It’s summer Down Under. What better time to kick back and throw some shrimp on the barbie, eh? On second thought, maybe not. Australia’s on fire, literally, with bushfires raging during the country’s worst drought in decades. Aussies need to douse fires, not start new ones. Ongoing efforts to fight the out of control flames are a hot news topic, and I have a burning desire to bring folks up to speed about this catastrophic current event.
Bushfires are a regular occurrence during Australian summers, so what’s the big deal with the fires currently being battled? Well, the fire season typically begins in December, but some fires have been burning for about five months now and millions of acres have been scorched. The extent and intensity of these fires has led to New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, declaring a state of emergency. New South Wales and Victoria have both been declared disaster areas.
Fires are burning in places where they have never before been experienced. These include the rain forests in northern New South Wales, tropical areas of Queensland, and wet old-growth forests of Tasmania. The U.S. Embassy has even warned tourists to leave the country because of the danger from the fires. Holy smokes!
And there is no end in sight to this disaster. Authorities say these fires will continue for months. The weather forecast is for below average rainfall and above average temperatures for the foreseeable future. Believe me, the Aussies are not chanting, “Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day.”
While the bushfires burn, political fires are raging as well. A hot button issue is whether climate change has contributed to these infernos. Lending credence to this conclusion is the fact that 2019 was the hottest year on record for Australia. On December 17th the average temperature in Australia set a new record of 105.6 degrees. Whew! Additionally, 2018 and 2017 were the third and fourth hottest years on record for Autstralia. In fact, eight of Australia’s ten hottest years on record have occurred since 2005. Record breaking heat waves led to drier conditions making Australia vulnerable to a longer and much more dangerous fire season. Drought plus record heat plus blustery winds have been the formula for a perfect fire storm.
Despite this climatic evidence, the Deputy Australian Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, is not convinced climate change has anything to do with the fires covering four of his country’s six states. He’s been quoted as saying that global warming is a concern of “raving inner city lunatics.” Well, don’t hold back, Mr. Deputy P.M.! Let’s just say Mr. McCormack is not a fan favorite of environmentalists and those whose homes are in the path of the raging fires.
And the Australian Prime Minister, a big promoter of the country’s coal industry, is also on the hot seat. His government has been criticized for not doing enough to fight climate change. And making the political pot boil over is Morrison’s recent apparent lack of concern for the disaster. What better time to take the family on a vacation than when your country is going up in flames? Yes, Scott Morrison beat a hasty retreat home from Hawaii in December. His constituents were none too happy he was lounging in a tropical paradise while deadly fires were ravaging his country. Is he distantly related to Nero, perhaps?
Scorched land is not the only result of these deadly fires. Thousands of homes have been burned to the ground and dozens of people have died. But those who are still alive are facing threats to their health from the smoke generated from these massive fires. So much smoke has been produced that the air quality in the capital city of Canberra is currently worse than any other major city in the world. Doctors have reported that babies are being delivered in smoky hospitals with poor air quality. And the air pollution from fires’ smoke, according to health studies, may be linked to premature births and lower birth weights. Adults in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, are also being affected by the pervasive smoke leading to related health problems for them.
The smoke from the Australian fires has negatively impacted the environment as well as humans. It has drifted over a thousand miles across the Tasman Sea where it has darkened glaciers located on New Zealand’s South Island. The glacial ice is now melting even faster as a result.
The fires have devastated wildlife. New South Wales authorities estimate 500 MILLION birds, reptiles, and other animals have perished. Tens of thousands of cuddly, cute koalas have been killed and much of their habitat has been burned. Koalas are at high risk from flames. They are slow moving and live in eucalyptus trees which are oily, highly flammable plants. Those koalas who survived face a burnt habitat and may be stranded in scorched areas with no water or food. As a result, they are likely to be listed on the endangered species list.
How is Australia combating these dire conditions? The Prime Minister has ordered 3,000 reservists to assist in battling the raging fires. Navy ships have been called into action to rescue thousands who took refuge on the beaches. Tens of thousands of others were urged to flee the affected areas.
Rescuers have mobilized to look for surviving animals, particularly on Kangaroo Island, home to a wildlife park with a population of around 50,000 koalas prior to the bushfires. Approximately one-third of Kangaroo Island has been burned, and it is estimated that over 50% of the koala population has been lost. Helping in the hunt for survivors is a “koala detection dog” named Bear who has achieved fame for his rescue efforts while wearing protective red socks.
Battling the fires is an uphill battle given the record breaking heat wave and the lack of rain to help quell them. In fact, having water to fight the blazes is an issue itself. Sydney is experiencing a water shortage with 5 million people in the greater Sydney area under restrictions on water use since June. Tighter restrictions are a distinct possibility.
Celebrities have used their influence to encourage people around the world to donate to firefighting efforts in Australia. Actress Nicole Kidman, singer Kyle Minogue, and the Hemsworth family (actors Liam, Chris, and Luke), all Australians, have pledged large amounts. Even American Kylie Jenner has poured $1 million into the effort.
Sadly, no matter how much money is raised, some things can’t be rectified. Dollars can’t undo the loss of lives and the devastation of wildlife and their habitat. The image of enjoying shrimp off the barbie while watching kangaroos hop by and koalas curiously peering down from eucalyptus trees is a pipe dream at this point. It has, literally, gone up in smoke.
Have you been following the stories about the fires covering Australia? Do you think climate change caused, or at least contributed to, the deadly bushfires Australia is experiencing? Other than health problems and depleted wildlife, what issues might Australia be facing as a result of these fires?