With 150 wildfires burning on the country’s east and west coasts and 85 raging across New South Wales, 46 of them out of control and 14 at an “emergency level”, the premier of Australia’s most populous state declared a seven-day state of emergency Monday and officials issued an unprecedented “catastrophic” fire warning for Sydney, where bushfires were breaking out in suburbs just a few kilometres from the city centre.
Despite more than 3,000 firefighters on the ground and 60 aircraft backing them up, “the fire is spreading quickly,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service warned residents. “Properties are under threat.”
“Now is the time to exercise those decisions to leave, leave early, and go to safer locations, safer towns and villages, or safer places in your local community, such as the shopping centres,” said Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons. “We plan for these sorts of days. But we always hope they never come.”
The Washington Post puts the scope of the fires at 460 miles (740 kilometres), about half the length of the California coastline. “Eastern Australia’s major north-south road, the Pacific Highway, was cut off by fire and smoke about five hours north of Sydney near the township of Johns River, where the body of a 63-year-old woman, Julie Fletcher, was found in her burned home,” the paper reports. “Fletcher had messaged a neighbour that she had decided to abandon her house to the flames, which witnesses in the area said had become a wall 20 feet high that emitted smoke so thick it blotted out the sun.”
By Tuesday morning, “aerial footage showed flames burning through a eucalypt forest in Turramurra on Sydney’s north shore, around 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the centre of the city,” The Telegraph reports. The toll so far: three dead, two firefighters seriously injured by a falling tree, one pilot sustaining minor injuries when his water bomber crashed west of Brisbane, thousands evacuated, hundreds of homes damaged or destroyed with 450 insurance claims already filed, and more than 600 schools and technical college campuses closed.
“At one stage on Friday, weeks ahead of Australia’s traditional bushfire season, 99 fires were burning out of control simultaneously across the state, including 17 that were considered life-threatening emergencies,” The Guardian writes. “Already this year, bushfires have burnt more than 850,000 hectares across NSW—an area more than five times the size of Greater London—and three times as much as burnt all of last fire season.”
Fitzsimmons warned citizens to expect “the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen,” adding that “we have got the worst of our fire season still ahead of us. We’re not even in summer yet.”
The federal Bureau of Meteorology was predicting temperatures in the high 30s Celsius and winds up to 65 kilometres per hour, in what Bloomberg describes as “rural areas left tinderbox dry” by two years of steady drought.
Satellite photos showed smoke from the fires “billowing hundreds of miles across the Pacific Ocean,” the Post says, and 350 koalas died when a fire destroyed their breeding area near the coastal city of Port Maquarie, prompting the director of a local animal hospital to question how the population will recover.
“We are in uncharted territory,” Fitzsimmons said. “We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level.”
“Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent and is considered one of the most vulnerable developed countries to global warming,” Bloomberg notes. “According to the weather bureau, climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions, with the season starting earlier in spring in southern and eastern parts of Australia.”
The Guardian notes that conditions in Sydney had never before been declared catastrophic in the decade since New South Wales updated its bushfire ratings system, after Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in February 2009 killed 173 people. “The catastrophic rating is based on a matrix of factors including temperature, humidity, wind, and dryness of the landscape,” the UK-based paper explains. “Residents are being warned that fires under these conditions are, in some cases, impossible to suppress, and homes will burn.”
“Catastrophic is off the conventional scale,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s where people die.”
“Don’t wait for the last minute and ring for a firetruck because it may not get there,” warned Jeremy Fewtrell, deputy commissioner of New South Wales Fire and Rescue. “We just don’t want to lose more people.”
North of NSW, CBC says fires destroyed nine homes in coal-producing Queensland, with air quality plummeting in the state capital, Brisbane, and surrounding cities. This morning, Thomson Reuters reports authorities issuing a “leave immediately” warning, the highest level, for Noosa, a beachside holiday destination 150 kilometres north of Brisbane, and several other locations in the state.
“We’re expecting people to listen to the warnings and work on their bush fire survival plans,” said Greg Christensen, mayor of Queensland’s Scenic Rim regional council. “If in doubt, now is the time to leave.”
“This is a very challenging season,” he added. “You haven’t had bushfires like these bushfires before.”
