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Australia is Burning!

Australia has been hit by one of the worst bushfire crises in its history. The fires began in September last year and are showing no signs of stopping. Every state in the country is under the grab of the fires and an area of about 10.7 million hectares has burnt to ash till date(1).

Although Australia faces this so-called ‘fire season’ every year, what distinguishes the current bushfires is their enormity. This year, the fires started in September, much earlier than the Southern Hemisphere summer (December to February)(2). Moreover, in the past, these fires have generally been limited to the southeast coast of Australia, in the states of New South Wales and Victoria, but this time around, the fires have hit every Australian state.

Many attribute this increased intensity of the fires to climate change and feel that if radical steps aren’t taken, the situation will only get worse in the coming years. Although attempts were made to control the fires and prevent any loss of life, the deadly fires have still managed to claim the lives of about 30 people till now(3).

In addition to this, thousands of houses have been destroyed, forcing people to relocate. The fires have given a fatal blow to the financial condition of many households across the country. If we compare the current crisis to the 2009 Australian fires, we can see that though the loss of life has been less, the area of land destroyed is much more(4).

Generally speaking, bushfires are set off by natural occurrences such as lightning strikes, hot conditions and man-made events including arson (willfully started fires), accidental faults etc. But all of these have been fuelled by the unnaturally prolonged hot weather season and looming conditions of drought in the country. Australia has witnessed its hottest and driest season on record, with average temperatures 1.52C above the 1961-1990 average and rainfall 40% lower than the usual. An average maximum of 41.9C was recorded in December 2019, beating the earlier record of 40.3C(5).

Another contributing factor to the fires is the Indian Ocean Dipole, which refers to the difference between the sea-surface temperatures in opposite parts of the Indian Ocean. This phenomenon was in the positive phase this year and is one of the major reasons behind the dry weather conditions prevailing in Australia, as the prevailing winds pushed moisture gathering above the Indian Ocean away from the continent in the spring. Also, the Southern Annual Mode i.e. the movement of the circular belt of wind around Antarctica, is in the negative phase which further led to dry conditions in the country(6).

This calamity has led to severe implications, including widespread destruction of life and property. A total of 28 people lost their lives (25 civilians and 3 volunteer firefighters), a number which might rise even further. More than 10 million hectares have been burned across Australia’s six states – an area larger than that of England and Wales. New South Wales, the country’s most populated state, has been hit the worst, with more than 4.9 million hectares burned and about 2,000 houses destroyed. Furthermore, in Victoria, a state of emergency has been declared so that the government can proceed with the evacuation protocol(7).

To put things into perspective, on 1 January 2020, the Air Quality Index (AQI) around Monash, a suburb of Canberra, was measured at 4,650, more than 23 times the hazardous level. Breathing in Sydney was equivalent to smoking 37 cigarettes a day. Entire towns have been engulfed in flames, and residents across several states have lost their homes. The heaviest structural damage occurred in NSW, the country’s most populated state, where 1,588 homes have been destroyed and over 650 damaged. Several highways have also been closed down multuple times making the transit of goods more challenging(8). Since the start of the season, the ongoing bushfires have destroyed thousands of homes and facilities. Fourteen percent of the total land burnt was used for agriculture. This has led to a shortage in the supply of vegetables due to the damage suffered by the crops. The industry might take a long time to recover from this damage. Tumut’s pine plantations are now expected to take 20 years to regrow, while the apple orchards could take five years(9).

In December 2019, a NASA report revealed that since 1 August, the New South Wales and Queensland bushfires had emitted 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. By comparison, in 2018, Australia’s total carbon emissions were equivalent to 535 million tonnes of CO2. New Zealand bore the brunt of these fires on New Year’s Day 2020 as the city of Auckland was engulfed by a thick blanket of smoke turning the sky orange. By 7 January 2020, the smoke was carried approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 mi) across the South Pacific Ocean to Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay(10).

Besides all these environmental impacts, there has also been a dip in consumer confidence. The Consumer Confidence survey for the first weekend of January fell to its lowest level in more than four years(11).

Economic cost
It’s not easy to evaluate the possible monetary expense of the bushfires as they continue to rage on, with the cost of the pulverization of species and natural surroundings being very difficult to attribute for.

Still, staggering figures of ‘quantifiable’ losses have emerged from the calamity. According to the Insurance Council of Australia, more than 8200 claims worth about $644m have been lodged, a number which is likely to increase as the damage assessment continues. The damage is expected to eclipse the record $4.4bn loss in the 2009 Black Saturday fires, making these fires the deadliest natural disaster for the economy in Australia’s history(12).

Besides the loss of property, the tourism industry has been acutely affected due to widespread destruction of infrastructure including road transport, communications and power. Also, travel advisories issued by countries for its citizens have compounded the woes of Australia, since people are reluctant to step into the Aussieland.

There has been a 10 to 20 percent reduction in the international tourists’ bookings as a consequence of the bushfires, with Canberra hotels reporting a drop of 15 percent in the bookings this month. According to The Australian Tourism Export Council (ATEC), 70 percent of its members had received cancellations for trips ranging in value from $5000 to $500,000. It is estimated that the fires will cost Australia at least $4.5bn by the end of the year(13).

Control Measures
The Australian Government announced a slew of measures in order to tackle the situation. On January 6, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an initial $2 billion in funding for bushfire recovery out of which $367m has been allocated towards primary producers, mental health, local governments, wildlife, charities, rural financial counsellors, financial counselling, children’s disaster payments and children’s mental health. There are also separate provisions of emergency funding for those who have been adversely affected by a major disaster – $1000 for an adult and $400 for each child under 16 years of age. The government is also providing $5m from the Medical Research Future Fund for bushfire related health research(14).

