The sky is blood red. Sirens are wailing. Buildings are shrouded in a heavy, grey haze. Gas bottles are exploding like bombs. The wind is hot and swirling. The flames are huge and roaring. Faces are covered by P2 masks. Dirt and ash are raining from the sky. The landscape is deserted and charred. It sounds like something out of a dystopian fiction, but this is reality. This is Australia in the midst of a bushfire crisis.
Since September, the total area burned across New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania is 10.7 million hectares, which is almost the size of England. A record-breaking 5 million hectares have been burned in NSW alone. More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed and at least 33 people have died.
This comes after years of severe drought. 2019 was Australia’s driest year on record, with the national average of rainfall reducing to 277.6 millimetres. It was also Australia’s hottest year on record, the nation’s average temperature increasing by 1.52 degrees Celsius. Heatwaves swept across the country.
High temperatures and low rainfall have contributed significantly to the severity of the 2019/2020 bushfire season. The drought has resulted in an abundance of dry fuel and a serious lack of moisture in the landscape. The Guardian reports that ‘Professor Mark Howden, the director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, said the continued rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, caused mainly by burning fossil fuels, was the underlying driver of the heat’.
Associate Professor from the University of Wollongong Owen Price states, ‘The immediate reason [for these fires] is the drought’.
‘Basically, all the moisture has been sucked out of the landscape and the plants. Then you have to ask the question, what has caused the drought?’ he says.
‘Drought is a natural periodic thing, but the fact that this is the worst drought on record, and we’ve broken temperature records many times this year, is a pretty unequivocal indication that climate change has made this worse.’ The overwhelming length of this bushfire season can also be attributed to the climate crisis.
Spreading like forest fire
What has made these fires particularly severe, says Price, is that they are burning through large amounts of forests, as opposed to grasslands. ‘In forest, the fires are far more intense, they produce far more smoke, they burn far more material, so there is a bigger greenhouse gas output and they take longer to recover. When they reach homes, they are harder to stop,’ he says. He further notes some areas have not been burnt in recorded history.
More than half of the Gondwana Rainforests in NSW and QLD have burned. These contain the largest area of subtropical rainforest on Earth and are listed as a World Heritage Site. At least 80% of the Blue Mountains has burned, which could damage the regions eucalyptus diversity. In WA over 40,000 hectares of the Stirling Range National Park has burned. The park contains 1,500 species of flora, many of which are found nowhere else in the world, and there are concerns for the fate of its rare mainland quokka population.
Australia’s own mass extinction
One of the most devastating effects of the bushfires has been the toll on Australia’s unique wildlife. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has estimated that 1.25 billion animals have been killed. WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman says, ‘This heart-breaking loss includes thousands of precious koalas on the mid-north coast of NSW, along with other iconic species such as kangaroos, wallabies, gliders, potoroos, cockatoos and honeyeaters’.
‘Many forests will take decades to recover and some species may have tipped over the brink of extinction,’ he says. ‘Until the fires subside, the full extent of damage will remain unknown.’
The greatest concerns are for the numerous endangered species that may have been brought to extinction, including the Kangaroo Island dunnart, southern brown bandicoot, silver-headed antechinus, Hastings River mouse, mountain pygmy possum and brush-tailed rock wallaby. There are even fears for the fate of species we don’t even know exist yet.
It’s not just the flames harming our wildlife, but what comes after— starvation, habitat loss and bare landscapes that result in an increase of native species falling prey to feral cats and foxes. Hundreds of thousands of fish have died in the Macleay River in NSW as a result of bushfire ash that has washed into the river. Then there’s the ecological role that animals play. Bandicoots and potoroos, for example, transport fungal spores after bushfires, which promotes regrowth. When these animals die, their ecological roles go with them.
Breathing air like second-hand smoke
The fires have also posed a serious health risk to many Australians. The smoke has enveloped parts of the country for weeks. At the beginning of January, the air quality in Canberra was more than 23 times the hazardous level. The ABC reports that Dr Tony Bartone, president of the Australian Medical Association, ‘described the length and density of smoke exposure as “a new, and possibly fatal, health risk”‘.
According to the European Union’s Earth observation programme, Copernicus, Australia’s bushfires ‘have already emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and produced harmful pollutants’, as reported by the Guardian. The programme also said the ash being deposited on New Zealand’s glaciers could increase the speed at which they are melting. Aside from the physical health risks, the bushfires are affecting people mentally. ‘The mental health burden of this disaster on our communities will be considerable,’ states Dr Bartone.
One crisis born out of another
Our nation has been suffering through this crisis for months. Homes have been destroyed. Lives have been lost. The environment has been decimated. We need to acknowledge the nature of this crisis, accept what has caused it and take action so that similar disasters are prevented in the future. Experts across disciplines have asserted the 2019/2020 bushfire season has been unprecedented and aggravated by climate change. ‘Australia is a land of bushfires, but this season’s unprecedented mega-fires are not normal. Climate change does not cause bushfires, but it does make them much worse,’ O’Gorman says.
