Australian bushfires
Australian bushfires

The raging bushfires Down Under

S. Sivadas

S. Sivadas

The fires have been blazing for over a month but their magnitude and consequences have been brought out dramatically only just now with the start of the Australian Open tennis that is beginning in Melbourne. It needed the short frame of the television screen and repeated focus to bring out the magnitude of the problem.

The country has been experiencing its worst wildfires in decades, with large swathes destroyed since the fire season began in late July. So far 27 people have died, and in New South Wales (NSW) state alone, more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed. The state and federal authorities have been struggling to contain the massive blazes, even with assistance from other countries, including those from as far as the United States.

The situation has been aggravated by persistent heat and drought, which has come to be attributed to climate change, making natural disasters becoming more ominous and closer home. New South Wales seems to be the hardest hit though other parts of Australia have also been experiencing this annual visitation.

Fires have ripped through bush land and wooded areas and national parks like Blue Mountains and their impact seems to have been felt in cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Homes have been damaged in the outer suburbs and thick fumes have pervaded the city centres. Even last month Sydney’s air quality had been monitored as ‘11 times the hazardous level.’ These fires also range from small blazes in lonely buildings and parts of some neighborhoods to massive blazes that belch thick smoke into the sky that can be seen from miles away.

Though a seasonal affair, this Australian summer has been unusual with hot, dry weather making it easy for blazes to start and spread rapidly, though natural causes alone cannot be blamed for the unusual fires in the affected forests. Dry lightning has also been responsible for a number of fires in Victoria that travelled 20 km. Humans have also not been innocent victims, with the police having charged at least 24 people with deliberately starting bushfires, and have taken legal action against 183 people for fire-related offenses.

The recent rains have helped somewhat in dousing the fires but these have had only a limited impact. And according to experts, these are not likely to offer much greater relief in the next two months. This is because, according to them, the Indian Ocean dipole weather system which has been the cause of bringing in the hotter and drier conditions to Australia, though has now passed its peak, is likely to persist through to February.

Even though the 50 mm of rain that had fallen across parts of New South Wales and Victoria and have dampened the fires somewhat these still continue to burn. Victoria’s Gipps land received as much as 15 mm of much needed rain while thunderstorms caused floods in Melbourne. Still the 80 fires continue in the region and lightning had started two fires in Great Oatway Park in Victoria. And according to the state Fire Authority officials ‘unfortunately, these rains have minimal impact in suppressing the fires across the region.’

All the same, the magnitude of the devastation has been unheard of; with about 11.5 million hectares of forests having gone up in smoke. This is an area larger than Punjab and Haryana put together. Though the loss of property has been comparatively low as also human casualties, the destruction of wildlife has been enormous. More than one billion animals, including mammals, reptiles and birds have perished. And in New South Wales a third of the koalas are believed to have perished and the habitats of another one-third wiped out and the implications of such a loss have not even been thought about.

Some experts warn that beyond a rise of 2C, the impact of such a climate breakdown can become catastrophic and even irreversible. The present global commitments to cut down greenhouse gas emissions, under the Paris Agreement, are estimated to put the world on track for 3C of heating.

‘The impacts we are witnessing at 1C will get more severe as long as we do not do what it takes to stabilise the world climate,’ cautioned a professor of climate change science in the UK. ‘This is not a new normal – this is a transition to more impacts.’

Though the US has not signed the Paris Accord it is as much concerned, as also Russia , which has evolved a plan to adapt its economy and population to climate change, aiming to mitigate damage but also ‘use the advantages’ of warmer temperatures.

A Russian document outlines in detail a plan of action and acknowledges changes to the climate are having a ‘prominent and increasing effect’ on socio-economic development, people’s lives, health and industry.

This is understandable considering that Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the planet as a whole, on average, and the two-year ‘first stage’ plan is an indication that the government officially recognises this as a problem, even though Vladimir Putin denies human activity is the cause of this.

Among a list of 30 measures, the government will calculate the risks of Russian products becoming non-competitive and failing to meet new climate-related standards, as well as prepare new educational materials to teach climate change in schools.

Russia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, with its vast Arctic regions and infrastructure built over permafrost. And the recent floods and wildfires in Russia have been among the planet’s worst climate-related disasters. The disappearing snowline in the Siberian wastes has also been noticed with concern and not in Russia alone.

This climate change has led to an increase in the frequency and severity of fires and weather, the conditions in which wildfires are likely to start, around the world, a review of 57 recent scientific papers have shown.

But land management to try to minimise fires had helped to reduce the number that would have been expected in Australia, said Matthew Jones, a research associate at UEA. ‘Climate change increases their frequency and severity across the globe but humans have moderated how this risk translates into fire. Land management has reduced the incidence of fire globally.’

Efforts to re-grow forests after the fires have subsided would help, by taking up the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that has been emitted as a result of the fires, though this would take decades of new tree growth.

The area of land burned has decreased globally in recent years, the study found, largely owing to the clearing of savannahs for agriculture and people suppressing fires, as has been noticed in countries like Brazil. The fires in the Amazon that burned for months and had its impact as far as Europe and have only just now been brought under control. But more fires are also erupting in closed canopy forests, which is of particular concern as they are likely to result from forest degradation and climate breakdown.

Globally, 2019 was the second or third hottest year since 1850, and the hottest ever in Australia and Russia. The global average temperature for the last decade has also been the highest recorded, according to the World Meteorological Department. In Britain, 2019 was the 11th hottest year recorded and 11 hottest years have occurred there since 2002. And Russia’s meteorological service predicted temperatures up to 16 C higher than normal when it celebrated its Orthodox Christmas.

Meanwhile the Australian capital Canberra recorded the highest level of pollution this year with the air quality index (AQI) 23 times higher than the ‘hazardous level’ and Melbourne was blanketed with hazardous smoke, a thing Delhi residents are not unfamiliar with. The smoke has reached as far as New Zealand, 1,000 miles away, and has drifted across the Pacific Ocean reaching as far as Buenos Aires. It is surprising that the Australians have not been able to control either the fires or the haze despite their long years of experience in tackling them.

Eucalyptus trees are a part of the continent’s landscape and these have a unique relationship with fire and really depend on blazes to disperse their seeds. But so far they had followed a pattern but this year’s fires have been unprecedented. The weather conditions that triggered the fires have also been historic with the year being the hottest and driest since records have been maintained from 1910.The rainfall had been 40 per cent below the average, the lowest since 1910; A heady combination to trigger the fires.

These are not unique to Australia alone. The west coast of the US, the Mediterranean, South Africa, parts of Central Asia and vast areas of Central and South India have also been affected by forest fires and dust storms. California had one of the worst forest fires in 2018 in which over 100 people died and the fires in Greece and in India have more than doubled since 2015, from 15,940 instances to 29, 500 in 2019.

The climate crisis is unfolding in front of our eyes and not a figment of science fiction. As the world gets warmer and drier the frequency of these fires and haze will also increase and unless these are tackled and systems designed suitably to bring about development holistically the spreading inferno is only going to get more ominous. Swedenborg had once predicted that Europe would be destroyed by fire, America by fire and water and Russia by a meteor strike.


The facts and views in this article are that of the author