What about the animals?
Although the bushfire crisis has serious economic and political implications, the worst jolt has been suffered by the wildlife in the country. Till now about a billion animals have been directly or indirectly affected as a result of these fires. Considering how important some of these species are in maintaining the sensitive ecological balance, these fires are going to be much more destructive than they appear to be on the surface.

Even the government took notice of the situation of the animals and announced a $50 million aid for their protection. Alas! the damage has already been done. Many species, especially Koalas have been badly affected because of the loss of habitat. In NSW alone, a third of the Koala species has been wiped out. Once known as a biodiversity hotspot, Australia and its environment now face an imminent threat because of these fires(15).

The politics behind the crisis.
Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison has always made his stance very clear on the issue of climate change. Although scientists feel that this phenomenon is responsible for the scale of the current fires as well as for the damage caused the Great Barrier Reef in the last few years, Morisson believes that the contrary is true. He was heavily criticised for being on a trip to Hawaii, while his own country was covered with flames(16).

The current fires have only added up to the opposition to the way Morisson has been handling the issue of Climate Change. All this has led to a sharp decline in his support base. Furthermore, Australia’s poor performance in the Climate Change Performance Index(17) has made things worse for Morrison. Currently, Australia is one of the major fossil fuel exporters and has one of the highest carbon footprints in the world. But as people are becoming more conscious, they want to see a change in the climate policies which are currently in use by the government.

International Cooperation.
One thing which these fires have succeeded in doing is that they have united many countries to fight against them. The US alone has sent about 150 firefighters to Australia to help them handle the crisis(18). In a way, they are repaying the favour Australians did to them by helping them fight the 2018 California wildfires. Besides the US, Canada, France and many other European countries have pledged to send in fire personnel and contribute funds to control the situation(19). The sole reason behind this international cooperation is that a crisis of this scale has far-reaching consequences on the entire world. Just to give you some insight, the Indian Ocean Dipole, which has been causing these fires in Australia is also responsible for devastating floods in multiple parts of Africa. So when it comes to climate, the implications are never restricted to a single country. This makes international cooperation all the more important when it comes to a crisis which will affect the climate of the entire world(20).

The fires are unleashing havoc on Australians as we speak. It will take years, maybe even decades to reverse the damage that has been done in the span of just a few months. But the scary thing is that the fires are expected to continue for two more months. Considering the historical trend of bushfires in Australia, there are chances that they might even intensify further in February(21). The deadliest of all fires in the history of Australia has been observed in February, making it pivotal to control these fires as soon as possible.

Climatic crises like these have a symbiotic relationship with climate change wherein the occurrence of either of the events will intensify and fuel the other(22). With the average temperatures rising year on year and the conditions becoming even more drier, the frequency of such fires is only expected to rise in the upcoming years. The happening of such disasters is not a new occurrence at all, but what climate change has managed to do is that it has increased the intensity and frequency of these disasters manifold. The Australian bushfires not only raised a question on the policymakers in the country and their ability to tackle the crisis but also on us as human beings, as a part of this planet on when would we consider Climate Change as a serious enough threat. When will we change our attitude towards this disastrous phenomenon?

By Himanshu Chhabra and Divyam Gupta, 1st year undergraduate students, SRCC.

Australian Bushfires from the Air: Before and After Images Show Scale Of Devastation Naaman Zhou –

Australia Is Burning: Everything We Know, How You Can Help and Where To Donate Jackson Ryan –

What You Need To Know About Australia’s Deadly Wildfires…

‘forever Fires’: How the Australia Bush Fires Compare To Other Disasters Charis Chang –

2019 Was Australia’s Hottest Year on Record – 1.5c Above Average Temperature Graham Readfearn –

Indian Ocean Dipole: What Is It and Why Is It Linked To Floods and Bushfires?

Australia Fires: A Visual Guide To the Bushfire Crisis

Canberra Experiences Worst Air Quality on Record As Bushfire Smoke from South Coast Sets in Graham Readfearn –

Up In Smoke: Australia’s Bushfires Darken Economic Outlook: Tribune Content Agency (january 13, 2020)

Australia’s Bushfires Have Emitted 250m Tonnes Of Co2, Almost Half Of Country’s Annual Emissions Graham Readfearn –

Consumers Not Buying It As Confidence Crashes Amid Tumbling Interest Rates Stephen Letts –

Insurance Claims from Australia’s Bushfire Crisis Exceed $700 Million

Tourism Loses $4.5b To Bushfires As Overseas Visitors Cancel Tural Asadi –

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison Announced a $2 Billion Recovery Fund To Rebuild Areas Devastated By the Bushfires Business Australia –

A Billion Animals: Some Of the Species Most At Risk from Australia’s Bushfire Crisis Lisa Cox –

Why Australia’s Pm Is Facing Climate Anger Amid Bushfires

Australia Ranked Worst Of 57 Countries on Climate Change Policy Sarah Martin –

Australian Firefighters Helped Put Out the California Fires. Now Americans Are Returning the Favor. Siobhán O’Grady –

77 Canadians on Their Way To Help Australia As Wildfires Rage on maryamshah647 –
77 Canadians on their way to help Australia as wildfires rage on

Why Australia’s Fires Are Linked To Floods in Africa Danush Parvaneh-Madeline Marshall-Kimberly Mas –

Australia’s Bushfire Crisis: How Long Are the Fires and Smoke Expected To Last? Naaman Zhou –

Are Australia’s Wildfires Pushing Us To Even More Climate Disasters? Laurie Clarke –
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