This story is developing and has been updated. The original photo inadvertently showed evacuees from a 2013 bushfire in Tasmania, and we’ve replaced it.
Terrified Australians fled to the water from a beach where they had taken refuge from raging bushfires, authorities reported at least 24 people dead and several times as many missing, ecologists estimated that 480 million animals had been affected, and the 15 million acres (more than six million hectares) burned so far exceeded the size of Switzerland, as the ravaged states of New South Wales and Victoria moved into the heart of annual wildfire season.
On Saturday, local fire official Adrian Grabham said the massive Gospers Mountain blaze had ignited two new coal seam fires in Lithgow that were travelling underground and could burn for months. That was just days after coal-friendly Prime Minister Scott Morrison was driven away by hecklers when he tried to stage a media event in the front-line community of Cobargo, described by one evacuee as “hell on Earth”.
Over the weekend, the government called up about 3,000 army reservists, supported by aircraft and naval ships, a level of deployment the country had not seen since the Second World War, the New York Times reported Saturday. “The government has not taken this decision lightly,” said Defense Minister Linda Reynolds. “It is the first time that reserves have been called out in this way in living memory.”
As the weekend approached with more than 200 fires burning, tens of thousands of people were on the move, the skies coloured blood red due to the fires. Nearly 1,300 homes had been destroyed in New South Wales alone, drinking water and postal service in some towns had been cut off, local food supplies were dwindling, and NSW police were vowing to target local looters.
A 45°C ‘Blast Furnace’
Forecasters warned that a “blast furnace” of record 45°C heat and high winds would make the devastating and terrifying conditions even worse—all with southeast Australia’s usual December-to-March summer bushfire season just beginning hit full swing. On Saturday, the Bureau of Meteorology placed the country’s high temperature at 48.9°C/120°F in the western Sydney suburb of Penrith.
In the evacuation, “thousands of cars were backed up for hours in small towns south of Nowra, on the southern coast, after fire chiefs ordered a 150-mile stretch to be evacuated,” The Independent reports. The Guardian says the emergency orders to date count “among the largest-ever emergency movements of people” the country has seen.
“Visitors told to flee a vast evacuation area along the NSW south coast reported sitting in gridlock for up to 10 hours after responding to the order to evacuate, as further outbreaks of fire and sheer weight of traffic blocked escape routes north of Ulladulla and near Cooma in the Snowy Mountains,” the paper notes.
“It is hell on earth. It is the worst anybody’s ever seen,” said Michelle Roberts, from the southeastern coastal town of Mallacoota, where 4,000 residents and visitors were stranded on a local beach as an Australian naval vessel moved in to begin the country’s largest-ever peacetime evacuation. Wildfire Today has video of the flames surrounding the beach and aerial photos of pyrocumulus clouds over the fires.
“I think that was our biggest threat in terms of what are we doing with the children if we need to go in the water to protect ourselves given the fact that they are only 1, 3 and 5,” said tourist Kai Kirschbaum. “If you’re a good swimmer, it doesn’t really matter if you have to be in the water for a longer time. But doing that with three kids would have been, I think, a nightmare.”
In Sydney, Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the 264,000-hectare Green Wattle Creek fire in a national park west of town could spread into the western suburbs. “There is potential for the fire to break out,” he warned Friday. “That fire is burning. It has the potential to come out into more populated areas this afternoon.”
No Help for Those Who Stay Behind
Fitzsimmons added that anyone still in the path of the fire should leave immediately. “Our message has been to make sure you leave yesterday,” he said. “Leaving it until today is cutting it fine. The sooner you make that decision the better, and I would say do it now. Don’t leave it any longer because the window will shrink and will shrink very quickly.”
“If you might be thinking about I can get out on a particular road close to you, well there’s every chance that a fire could hit that particular road and you can’t get out,” added Victoria Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp.
NSW Deputy Fire Services Commissioner Rob Rogers warned there would be no help for anyone who decided against leaving. “We’ve been very honest about the risk, but if people choose to stay, that’s on them,” he told media Friday. “Do not expect there to be a fire truck when you ring.”
