the bushfires and the government’s lack of climate action, the streets were filled again in December 2019 with protesters demanding Morrison to take responsibility and realise that climate change is in some ways, fuelling these dangerous fires. Apart from protests, Australians have also been enraged with the Prime Minister and have expressed their disappointment at all opportunities.
In early January, Morrison was forced to abandon a meet-and-greet in Cobargo after being confronted by angry local residents. He was visiting the Bega Valley townships, which had been engulfed by flames two days prior to his visit. The Guardian Australia reported the death of three people and numerous people losing their homes, businesses, livestock and pasture when the fire hit the community.
Footage from Nine Network shows Morrison approaching a woman to shake her hand and ask how she is doing. The woman, who appeared reluctant, said “I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to our RFS [Rural Fire Service]”. The footage later depicts Morrison walking away as she exclaimed, “we need more help!”. A group of residents were also later seen yelling at the Prime Minister.
On the Frontline
In the wake of recent disastrous events, those who have worked endlessly to protect the residents and wildlife of Australia deserve all the recognition. There have been thousands of firefighters volunteering to put their life at risk in order to contain the fires and evacuate everyone in the affected regions. In an interview with the BBC, Daniel Knox said, “We’re doing it because it’s a passion. It’s a brotherhood”, when he was asked what motivated him to fight the bushfires. He is one of the thousands of Australians who abandoned their ordinary lives to battle the nation’s raging fire crisis. Daniel is a member of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) which calls itself “the world’s largest volunteer firefighting organisation”. Its 70,000 members are extensively trained and except for a few senior staff, unpaid. Since September, close to 3,000 firefighters have been out every day in NSW battling blazes the size of small European countries.
Apart from spending hours working to control the fires in extreme conditions, numerous firefighters have also lost their lives while tackling the blaze. To help local efforts in the bushfire crisis, North American firefighters had been arriving in Australia since early December 2019. The United States has sent firefighters while Canada has been sending fire experts to Australia for the first time.
In an effort to thank the firefighters for their contribution, the country has seen numerous communities coming together to celebrate and recognise their hard work and courage. In one such event at Lake Cathie, the mayor of Port Macquarie-Hastings, Peta Pinson, called the men and women superheroes for all their hard work. While addressing the firefighters and the community members, Pinson said, “Yellow is the new black because our absolutely amazing firefighters are true heroes after what they had done over the last few weeks.”
“The whole community is so thankful that we didn’t have to experience the true horrific nature of the fires’ wrath because of all these wonderful people. It is a shame it has taken something as terrible as the last few weeks for everyone to see how truly incredible our firefighters are. But everyone is incredibly grateful for what they have done. From the countless hours our fighters spend away from their family and friends to train, and all the work they have put in over the last few weeks. They are the true heroes.”
Alongside various events, both individuals and communities have come together to fundraise money for fire services. The BBC reported on January 5th that Australian comedian, Celeste Barber launched a Facebook appeal and managed to raise more than $20 million in just 48 hours. The funds were raised to support the NSW Rural Fire Service, which channels charitable donations directly to fire brigades.
Apart from celebrities pledging donations, companies and organisations across the globe have been helping to raise money in support of the firefighters, local residents and wildlife affected by the bushfires. While small local businesses opened their doors to help gather items required to battle the fires, other large labels have been donating proceeds from their sales to various organisations.
People have come together from all around the world to raise awareness about the issue on social media. Numerous people have spoken about the commendable achievements of communities to raise money for the cause, however some have expressed disappointment, as it is the responsibility of the government to take action and ensure funds are available for such natural catastrophes.
What Can You Do?
There are various ways you can support the cause and support those affected by the bushfires.
If you would like to donate money, organisations such as The Salvation Army and The Australian Red Cross are working directly with those in crisis. There is also the opportunity to donate directly to state-based brigades, such as the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. You can also look up local stores putting sale proceeds towards the bushfire efforts. Cash through registered funds and official appeals is the most ideal way to help, according to the NSW Office of Emergency Management, as it allows people to choose exactly what they need and supports local businesses.
If you are unable to provide monetary donations, charities like Givit specialise in collecting goods, but act as a “charity broker” to avoid ending up with unnecessary donations. The exact items people need are listed by charities and the public can match that or register the items they have, in case someone can use them. Givit is currently running two specific campaigns supporting NSW and Queensland bushfires on top of its regular services. The Red Cross has shared that it will gratefully accept goods such as clothing at its retail stores, where funds raised from sales can go towards their work, including bushfire relief.
To support the wildlife affected by the bushfires, specific organisations like the WWF have campaigns running so you can donate and support their efforts in rehabilitating the animals and providing them with proper medical attention. You can also donate items such as possum boxes, native milk replacers and pellets for livestock to the RSPCA’s Bushfire Donation Drive. You may also wish to volunteer at the NSW Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Services to rehabilitate injured wildlife.
The bushfires are a warning that climate change is truly affecting our world and we need to take action immediately. This summer, Australia did not only lose thousands of acres of landscape, millions of flora and fauna, but also many people’s lives and livelihoods were destroyed. We cannot sit still and give up if our government is not taking action. This is the time to be reminded that those in control of climate action policies will not be able alive to face the repercussions that we will have to. We need to come together as a community and work towards a better world. We might only be 25% of the population today, but we are 100% of the future tomorrow.