Australia’s On Fire: A Personal Story

NOTE: this story was shared by a contributor to my ‘Climate Crisis’ page on Quora four hours ago (1/6/20) —
An answer to the question:
Australia experiences bushfires every year, so what makes the 2019-20 fire season a ‘crisis’ compared to previous years’ fires?

 

From: Carter Moore, Australia

My four-year-old called out from his bedroom, “Dad, I’m scared!”

I don’t remember the hour, but the storm was almost on top of us when he roused me from my own sleep. It’s a coin toss whether a storm will wake my son, but tonight happened to be the night.

He reflexively scooted aside so I could get in to snuggle him. “It’s okay, Buddy,” I said. “Lightning can’t hurt you when you’re inside.”

He nodded, but insisted, “It’s scary to me.” As if on cue, lighting flashed and, within seconds, our house was rocked by thunder.

“Hmm, well it can be scary sometimes,” I said. “Hey, what if we pretend that the lightning is fireworks?”

“Fireworks?”

“Mmhmm.” Another flash of lightning. “Oh! What color was that firework?”

“Um…” his imagination clicked in “…um, a blue firework?”

“Oh, that’s a pretty color.” We waited. Another flash. “What about that one?”

“Um, red!”

We played the game until the storm had rolled on towards the coast, the thunder becoming more muted after each flash, after which he was easily coaxed back to sleep. I went back to bed, figuring that by morning the storm would be as forgotten as easily as an early-summer night’s dream.

The night was 26 November 2019, and we’re still dealing with the consequences of that storm.

I started writing this answer on 3 January.

At 7 pm, my thermostat told me that it was 31 degrees in the house. I resisted turning on the air conditioner, though, because I was waiting for the air quality outside[1] to improve enough that I wouldn’t feel like I was endangering my son’s health by blanketing the house in smoke.

The view outside most days in the last month

It’s a bit of a silly worry, to be honest. I live in a 120-year-old house that, despite some modern renovations, has so many small gaps in the walls that I’m sure we had already achieved equilibrium with the outside air.

Recently, on the worst smoke days, I could perceive a haze in the living room just by standing in the kitchen. I don’t even smell the smoke anymore. But why invite trouble by deliberately pumping it in?

Less than a week after already historic fires annihilated coastal towns not far down the highway, and we are bracing for another disastrous day of deteriorating conditions and explosive fires. While many around the world spent New Year’s Eve celebrating the coming new year, I, like many others, was glued to Facebook and Twitter getting updates on the devastation of familiar locations. The real fireworks show my son and I might have attended was cancelled due to the fire danger and poor air quality.

But unlike the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 which erupted on a day’s notice, or the Canberra bushfire of 2003 that defied containment efforts when the weather abruptly turned, the disaster which has only just begun to capture the world’s attention[2] has been underway for months.

As officials recently put it, people here could be easily forgiven for having “fire fatigue” given how long the fire season has felt[3] . But we’re not near the end of the season. We’re still barely past the start. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

But, per the question, why?

Natural disasters are the result of complicated systems. While some elements of those systems may have particularly large effects, there is rarely any single cause that leaves its fingerprint to differentiate one disaster from the next.

For Australia, fire has been part of the landscape since time immemorial. Aboriginal people learned to develop a relationship with fire tens of thousands of years ago[4][5] .

But while it’s tempting to chalk up what’s happening now to an ageless cycle, a confluence of forces – natural and human – have combined in a witch’s brew to make this year’s season catastrophic beyond a human scale.

Climate Change

The issue is not whether climate change is real (it is[6] [7] [8] [9] ) or primarily human driven (it is[10] [11] ), and I won’t dwell on their causes and contributions, much less the long, sordid story of human inaction at play[12] . It’s not even a question of whether climate change, in and of itself, caused the current fires. The only thing that matters in this instance are the effects of climate change that contributed to these fires[13] .

For the last several, consecutive years, Australia has experienced above-average temperatures, with temperature records from one year to the next[14][15] .

In recent years, it has also experienced below-average rainfall.

But as with all things climate, these averages mask regional differences: and in south-eastern Australia (where the fires are currently at their worst) the temperature and rainfall anomalies are much more pronounced – the rain, in particular, pushed farther south due to climatic patterns[16] .

