Bushfire Season 2019–20
Bushfires on a large scale, also known as wildfires, are burning across Australia, predominantly in the south-east. As of 14 January 2020, fires this season have burned an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometres; 72,000 square miles), destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including approximately 2,683 homes) and killed at least 29 people. An estimated one billion animals have also been killed and some endangered species may be driven to extinction. Whereas these bushfires are regarded by the NSW Rural Fire Service as the worst bushfire season in memory for that state, the 1974 bushfires were nationally much larger consuming 117 million hectares (290 million acres; 1,170,000 square kilometres; 450,000 square miles). However, due to their lower intensity and remote location these fires caused around $5 million ($36.5 million (2020)) in damages. In December 2019 the New South Wales Government declared a state of emergency after record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought exacerbated the bushfires.
From September 2019 fires heavily impacted various regions of the state of New South Wales, such as the North Coast, Mid North Coast, the Hunter Region, the Hawkesbury and the Wollondilly in Sydney’s far west, the Blue Mountains, Illawarra and the South Coast, Riverina and Snowy Mountains with more than 100 fires burnt across the state. In eastern and north-eastern Victoria large areas of forest burnt out of control for four weeks before the fires emerged from the forests in late December, taking lives, threatening many towns and isolating Corryong and Mallacoota. A state of disaster was declared for East Gippsland. Significant fires occurred in the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Moderately affected areas were south-eastern Queensland and areas of south-western Western Australia, with a few areas in Tasmania and the ACT being mildly impacted.
Reinforcements from all over Australia were called in to assist fighting the fires and relieve exhausted local crews in New South Wales. On 11 November it was reported that the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) was sending in a large contingent of up to 300 firefighters and support staff to assist. By mid-November 2019, more than 100 firefighters were sent from Western Australia. Contingents were also sent from South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. On 12 November the Australian Government announced that the Australian Defence Force would provide air support to the firefighting effort, as well as prepare to provide manpower and logistical support. Firefighters from New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada and the United States, among others, helped fight the fires, especially in New South Wales.
In mid-December 2019, a NASA analysis revealed that since 1 August, the New South Wales and Queensland bushfires had emitted 250 million tonnes (280 million short tons) of carbon dioxide (CO2). As of 2 January 2020, NASA estimated that 306 million tonnes (337 million short tons) of CO2 had been emitted. By comparison, in 2018, Australia’s total carbon emissions were equivalent to 535 million tonnes (590 million short tons) of CO2. While the carbon emitted by the fires would normally be reabsorbed by forest regrowth, this would take decades and might not happen at all if prolonged drought has damaged the ability of forests to fully regrow.
Climate change in Australia
Climate change in Australia has been a critical issue since the beginning of the 21st century. In 2013, the CSIRO released a report stating that Australia is becoming hotter, and that it will experience more extreme heat and longer fire seasons because of climate change. In 2014, the Bureau of Meteorology released a report on the state of Australia’s climate that highlighted several key points, including the significant increase in Australia’s temperatures (particularly night-time temperatures) and the increasing frequency of bush fires, droughts and floods, which have all been linked to climate change.
Since the beginning of the 20th century Australia has experienced an increase of nearly 1 °C in average annual temperatures, with warming occurring at twice the rate over the past 50 years than in the previous 50 years. Recent climate events such as extremely high temperatures and widespread drought have focused government and public attention on the impacts of climate change in Australia. Rainfall in southwestern Australia has decreased by 10–20% since the 1970s, while southeastern Australia has also experienced a moderate decline since the 1990s. Rainfall patterns are expected to be problematic, as rain has become heavier and infrequent, as well as more common in summer rather than in winter, with little or no uptrend in rainfall in the Western Plateau and the Central Lowlands of Australia. Water sources in the southeastern areas of Australia have depleted due to increasing population in urban areas (rising demand) coupled with climate change factors such as persistent prolonged drought (diminishing supply). At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions by Australia continue to be the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the OECD. Temperatures in Australia have also risen dramatically since 1910 and nights have become warmer.
Cause of Bushfire
Social debate surrounded the primary causes of the extent and nature of fire activity. In the midst of the crisis, conservative politicians and media blamed a lack of prescribed burning and fire break management. Accompanying this was the assertion that environmental groups were responsible for the crisis by inhibiting prescribed burning, despite environmental groups holding relatively negligible political power compared to the Liberal and National parties. Furthermore, the amount of prescribed burning in southeastern Australia has been stated to have increased in recent years, following the recommendation for increased prescribed burning from the 2009 Black Saturday Royal Commission. Experts suggested that prescribed burning has been more difficult to achieve given recent trends towards warmer and dryer conditions. Experts have also cast skepticism on the effectiveness of fuel reduction treatments, citing research that suggests that prescribed burning does little to stop bushfire and save property in south east Australia, with climate and weather conditions having primary influence.
History of Australian Bushfire
According to Tim Flannery (The Future Eaters), fire is one of the most important forces at work in the Australian environment. Aboriginal people used fire-stick farming to burn vegetation to facilitate hunting and promote the growth of bush potatoes and other edible ground-level plants. In central Australia, they used fire in this way to manage their country for thousands of years. Flannery writes that “The use of fire by Aboriginal people was so widespread and constant that virtually every early explorer in Australia makes mention of it. It was Aboriginal fire that prompted James Cook to call Australia ‘This continent of smoke’.”
However, Flannery goes on to say: “When control was wrested from the Aborigines and placed in the hands of Europeans, disaster resulted.” Fire suppression became the dominant paradigm in fire management leading to a significant shift away from traditional burning practices. A 2001 study found that the disruption of traditional burning practices and the introduction of unrestrained logging meant that many areas of Australia were now prone to extensive wildfires especially in the dry season. A similar study in 2017 found that the removal of mature trees by Europeans since they began to settle in Australia may have triggered extensive shrub regeneration which presents a much greater fire fuel hazard. Another factor was the introduction of Gamba grass imported into Queensland as a pasture grass in 1942, and planted on a large scale from 1983. This can fuel intense bushfires, leading to loss of tree cover and long-term environmental damage.