As the Flames Disappear: An Overview of Australia’s Wildfire Crisis

It’s been a long seven months since wildfires have ravaged across Australia, and finally, it seems that the worst of the blaze has been subdued due to the onset of torrential rain. Still, relieving as that is, the damage has been done. 

At least 27 million acres of land, equivalent to the size of South Korea, has been scorched. The actual area is likely to be larger since this figure was recorded in early January. The fires were most intense along Australia’s southeast coast, with New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria bearing the brunt of the damage. Only recently have the fires in NSW been fully contained. This wildfire has been deemed as Australia’s worst fire season ever, which is significant for a country prone to wildfires. The occurrence of bushfires is considered normal in Australia, inherently shaping its ecosystems. The natural vegetation has evolved to suit this fiery aspect of the environment – some are easily combustible, while some flourish alongside these fires. The 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria, infamous in its own right, saw more than a million acres of land burnt and 173 deaths. But the severity of this wildfire wins out and its unparalleled intensity has shocked citizens and scientists alike.

Why were the fires so severe? A combination of weather trends, natural phenomena, and climate change can account for that. Before the start of wildfires back in September 2019, Australia was already well in its hottest and driest year. In NSW, it was the third consecutive year of drought. Vegetation easily dried up into tinder and moisture within the soil was lost, creating a landscape that was easy to burn through. These hot and dry conditions were optimal to keep the fires raging for months to come, especially when accompanied by strong winds

Besides, the difference in sea-surface temperatures between opposite parts of the Indian Ocean, also known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), has been deviating from normal trends since last year. A hotter and drier climate was the result of the unusually large difference of 2°C.

Climate change is also likely a key contributor to this devastating fire season, as it is in many current environmental problems. In the 2018 State of the Climate report by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and the national science research agency CSIRO, Australia’s climate has warmed by 1°C since 1910, which points to the likelihood of more extreme heat events. Other projections include reduced rainfall resulting in prolonged droughts in southern Australia (where most Australians live), and more torrential downpours throughout Australia. From the heavy rainfall pouring over NSW last week and Sydney receiving its heaviest rainfall in three decades, which were crucial in subduing the flames, it seems that the latter projection is accurate. The future could be worse with forests decimated and up to 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide gas emitted, contributing to global warming until the lost carbon sinks are regenerated.

The Damage Done

By now, you probably already know about the massive ecological damage inflicted by the fires, with distressing images of burnt animals and heartening videos of compassionate people rescuing the wildlife both proliferating on social media. In early January, Professor Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney conservatively estimated that more than 800 million animals have been killed by the fires. In a country abounding with biodiversity found nowhere else, this is alarming. A recent governmental report showed that there seem to be no extinctions yet, but more than a hundred species have had at least 30% of their habitats lost. Apart from the iconic koalas and wallabies, bird, fish, and frog species require significant help to recover their populations. After all, the end of the fires brings another set of problems. An ecologist at the Australian National University noted that after the fire, the wildlife will have to contend with the lack of food and shelter, as well as the increased threat of predators such as foxes and cats.

Australians who have lost their homes to the blazes face a similar plight. Just in NSW alone, fires consumed more than 2,400 homes. Apart from the mental anguish and stress of losing one’s property and livelihood, they may be susceptible to respiratory ailments due to their prolonged exposure to smoke. Moreover, adding to the plate now is the torrential rainfall in eastern Australia. While the rain has brought considerable relief to the authorities and firefighters as it weakened fires and ended droughts, new challenges arise as the relentless rainfall generates flash floods, as in Sydney. With any luck, Australia will be able to overcome this long-drawn struggle and tend to its traumas.

The Government’s Climate Denial

The Australian economy has a strong reliance on fossil fuels, with a preference for coal, followed by natural gas. Ranking third globally in terms of fossil fuel exports, Australia is also the world’s leading exporter of coal. While it is evident that coal-burning is instrumental in anthropogenic climate change, PM Scott Morrison does not seem too keen on altering the government’s climate policies. Last month, the unabating intensity of the fires galvanised mass protests from Australians who obstructed main transport pathways to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the government’s poor stance on climate change and to oppose the economy’s prioritisation of fossil fuels. Unmoved, Morrison countered that Australians “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.” 

While shifting the economy’s move from coal will not change how bushfires will always be an essential part of Australia’s environment, it would be a step towards reducing the country’s carbon emissions, and more significantly, a step towards protecting itself from future catastrophes like this year’s fire season. Although some may argue that in terms of emissions per capita, Australia is not the worst performer—having four times lesser emissions per capita compared to the highest-emitting country Qatar—it is not the numbers that matter. 

For Australians, the climate crisis can no longer be seen as a problem of the future. They are already feeling the heat of it and can attest to the devastating effects on their lives and welfare. Should that not be reason enough for the government to reevaluate its climate policy? Even as Morrison commented on how transitioning from coal and fossil fuels will be “economy-wrecking”, other kinds of ‘wreckage’—such as biological, atmospheric, and social—have wrought by the climate crisis and are especially prominent due to the destructive fires. These aspects deserve as much, if not more, attention than the economy receives. 

When it comes to the climate crisis, human discourse often seems to boil down to a dichotomy of the economy versus the environment. But the economy does not always have to grow at the expense of the environment. Experts have noted that Australia has the potential to export clean energy such as hydrogen and decrease the economy’s reliance on carbon fuels. This would be a step in the right direction before it is too late. The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia’s climate policies as the worst out of 58 countries. Only time will tell if the government will reevaluate its climate perspective and adopt a stance of environmental stewardship.

Header image credits: Getty Images
Featured image credits: The New York Times

About the Author

Vera Sim is a Year 1 Environmental Studies (BES) student. She writes on environmental issues in hopes of raising awareness as well as to motivate herself to learn more.