And for those rainfall anomalies, consider that the average, expected annual rainfall during the wet season sits around 500mm. So if a 100mm deficit doesn’t seem like much, it in fact represents about 20% less rainfall than normal – and during the wet season.

Moreover, while there are plenty of instances of consecutive years of below-average rainfall in southeastern Australia, 13 of the last 15 years have seen below-average rainfall in the wet season, with 12 of the last 15 seeing below-average rainfall for the whole year.

You don’t need to be a climate scientist to be able to intuit how consecutive years of higher temperatures and reduced rainfall would make an area more prone to fires spreading rapidly, which leads to the next point.

Lack of Preparation

Australia’s southeast has (until now) been incredibly fortunate that it has not had a great number of fires during the current dry period.

The downside of that luck is that the lack of fires has allowed a lot of fuel to build up on the forest floors. And while New South Wales and Victoria – the states where populations have been hardest hit so far – prudently continued the use of prescribed burns to mitigate the threat[17] , the total area covered paled in comparison to the scale of the need[18] .

While NSW and Victoria collectively conducted hazard reduction operations across 277,000 hectares in the last financial year[19] [20] – a similar rate of burning-off in several recent years – the states have 28.5 million hectares of forest between them[21] . And while it’s neither a realistic nor desirable (nor straightforward[22] [23] ) goal to conduct hazard reduction burns across the total forested area (the Victorian commission, for example, recommends 5% per annum[24] ), hazard reductions in less than 1% of the area also demonstrate how the forest management services have had to be very strategic in where to conduct burnings – and how fires which were sparked outside of those areas would grow rapidly.

Going into last year’s[25] and this year’s fire seasons[26] , past and present fire chiefs around the region were warning that the risks were mounting and would stretch capacity[27] in the event of a widespread bushfire emergency. Their warnings were largely ignored[28] .

Meanwhile, the overwhelming bulk of manpower relies on unpaid (albeit highly trained and professional) volunteers, and equipment in many places still requires modernisation.

Indeed, this fire season comes on the heels of controversial changes to funding[29] [30] . There has been apparent, little urgency on the part of the state and Commonwealth governments to make large scale, forward-thinking investments to boost fire-fighting capacity beyond what’s considered necessary to meet existing hazard reduction quotas and responding to emergencies when they do happen.

The Crisis

So the fires are here, and in many ways unstoppable[31] . The heroic work of emergency services at this point is to simply contain the fires, limit the damage to properties, and hope that the fires don’t break containment and roll into communities.

The only thing that will definitively stop the fires at this point – short of them consuming all their fuel – is rain; and rain isn’t due in significant quantities until March at the absolute soonest, but April most practically[32] (and recall the rainfall anomaly charts).

At the time of this writing, 19 people have lost their lives and 1,700 homes have been destroyed[33] . The deaths include three fire fighters (reminder: they are unpaid volunteers).

As previously noted, NSW and Victoria have 28.5 million hectares of forest. Since the start of the 2019 fire season, a combined 4.3 million hectares have burned (15%) in the two states: 3.6 million in NSW (17% of total forested area) and 700,000 in Victoria (8.5% of total area). That’s out of at least 5.8 million hectares burnt across Australia.

Worth noting at this point: Western Australia has had at least 1.2 million hectares burnt (5% of total forested area); however, its largest fires have so far been well away from populated areas.

These numbers would be considered records for a normal fire season[34] , but the current situation defies traditional models[35] .

And recalling the point about climate change, recall that forests are vital for trapping and storing carbon from the atmosphere. Not only have the fires now released massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere[36] , they have more than decimated (literally, for once) the region’s capacity to mitigate the impacts of greenhouse gases.

It has been estimated that upwards of 500 million animals have been killed in NSW alone[37] , and in areas which have included threatened species. Returning to the fire near my home, the impacted nature reserve included 13 threatened species endemic to the reserve[38] . There is every risk that if they were not literally burned into extinction, their populations are irrecoverable.

Economically, the region has been savaged. Setting aside the direct costs of rebuilding lost properties and businesses: the fires started ahead of the holiday season, fully isolated tourism-dependent coastal towns[39] , and followed through by destroying many. The large-scale evacuation of residents and tourists[40] may inspire many to stay away for years afterwards.

