The Australian fires: Understanding the causes and long-term impact of the bushfires.
This episode of A Different Lens looks at the lasting and far-reaching impact of the past summer's devastating Australian bushfires. Monash academics from various disciplines offer insights into what caused the "megafires", how communities and businesses are trying to recover, the environmental devastation, and, where to from here? They also shed light on how climate change played a role in the severity of the bushfires.
With the coronavirus coming on to the radar so quickly, there’s a distraction among governments around the bushfire recovery. The disaster literature tells us we need a very rapid response to make sure that the power’s back on, water, all those basic infrastructures provided, and that people are getting the support they need for day-to-day items.
They also need a clear sign that their community is being rebuilt. The longer that process takes, the more people start to question their decision to live in that area. And then you have these flow-on effects around people drifting away, and when that happens the whole local economy becomes weaker and weaker, you’re on a downward spiral. Remaining focused on bushfire recovery is very important.
– Terry Rawnsley, economist
Black Saturday cost the Victorian economy four-and-a-half billion dollars. These fires were 11 times that size. If they scale appropriately, and then you add inflation, then the cost of these bushfires across Australia would be in the vicinity of $100 billion.
But that doesn’t include what the economists call intangibles, those social factors that ripple out from the community, that affect families, livelihoods, the rebuilding of lives. If we include those, the cost comes to about $230 billion.
The coal industry exports $67 billion worth of coal annually, so the damage to the Australian economy in one year has already outstripped the export value of coal.
Because of the coronavirus, I’m unsure whether a full bushfire royal commission will go ahead, but the government has certainly made a commitment to do two things over the next six months. One is to re-examine our approach to wildfires, and, two, is to re-examine its commitment to the Paris Agreement. It’s my hope that people will not forget that those two issues are on the table for the next six months.
– Paul Read, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychological Sciences
We’ve entered new territory, uncharted territory, and it’s not necessarily the new normal. We could be looking at even further severity with climate change. Projections about our climate conditions show that fire weather could become even more extreme.
In 2019, we saw a convergence of the hottest year on record and the driest year on record.
We’re just starting to learn about what happens with fire in Australia with a 1.1-degree global average temperature above pre-industrial levels. These fires burned over 10 million hectares. In some places the fire front was 700 degrees Celsius, capable of liquefying the roofs of cars and street signs. On some days, firefighters described the fire as falling out of sky.
We got incredible thermals coming out of the fires, forming their own clouds and, in some cases, fire tornadoes. In a case on the New South Wales-Victorian border, a fire tornado was able to pick up a fire truck, and tragically killed the firefighter on that day.
The smoke was a big factor in people becoming even more concerned. Smoke reached all the way to South America. This got worldwide attention. But I think it was so many fires burning simultaneously, so that you could have this headline “All of Australia is Burning”, that got the most attention of all.
We saw the destruction of amazing reserves of forest that had stood there, in some cases, for 18 million years.
A NASA analysis of the bushfire smoke and the bio-carbon emitted over the summer showed that it was the equivalent to Australia’s emissions for one year.
– David Holmes, founder and Director of the Climate Change Communication Research Hub
Forest fires tend not to be included in carbon emissions inventories, because they’re thought to be acts of God, but they should be.
Climate change is an ongoing, persistent process that is impacting insidiously on a whole range of things that we do in Australia. The bushfires royal commission is the opportunity to drag some of those issues out, maybe even to make them front-and-centre.
Australia is unique because it has a very large urban population. Most of us live in cities on the east coast, and across to Adelaide. Around 70 per cent of Australia’s population was exposed to bushfire smoke during the fires. That’s unprecedented. The smoke created health issues, issues for transport and aircraft operation, it had massive impacts on tourism. There were also impacts on agriculture. The most obvious one was smoke taint affecting the grape harvest, rendering a lot of the crop unusable.
With the coronavirus briefings, we see the Prime Minister or state premiers alongside their senior health officials, and that provides a degree of authenticity and security to the public. During the bushfires, we saw the premiers alongside their fire personnel, but that was all about the day-to-day operational conditions, the weather and so on; it was never about climate change.
– Nigel Tapper, Professor of Environmental Science, Monash University
If I were to stand in front of the Prime Minister, I would tell him that the two billion dollars promised for the bushfire recovery is great, but we also need to look forward to the next fires. They will come. Australia is prone to fires. It’s normal. The Australian landscape requires fires, so a total suppression would be counterproductive to our landscape. We need to find the right balance.
High-resolution satellite data can help us define the fire hotspots, the areas that need to be treated through preventive burning. Preventive burning is only possible within a narrow window when the vegetation is not too wet or too dry. This window is getting smaller and smaller because of the climate conditions that we currently see.
– Chris Rudiger, engineer, and specialist in the use of remote sensing data to assess environmental hazards
We can’t wait for every single person on Earth to be convinced by the evidence on climate change. I think most people understand and at least accept the basic science of climate change now.
I heard the Prime Minister on 7.30 saying that he won’t set new targets without being able to look Australians in the eye and telling them how much they will cost. Do they really have to wait until they can do their maths, or can we act now? It already is too late to avoid substantial warming. We are very much on track to exceed the 1.5-degree limit of the Paris Agreement. We’re actually on track for more like three or even higher degrees of warming by the end of the century.
– Benjamin Henley, climate scientist