Commenter The Mighty Trowel, who lives in Australia, sent me a guest post on the Australia fires:
I’m mostly a lurker these days; but this seemed an apt time to stick my head above the parapet. I’m an American, but I’ve lived in Australia for the last 8 years.
I’m sure by now you’ve seen coverage of the bushfire crisis we’re currently enduring Down Under. Photographs of red skies, tall flames, native fauna fleeing and burnt out houses have gone global. It’s on the cover of all our papers too – also on all our minds, especially those of us (like me) that live in the southeast in fire-prone areas. I asked Adam if I could write this guest post because I wanted an excuse to talk through this ongoing crisis to an audience I didn’t have to constantly reassure about my own safety (yes, I’m safe), but I also notice that some of the local context is (surprise) missing in the international coverage.
This has been the most destructive bushfire season in Australian history. So far (and we’re only halfway through fire season!) nearly 6 million hectares have burnt, at least 1300 homes have burnt down and nearly 20 people have died (including three firefighters – more on that in a minute) with nearly 20 more unaccounted for. Out of control fires have been burning in Queensland and New South Wales (NSW) since September, in South Australia, West Australia and Tasmania since November. Most of these fires started with lightning strikes, but there have been a few cases of arson and others where backburning (controlled burns to use up fuel and protect inhabited areas) has escaped containment. These fires have devastated communities, killing tens of thousands of sheep and cattle, but they’ve also ripped through natural habitats and populations of native fauna. Current estimates suggest that at least (AT LEAST) 30% of NSW koalas have been killed by the fires.
To give a sense of the scale of the disaster, here’s a map published by the Insurance Council of Australia with highlighting areas of ‘insurance catastrophes’:
— Luke Henriques-Gomes (@lukehgomes) January 1, 2020
With a disaster of this scale, it’s unsurprising that the firefighting crews are thin on the ground. But there’s context here that also needs stating: while there are a number of professional, paid units (though the right wing New South Wales government keeps cutting their budgets and reducing their numbers), much of the work protecting communities, clearing roads and building containment lines is being done by volunteers like the CFS and RFS. Volunteers are the ones dying as they drive through dangerous fire grounds. Many have reported that their own houses have burnt while they helped neighbours protect theirs. The work they are doing is literally saving lives, but they’ve been doing this life-threatening, high stress job for months with no pay, few resources and little support beyond thoughts and prayers from our ‘leaders’ (in recent days, faced with the scale of the crisis and the backlash from the Australian public) the PM has promised some compensation to some volunteer firies and required the civil service to give all volunteers a month paid leave to fight fires.
State and federal environmental departments, academics and fire chiefs had all warned that this year had the potential for a monstrous fire season. Local fire departments and volunteer organisations (the country fire authority in Victoria, the rural fire service in NSW, the country fire service in South Australia) spent as much of the winter as possible backburning, but the winter was short and dry – dangerous conditions for controlled burns. We’re in the midst of an incredibly severe drought and major climatic patterns have contributed to a particularly hot, dry winter and spring. This means that not only are plants dried out and dying (more fuel for fires to burn) but the air and soil are thoroughly dehydrated too which allows fire to spread faster.
I highly recommend reading this piece by the brilliant Prof Nerilie Abram for the scientific and climatic context. As she writes:
The angry summer playing out in Australia right now was predictable. The scientific evidence is well known for how anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are causing long-term climate change and altering climate variability in ways that increase our fire risk. The role of climate change in the unprecedented fires gripping Australia is also well understood by our emergency services. Sadly, though, this summer has occurred against a backdrop in which the Australian government has argued, on the world stage, to scale back our greenhouse-gas-emissions-reduction targets. Our leaders are literally fiddling while the country burns.
Because that’s the thing… we knew this was coming, but the pollies have buried their heads in the sand in a way that reminds me ominously of Bush and co post Katrina. Our Prime Minister Scott Morrison (who once showed up to parliament with an ornamental lump of coal) has been absent from the conversation (literally in the case of the week he spent cavorting in Hawaii while western Sydney and the Blue Mountains burned).
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The response to this mural has been a bit spesh🤗 Big thanks to anyone who has purchased a print or Tee. So far we have raised almost $15,000 which is pretty incredible. 🙏🏼🎅🏼 Prints and Tshirts will be remain available into the new year so spread the word! A massive thankyou again goes to @aisle6ix for donating their time and expertise to print the Tees🙌🏼 #merrycrisis #climatecrisis #climatechange #australiasburning #rfs #scomo
The NSW emergency services minister is currently refusing to return from Paris where he’s holidaying with family. No state of national emergency has been declared even though 5 states are facing unprecedented emergencies and the Australian Defense Forces are (after considerable delay) having to rescue people from beaches in fire-affected communities that now have no water, electricity, telephone services or road access. For the record, Labour (our centre left party and chief opposition) have been pretty awful – they’re also cosying up to coal extraction companies and the current party leader is inarticulate at best)
I’ve been asking myself for days why the PM and others are so reluctant to lift a finger. Consensus among friends and colleagues is that it would mean acknowledging climate change is a real and destructive force that must be reckoned with. Conspiracies floating around the internet suggest that the PM wants the fire to clear land so he can sell it for profit to cronies and overseas consortia. I think it’s simpler than any of these:
No one is holding these politicians to account for their inaction and their abdication of leadership, so they’re not bothering to lead.
More than that, a clear campaign of misinformation is being conducted by the Murdoch press and through anonymous facebook and twitter accounts that bushfires are normal for Australia and that the fires are all set by arsonists or are the fault of “greenies” who prevent backburning (despite only holding power in the Australian Capitol Territory (ACT) which is currently not on fire—though it is swamped in toxic smoke).
Climate change just seems to be too large for politicians with their notoriously short attention spans and transactional philosophies to get their heads around. The political class is so far out of their depth that they’re drowning in public and don’t even realise it. I genuinely don’t know what happens next.
If there’s an upside to these fires it’s that their enormity might be the one thing that can unite communities that have been set against each other on the basis of race, immigration, class, etc. for generations. We just have to live through them first.
Anyhow, here’s a magpie singing like a fire engine.
When the birds start singing fire engine sounds… 😧
Credit: Gregory Andrews, Newcastle. pic.twitter.com/g11BMry1HC
— Isobel Roe (@isobelroe) January 1, 2020
Donations can be made to:
Red Cross bushfire disaster relieve and recovery fund: https://www.redcross.org.au/campaigns/disaster-relief-and-recovery-new-years-eve?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socialorganic&utm_campaign=201913_drr_disaster-relief-and-recovery_don_transient_bushfires_none
Country Fire Authority: https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/about/supporting-cfa
South Australian Country Fire Service: https://cfsfoundation.org.au/donate
Community support org Givit, active nationally: http://www.givit.org.au/donate-funds
Emergency Management Victoria community relief fund: https://www.emv.vic.gov.au/news/community-relief-fund-launched-to-support-fire-affected-communities
Some affected community members have launched GoFundMe’s for their towns – this is one the Australian Broadcasting Corporation posted, so I assume it’s legit: https://www.gofundme.com/f/xycjem-cudgewa-has-burnt?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=p_cp+share-sheet