These are all consequences that will extend long beyond the time when the fires are finally quenched. The biodiversity impact alone will be a generations-long path to recovery.

I buttoned this answer up the evening of Saturday, 4 January, as outside the wind howled and the temperature broke into the 30s before 10 am, crossed the 40s just past noon, and became the hottest day in Canberra’s records[41] . Temperatures not too far in the west and north were several degrees higher.

The “Fires Near Me” app, now a mainstay on millions of phones, changed from a smattering of blue “Advice” fires to a mix of yellow “Watch and Act” and red “Emergency Warning” threats.

And we’ve only just started the second month of summer.

The short answer that I’m trying to impress is that while fires are a normal part of the Australian environment, this season will leave a deep scar that will take years to move beyond. What induces a great deal of anxiety is the thought that this fire season’s scale will become the new normal should drought conditions persist.

While my son has almost surely long forgotten about the fireworks show we imagined, the storm is still with him; and I wonder about the many storms in his future.

In the past few weeks, my son has gotten used to not being allowed to play outside – whether at home or at daycare. Recently, he’s punctuated his morning ritual of asking, “Where are we going today?” with, “Or is there too much smoke?”

The beach where he took some of his first steps has been destroyed. The parks where I take him bushwalking are closed due to fire danger. I took him 100 kilometers out of town to find a playground for him, because he has coughing fits if we stay outside for more than half an hour locally, and where I commiserated with other parents who likewise brought their kids out of the toxic air.

These fires don’t feel like they will be a one-off calamity that will soon recede into memory, but are a portent of things to come. For while the causes of the current crisis are varied and complex, it sure doesn’t feel like any of them – from the climate to anaemic leadership – are going to change in the foreseeable future.

Footnotes

[1] Carter Moore’s answer to What effect have the 2019-2020 bush fires had on Australian air quality?

[2] Global Apathy Toward the Fires in Australia Is a Scary Portent for the Future

[3] ‘Millions of sparks’: Weather raises Australia’s fire danger

[4] Traditional Aboriginal burning

[5] Traditional owners predicted this bushfire disaster years ago

[6] 2. How has climate changed?

[7] The scientific consensus on global warming

[8] Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming

[9] Analysis: How well have climate models projected global warming? | Carbon Brief

[10] Scientists Agree: Global Warming is Happening and Humans are the Primary Cause

[11] At least three-quarters of climate change is man-made

[12] What Does ’12 Years to Act on Climate Change’ (Now 11 Years) Really Mean?

[13] The facts about bushfires and climate change – Climate Council

[14] 2018 was Australia’s third-hottest year on record

[15] 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record

[16] Australia’s west, south losing rain as climate change shifts winds: study

[17] Carter Moore’s answer to How/why would the Australian government deliberately start bushfires?

[18] Former fire chief calls for more planned burns as fuel loads reach Black Saturday levels

[19] NSW Rural Fire Service

[20] Fuel Management Report 2018-19

[21] https://www.agriculture.gov.au/s…

[22] Are hazard reduction burns effective in managing bushfires? The answer is complicated

[23] Is Fuel Reduction Burning the Answer?

[24] Prescribed burning and bushfires

[25] Millions at risk: Fire chiefs warn of bleak bushfire outlook

[26] This year’s bushfire outlook is not good news, but will we heed the warnings?

[27] NSW, Qld fires: Resources stretched to the limit

[28] Former fire chiefs ‘tried to warn PM ‘ to bring in more water-bombers ahead of bushfire season

[29] Sparks fly after budget cuts

[30] NSW fire union budget claim not clear cut

[31] Australia fires could be out of control for months, says fire chief

[32] Australian climate outlooks

[33] How big are the fires burning in eastern Australia? Interactive map

[34] Yes, Australia has always had bushfires: but 2019 is like nothing we’ve seen before

[35] Scientific modelling ‘not coping’ with scale of current bushfires

[36] Bushfires Release Over Half Australia’s Annual Carbon Emissions

[37] A statement about the 480 million animals killed in NSW bushfires since September

[38] Fire is bad news for wildlife, but the true disaster is yet to come 

[39] This town should be full of tourists — instead it’s full of smoke

[40] Biggest evacuation in Australia’s history underway in NSW

[41] Canberra experiences hottest temperature on record

 
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