Shane Fitzsimmons, the NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) commissioner, has said this bushfire season is ‘absolutely’ the state’s worst on record.
Professor in Terrestrial Ecology at the University of Sydney Chris Dickman says, ‘What we’re seeing are the effects of climate change.’
The evidence is overwhelmingly clear. The Guardian has revealed, ‘a growing number of MPs privately concede the government needs to do more’ regarding the Coalition’s climate change policies. Yet our prime minister thinks it’s ‘disappointing’ when people are relating the bushfire crisis to Australia’s emissions reduction targets. ‘We don’t want job-destroying, economy-destroying, economy-wrecking targets and goals, which won’t change the fact that there have been bushfires or anything like that in Australia,’ he says.
What Scott Morrison fails to realise is inaction on climate change has significantly contributed to the severity of this bushfire season, which in turn is already having serious effects on the economy.
As Professor of Environmental Change Biology at the University of Tasmania David Bowman points out, ‘You can’t properly run an economy when you get a third to a half of the population affected by smoke, and the media completely focused on fires. I’m not quite certain why anybody would want to be claiming fires have been like this before. It’s concerning as it is a barrier to adaptation. To deal with these sort of fires the first step is to acknowledge the scale of the problem’. The economic damage from this bushfire season is likely to exceed $4.4 billion, which is the record set by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. There will be harm to Australia’s already low consumer confidence and direct damage to the farming and tourism industries.
In addition to climate deniers, the spread of disinformation across media outlets and social media is posing a danger. It has been falsely claimed arsonists are responsible for a large proportion of the fires. A spokesman for the NSW RFS has said that arson has been a small source of ignition in the state compared to lightning. While the Guardian reports that Victorian police say ‘there is no evidence’ any of the fires that have burned in their state were caused by arson. Member of Australia’s Climate Council and the inaugural director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute Professor Will Steffen warns, ‘People who are for whatever reason trying to put out false or extremely misleading information are actually doing a huge disservice to the risk to human life in the future, the risk to property, the risk to the natural world, and indeed the risk to economy’.
The sprout in a burnt landscape
Among the stories of terror and destruction, there have been accounts which have stood out in their display of human goodness. Celebrities, businesses, charities and everyday people from around the world have donated incredible amounts of money for bushfire relief. Mining magnate Andrew Forrest has donated $70 million through his Minderoo Foundation. Elton John and Chris Hemsworth have each donated $1 million. Tennis star Nick Kyrgios announced that he will donate $200 per ace he hits across the summer, while cricket great Shane Warne auctioned his baggy green cap for $1 million. A whopping 1.3 million people have donated to comedian Celeste Barber’s Facebook fundraiser, which has raised more than $51 million, smashing the original target of $30,000. Since Falls Festival in Lorne, VIC was cancelled due to bushfires, the music scene has set up numerous bushfire benefit shows across the country. Among these is Fire Fight Australia in Sydney, featuring a spectacular line-up that includes Queen + Adam Lambert, Guy Sebastian, Jessica Mauboy, John Farnham, Michael Bublé, 5 Seconds of Summer and Hilltop Hoods.
Volunteers are coming together to knit, crochet and sew pouches and mittens for affected wildlife. The fires have left many animals injured, orphaned or without homes. Young marsupials such as kangaroos, koalas, wombats and possums need pouches to grow and mittens protect koalas with burnt paws. The group Animal Rescue Craft Guild on Facebook has seen thousands of people from Europe to Asia and the United States craft for a good cause.
Many Australians have also opened up their homes to accommodate those affected by the fires, including their animals. Others have donated food and further essentials, including the Australian Islamic Centre in Hobsons Bay, VIC. The centre issued a callout for donations that saw members of the community distributing supplies to fire-affected regions. In December a group of people from Sydney’s Muslim community drove a ute full of water, sausages and a BBQ six hours to cook for the fire-ravaged town of Willawarrin.
In times like these, one’s faith in humanity can be challenged. But as with these acts of human kindness, light can always be found in the darkness. While it may seem our government is set on denying the climate emergency that has contributed greatly to Australia’s current bushfire crisis, MPs are starting to notice. They are starting to notice the calls for action and cries of protest. Rather than give up hope, the best we can do is keep pushing back harder and harder until our firefighters, our animals, our environment and our communities get the justice they deserve.
How you can help
The best way to help our firefighters, wildlife and communities affected by the bushfires is to donate money, allowing services to buy what they need and support those impacted.
Below is a list of funds that have been established for bushfire relief:
- Australian Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery
- Salvation Army Disaster Appeal
- St Vincent de Paul Society Bushfire Appeal
- WWF Help Save Koalas fund
You can also donate directly to services in each state.
- NSW RFS
- Port Macquarie Koala Hospital
- Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES)
- RSPCA NSW Bushfire Appeal
- The Department of Fire and Emergency Services lists a number of services you can donate to
- QLD Fire and Rescue suggest donating either money or items through GIVIT