Australia: unstoppable fire
From New Internationalist magazine, #524, 2020
In a time when the atmosphere is warming rapidly and causing climate chaos around the world, we often hear the word ‘unprecedented’. Yet this is an apt description of this summer’s fires in Australia.
The season started early, and the eastern seaboard has been especially hard hit, with air quality in our two largest cities being declared hazardous and a state of emergency declared around Sydney and Canberra. The figures are overwhelming: 18 million hectares burnt, more than 5,900 buildings destroyed – including more than 2,800 homes, 34 deaths as of early February, and an estimated 1 billion animals killed. Estimates based on satellite data put the CO₂ release at 400 million tonnes, which is close to Australia’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.
It is hard to overstate the environmental impacts: Climate change is already making Australia hotter and drier. This is making fires unstoppable: with more ‘plume cloud’ or pyronimbocumulus fires, which generate their own weather including dry lightning, which can start new fires. Areas that ‘aren’t meant to burn’, especially rainforest remnants, have been devastated. In Victoria, 31% of the cool temperate rainforests have been damaged, and government reports suggest that some species have become extinct as a result of this summer’s fires. Fire ecologists are suggesting some of the wet forests may take a century to recover.
The fires have helped change the national debate about how Australia should respond to the climate crisis. A growing number of Australians are ‘joining the dots’ between climate change and worsened fire seasons. There is a growing sense that Australia must step up its efforts to tackle greenhouse emissions. At the same time there is a pushback from conservative elements who seek to blame this summers fires on environmentalists because of a false claim that insufficient fuel reduction burning has been carried out. But with the fires dragging on and economic costs rising, it seems that this will be a summer that changes how Australians see themselves and their relationship with their environment.