Yet some residents in the hardest-hit areas were ignoring the order to evacuate even after seeing sand dunes catch fire and whole neighbourhoods burn. “Some wanted to protect their homes from the blazes,” the New York Times reports. “Others worried that fleeing could put them in more danger if they ran out of fuel, encountered fallen trees, or ended up in another fire zone on the clogged roads.”
The fires killed two firefighters near Sydney last month, trapped another crew of five in their vehicle, with three of them sustaining burns, and overran another crew in their vehicle who captured the harrowing moment on video. Firefighter and young father Samuel McPaul was killed and two colleagues were burned after their truck rolled over in heavy winds. “Our hearts are breaking,” Fitzsimmons said.
“The states and their overwhelmingly volunteer force of firefighters in rural areas have been stretched and depleted by a season that started earlier and has been especially ferocious,” the New York Times notes. At least 95 Canadian and 155 U.S. firefighters travelled to Australia to help battle the flames.
Wildlife and Ecosystems Devastated
Meanwhile, wildlife across the affected regions “has been wiped out in unprecedented numbers, raising fears some species will never recover, while the ground has been stripped of insects—vital food for birds and mammals—more deeply than ever,” The Independent writes. Ecologists at the University of Sydney estimated 480 million birds, mammals, and reptiles had been affected, including 8,000 koalas, with massive loss of plant life and soot from the fires turning glaciers black.
Koalas “really have no capacity to move fast enough to get away,” said Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham. “The fires have burnt so hot and so fast that there has been significant mortality of animals in the trees, but there is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies.”
“We’re not getting that many animals coming into our care,” added wildlife volunteer Tracy Burgess. “So our concern is that they don’t come into care because they’re not there anymore, basically.”
“Not one carer KC has spoken to has seen bees, insects, grubs, worms, snails, beetles, millipedes, for months,” the non-profit Koala Crisis added online. “Nothing struggles through the dustbowls which are now covering millions of hectares in all states.”
Morrison to Public: ‘Be Patient’
Morrison’s distinctively appropriate and empathetic response to the crisis was to tell everyone to be patient. “I know you can have kids in the car and there is anxiety and there is stress and the traffic is not moving quickly but the best thing to do—the best thing that helps those out there volunteering, out there trying to restore some order to these situations—is for everyone to be patient,” he said.
In the New South Wales town of Cobargo, where three died and many others lost their homes, businesses, livestock, and pasture when fire hit Tuesday morning, Morrison was forced to abandon a meet-and-greet after locals made it clear he wasn’t welcome.
“‘How are you?’ Morrison asks, as he approaches one woman who has her hands by her side,” The Guardian recounts. “He then reaches out and takes her hand and starts shaking it.”
“Scott Morrison forcing this woman to shake his hand, then ignoring her and walking away when she tells him she doesn’t want a handshake unless he gives more funding to the RFS, is fucking disgusting—even by his low standards,” tweeted @1bbradfo in response.
“I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to our RFS,” the woman said. “We need more help,” she added, as Morrison walked away.
“This is not fair. We are totally forgotten down here,” said one woman leading a goat. “Every single time this area gets a flood or a fire, we get nothing. If we lived in Sydney or on the North Coast we would be flooded with donations and emergency relief.”
Another group of residents was even more direct, The Guardian says.
“You won’t be getting any votes down here buddy. You’re an idiot,” they yelled. “Go on, piss off. You’re not welcome.”
A separate video posted by @Sophiemcneill showed Morrison trying and awkwardly failing to shake a firefighter’s hand. In the course of the 23-second clip, the PM grabs the man’s left hand after he refuses to offer his right, then pats him on the shoulder, after which the firefighter pointedly walks away.
“I don’t really want to shake your hand,” he said.
“Tell that fella I’m really sorry, I’m sure he’s just tired,” Morrison told a local incident controller immediately afterwards. “No, he lost his house,” the official replied.
After the visit, Natural Resources Minister David Littleproud announced disaster relief payments of A$1,000 per adult and $400 per child “for people whose home has been severely damaged or destroyed, who’ve been seriously injured or who’ve lost a family member,” aimed at meeting immediate needs and helping them “get through the coming days”.