While the fires burn, the country’s climate-denying Liberal Coalition government has been fanning the flames of controversy by resisting the obvious connection between an unprecedented regional emergency and the mounting climate crisis.
“After the prime minister, Scott Morrison, offered ‘thoughts and prayers’ to those who had lost family and homes, but refused to answer questions on climate change, critics compared his ‘thoughts and prayers’ to those offered by the NRA after mass shootings in the U.S., as substitute for discussion on gun control,” The Guardian writes.
When Green Party MP Adam Bandt tweeted that “words and concern are not enough…the Prime Minister does not have the climate emergency under control”, Deputy PM Michael McCormack of the rural-based Nationals party wrote off concerns expressed by “raving inner-city lunatics” while rural areas fought the flames.
“We’ve had fires in Australia since time began, and what people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding, and real assistance—they need help, they need shelter,” he told ABC radio. “They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened, and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes, when in fact they’re going out in many cases saving other peoples’ homes and leaving their own homes at risk.”
But Glen Innes Severn Mayor Carol Sparks, a Green Party representative whose home on the north coast of NSW was severely damaged in the fires, made short work of McCormack’s, erm, ravings.
“Well, I probably couldn’t respond how I really feel on television but I think Michael McCormack needs to read the science, and that is what I am going by, is the science,” she said. “It is not a political thing. It is a scientific fact that we are going through climate change.”
The most immediate concern is obviously for the homes still burning and the citizens who’ve lost loved ones or property, she added. “But the overall thing is we are so dry in this country—we haven’t had rain for years in some places. All the dams and creeks and rivers are dry, and we need to look at what we’re going to do about that in the future. To deny climate change is, to me, a very ill-informed and uneducated way of looking at things.”
Mid Coast Mayor Claire Pontin added the federal government needs “to get out and have a real look at what’s happening to this country,” telling local media that “we’ve not had situations like that. Fifty years ago, this would never happen…We don’t have capital city greenies around here. We have farmers coming to us and saying, ‘look what’s happened to my farm, I can’t afford to feed the cows anymore because I’ve been buying feed for the last 18 months’.”
“Unprecedented dryness; reductions in long-term rainfall; low humidity; high temperatures; wind velocities; fire danger indices; fire spread and ferocity; instances of pyro-convective fires (fire storms—making their own weather); early starts and late finishes to bushfire seasons. An established long-term trend driven by a warming, drying climate. The numbers don’t lie, and the science is clear,” writes Climate Council member and former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins, in the Sydney Morning Herald. “If anyone tells you, ‘This is part of a normal cycle’, or ‘We’ve had fires like this before’, smile politely and walk away, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Mullins adds that, “in the past, I have heard some federal politicians dodge the question of the influence of climate change on extreme weather and fires by saying, ‘It’s terrible that this matter is being raised while the fires are still burning.’ But if not now, then when?”
The Morning Herald editorializes that it’s no insult to bushfire victims to talk about the root cause of their tragedy. “It is not a sign of indifference to the victims of bushfires or political point-scoring to raise the issue of climate change. It is common sense,” the paper writes. “Without a rational assessment of the causes and trends of bushfires, we will only increase the likelihood of more tragedies in the future.”
If politicians “want to reinforce their compassion for the victims of bushfires,” the editors add, “they should talk about the link to climate change sooner rather than later. The fire season will last for months.”
“It’s going to get worse,” added climate scientist Ned Haughton, whose childhood home in the mid-north coast village of Bobin was razed over the weekend. “The state and [federal] Liberal governments are just trying their hardest to shut down any decent action on climate,” he said. “This is just not the right way to act if you care about the planet, if you care about your kids’ future, if you care about other people in your community’s future.”
In contrast to Morrison’s thoughts and prayers, meanwhile, Crikey.com points out that NSW’s Liberal Party government’s latest budget cut A$12.9 million from Fire & Rescue NSW and another $26.7 million from the volunteer-run Office of NSW Rural Fire Services. “Byron Bay, which is currently being torn apart by fires, was also promised $5.85 million for a new fire station in Kingscliff,” the paper adds. “The funding has yet to arrive.”
h/t to The Energy Mix subscriber Robert Rattle for pointing us to some of the source material for this story.