Australian firefighters and bushfires

Climate change in action

Raymond Markey of Macquarie University, on the bushfires devastating large parts of Australia - their impact on firefighters and communities and the warnings that went unheeded

UNPRECEDENTED

​‘Unprecedented’ is the term regularly applied to the current Australian bushfire crisis, in terms of:

- length of the current bushfire season, beginning in July/August during late winter and continuing into summer which has two months to go yet.

- geographical extent: over 10 million hectares burnt by fires in six states, encircling every state capital city and extending along the coast from west of Adelaide in South Australia, through Victoria and up through New South Wales (NSW) to north of Queensland, a distance of over 2500 kilometres.

- the fires’ ferocity, hundreds of metres high and sometimes creating fire tornadoes. Even the national capital, Canberra, was encircled by fire, and in ‘cooler’ Tasmania fires have burnt in rainforest that has never burnt before.

- levels of smoke haze and hazardous air quality have also blanketed major cities for days at a time and been seen across the globe.


33 lives have been lost. Almost half have been firefighters, including three American crew in a C-130 Hercules water bomber that crashed.  An estimated 1 billion native animals have died. In addition 2200 homes, and countless other buildings, equipment and hectares of fencing have been lost. Long term health impact of smoke on firefighters and residents is unknown, but has been compared to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. Mental health issues are also common.

The major fires have been burning for six months now. Many are burning in inaccessible areas, or are too big to extinguish, and the best that firefighters can hope for is containment. Without heavy and prolonged rain they will simply continue to burn and threaten life and property when high temperatures and strong winds boost them. There has been some rain recently, but this has assisted control efforts rather than extinguishing most fires.

The immediate causes have been record periods of high temperatures over 40 degrees and strong hot winds. Extremely dry vegetation after a long drought and record low rainfall have produced tinderbox conditions. It is impossible not to see the impact of climate change here, except for the most ardent denialists in the fossil fuel industry, national government and the Murdoch media. We had been warned. In 1987 Dr Tom Beer, a government climate scientist, predicted horrific consequences for the Australian bushfire season as a result of growing greenhouse emissions that would warm the earth, the first of many warnings by scientists.

HOTTEST DECADE EVER RECORDED

Beer's alert followed the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, the worst to that date, burning across 180 sites in the states of South Australia and Victoria, killing 75 people, including 17 firefighters. Since then temperatures have risen, with the number of days above 35, or even 40, degrees increasing, and Australia having its hottest decade ever recorded, with each year bringing new record highs. Average rainfall has decreased, and with more regular and extensive drought conditions, river systems are drying up with devastating consequences for wildlife and for rural towns running out of water.

The bushfire season has been growing longer and fires have been becoming more intense. In February 2009 on ‘Black Friday’ 400 fires burnt across Victoria killing 174. Recently Australia adopted a new fire warning level of ‘catastrophic’, sitting above ‘extreme’ and ‘very high’. A catastrophic rating essentially means evacuate, because if a fire begins there is nothing that can be done to prevent it spreading under these conditions.

The response of over 2000 firefighters in the field has been nothing short of heroic. Thousands, of homes and lives have been saved as a result of their efforts. Most of these men and women are volunteers organised in rural fire services at localities throughout the country, with professional firefighters based more in larger towns and cities. Some volunteers have fought on knowing their own homes were burning or under threat. They have been active for months now, at considerable personal cost, unpaid and unable to work in their normal jobs. Because of the length of the emergency and often little sleep, they are also exhausted.

The Australian people have often been heroic too. The picture of a teenager in a small dinghy enveloped by smoke as he evacuated his family went viral internationally. The hurt of those affected extends beyond the loss of homes, farms and vineyards – this is peak summer holiday season for most of the affected coastal communities, and small business has lost much of its most important period of trade. As a national community, however, Australians have dug deeply to contribute to various assistance organisations, such as Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

Eventually, assistance came from wider sources.  The US sent 200 firefighters, with contributions also coming from Canada and New Zealand. The Australian government has brought two ships into action for evacuations by sea, and army reservists were called in to assist on the land, clearing roads, felling dangerously weakened trees that have accounted for some deaths, bulldozing earth fire breaks, and providing medical assistance for people and animals.

AUSTRALIA'S ROLE IN CLIMATE CHANGE

Papua New Guinea and Fiji have also sent military support contingents composed of engineers and logistics personnel. Accepting this support from much poorer countries is ironic given Australia’s role in preventing agreement on climate change policies at Pacific Leaders’ Forums recently, especially since some small Pacific nations face being overwhelmed by rising sea water levels.

National leadership has been seriously lacking, with the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, reluctantly returning from a Hawaiian holiday almost a day early. Most senior ministers were holidaying overseas during the crisis, and nothing has been heard from the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton.

When the PM finally returned to call in defence force personnel and announce financial support for firefighters and small businesses affected, the fires had been burning for over five months. Unsurprisingly, when the PM toured burning areas, essentially for photo ops, many residents abused him and some firefighters walked away. In contrast, the Labor Party opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, quietly stayed near fire zones, helping organise assistance.

The government has faced a substantial slide in opinion polls. Its defence has been that bushfires are a state government responsibility and that there had been no formal requests for assistance. However, there is no doubt that a nation-wide emergency requires national leadership.  It is also untrue that there had not been earlier calls for assistance. Some applications for financial assistance from state rural fire services had been ignored. In addition, since June 2019 a group of recently retired state rural fire commissioners have been vainly calling for a meeting with the Prime Minister to warn of extra action that would be required as a result of climate change.

The Australian national government refuses to adopt meaningful climate mitigation policy because of the influence of the coal lobby and right-wing hardliners in its ranks. It played a major role in scuppering the Madrid climate conference in December. It abolished the former Labour government’s carbon price in 2013 and since then Australia’s emissions have increased. The government claims that it will meet its Paris reduction target of 26%, but this is only by counting ‘credits’ from technically over-achieving with the previous Kyoto target. The government also notes that Australia’s contribution to world emissions is only 1.3%, and therefore makes little difference to the fires. But Australia is one of the largest exporters of coal, and its per capita emissions are the highest in the world.

Some in government and the Murdoch media have blamed the influence of ‘city latte-sipping greenies’ in reduction of hazard burning of undergrowth in winter months. However state fire commissioners have denied that this has been an issue, with some fires occurring despite hazard reduction burns, and noting that the window of opportunity for safe hazard burning has narrowed significantly because of climate change. Insofar as there has been any reduction in hazard burning recently, it has been in state forests as a result of cutbacks in the number of rangers responsible, at least in NSW. Furthermore, in NSW volunteer firefighters have often needed to provide their own equipment, such as facemasks.

There is a long way to go, with the fires and with developing an adequate national response to climate change. In the meantime, those of us living anywhere near bush live in fear. Summer holidays have changed forever in Australia.

Raymond Markey
Emeritus Professor of Employment Relations
Macquarie University
BA Hons, Dip Ed (Sydney)
PhD (Wollongong)

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