Scott Morrison’s Excellent Vacation
Through late December and early January, Morrison took fierce criticism for downplaying the mounting severity of the crisis, going on vacation in Hawaii while his country burned, refusing to alter his government’s extreme pro-coal policies or its overt hostility to international climate action and, in at least one Twitter account, seeming unnaturally calm in the face of such total calamity. Morrison apologized for the vacation after a fellow tourist snapped a photo of him enjoying the smoke-free air on a beach.
“I deeply regret any offence caused to any of the many Australians affected by the terrible bushfires by my taking leave with family at this time,” he said, while justifying the holiday on the basis that he isn’t a trained firefighter. “They know I’m not going to stand there and hold a hose,” he told media after he got home.
“I don’t hold a hose, mate,” he said, in a separate talk radio interview from Hawaii, after volunteer firefighters Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, were killed near the town of Buxton southwest of Sydney. “I don’t sit in a control room.”
(h/t to the Energy Mix reader who contrasted that statement with members of the British royal family, none of them fighter pilots or anti-aircraft gunners, who stayed in London through much or all of the Second World War blitz.)
While Morrison acknowledged the link between bushfire disasters and the climate crisis, he maintained Australia is doing its part—even after the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranked his government’s policies dead last among 57 countries. “Our climate policy settings are to meet and beat the emissions reduction targets,” he said. “Emissions reduction under our government is 50 million tonnes more than the previous government, and we want to see them continue for this country and continue to better the achievements we have already made.”
‘Inner City Raving Lunatics’
Just a couple of months after Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormick described Australians making the link between the bushfire crisis and climate change as “inner city raving lunatics”, Morrison took a more measured tone. “Let me be clear to the Australian people, our emissions reductions policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risk and hazard we are seeing today. At the same time, it will seek to make sure the viability of people’s jobs and livelihoods, all around the country,” he said.
“What we will do is make sure our policies remain sensible, that they don’t move towards either extreme, and stay focused on what Australians need for a vibrant and viable economy, as well as a vibrant and sustainable environment.” And “right now, the focus as I said at the outset, is to fight these fires, and get people to safety.”
But Morrison still steadfastly defended an Australian coal industry whose emissions are helping to drive the crisis, and whose campaign contributions keep his party in power. “What we won’t do is engage in reckless and job-destroying and economy-crunching targets which are being sought,” he said in one media interview. “I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries,” he added in another. “I’m going to maintain the course of responsible management, responsibly addressing the changes of climate change and responsibly ensuring that we can grow our economy in what is a very tough climate at the moment.”
Climate Drives Hot Temperatures, High Winds
Moving into the weekend, “conditions will be the same or worse than those experienced on New Year’s Eve,” warned Bureau of Meteorology meteorologist Jonathan How in a YouTube briefing, citing “more hot temperatures, gusty winds, and with a background of more fires burning through the landscape” as the biggest risks.
“It’s going to be a blast furnace,” New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance told the Sydney Morning Herald, adding that the evacuations under way were the largest in the region’s history.
“Weather during the next few days will be similar to what led to the bushfire crisis in the first place: building heat in the southwestern reaches of the country leading to ‘catastrophic’ fire danger in some regions Thursday and at least “extreme” fire weather danger in South Australia on Friday,” the Washington Post wrote January 2. “The combination of the heat and strong winds associated with a frontal system will create explosive conditions for supporting extreme fire behaviour, including their rapid and unpredictable spread.”
While Australia “has experienced deadlier fire seasons, this one is noteworthy for the massive reach of the blazes—10.1 million acres have burned in Victoria and New South Wales alone, an area larger than the state of Maryland,” the Post adds. “In addition, it’s only the start of summer in Australia, meaning that the fire season still has at least a few months to go.”
The worsening crisis already dates back at least two months, thanks to what the Post calls “a combination of factors that have primed the region to burn. Australia just ended its hottest and driest year on record. In addition, December was one of the top two warmest months on record for the country and featured the hottest day recorded there, as well.” That’s largely because “human-caused global warming is raising the odds of and severity of extreme heat events, and also adding to the severity of wildfires by speeding the drying of the landscape, among other influences.”
Citing Berkeley Earth climate researcher and Climate Brief author Zeke Hausfather, the Post says the southern part of the Australian continent has warmed 2.7°F (1.5°C) since 1950.