Australia's Bushfires: Aftermath and Recuperation
Updated: May 6, 2020
Australia is no stranger to bushfires, however, the year 2019 proved to be unprecedented. The first bushfires began in the land Downunder even before the onset of spring and sprung up at the beginning of September 2019. It was the month of November when things spiralled out of control.
So is this down to climate change?
Many Australians are asking that very question - but science is complicated.
These record-breaking bushfires have been kicked off by things like lightning strikes, a few cases of arson, and winds. But one of the biggest reasons they have become extreme is the same reason that caused floods in East Africa.
For starters, as the world is getting warmer from climate change, so is Australia. 2019 was it's the hottest year on record, with parts of the country reaching 45 degrees Celsius in December. 2019 was also it's driest that saw historic droughts. Together, that provides the perfect conditions for bushfires to start and spread quickly. One of the most influential is the Indian Ocean Dipole or the IOD. The IOD is a big temperature gradient that affects the surface water in the Indian Ocean, from the edge of Africa to the edge of Australia. (source - ABC News) Meteorologists have been measuring these temperature shifts for decades in three phases: Positive, neutral, and negative.
Source - Australian Bureau of Meteorology
When the IOD is neutral, the surface water in the Indian Ocean is evenly warm. A negative phase is when winds come in from the east and shift the warm water towards Australia. Warmer water means more evaporation which means more rain. So Australia gets more rain than usual, sometimes even floods. But the colder water near East Africa means they get less rain and even drought. A positive phase is what happened in 2019. It's when the winds came from the west and shifted the warm water towards Africa. This caused flooding there, and drought in Australia. The entire process of shifting water temperatures is natural. But 2019 was extreme.
The positive IOD was one of the strongest on record, with the water temperature difference between Africa and Australia being unusually high. Hence, extreme weather in Australia, but also in Africa. The worst flooding in two decades. Scientists believe it's linked to record temperatures in the Indian Ocean.
In 1974, fires burned 3.5 million hectares, and in 2003, another 2 million hectares were lost to fire. But the fires that started in 2019 are even worse: 12.6 million hectares throughout the country were burnt. To put that in some perspective, in New South Wales alone more than 5.4 million hectares were burnt.
The windy and wavy Cape du Couedic Road, Kangaroo Island (source: Abc news)
From the beginning of September 2019 to February 23, 2020, the Australian bushfires emitted 434 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This equated to over three-quarters of the 532 million tonnes Australian industry emitted in 2018-19.
Satellites can provide real-time observations of active fires - NASA
33 human fatalities in the bushfire crisis might sound sobering but next to these numbers lies the most emotionally impactful statistic is that over 1 billion animals were killed in the fires, according to ecologist Chris Dickman of the University of Sydney. The estimate includes birds, reptiles, and terrestrial mammals, but doesn't include invertebrates.
Photo of a rescued Koala in the Kangaroo Island
Professor Biddle from the Australian National University (ANU), was the lead researcher of a poll conducted in January 2020, which found 11.3 million Australian adults, or 57 percent of the Australian adult population, were physically affected by smoke from the bushfires. The poll is based on interviews with a representative sample of 3249 Australian adults, whose responses could then be extrapolated to give estimates for the whole adult population.
The ANU poll also estimated that 10.6 million, or over half of Australian adults, were anxious or worried about the safety of themselves, their close family, or their friends, due to the bushfire crisis.
Several firefighters – called firies in Australia – were killed or injured. Many firefighters were volunteers and laid-off fire management staff were asked to report back to work without pay. (source - ABC Science )
Professor Biddle said people were more likely to be worried or anxious when a family member or friend — rather than themselves — was being threatened by a fire.
The nation's land that has been burnt by bushfire so far is almost twice the size of Belgium and three times more land in the 2018 California fires and Brazil's 2019 Amazon fire combined. Flames have reportedly reached a 70 meters high. That's taller than the Sydney Opera House!!
People Describe their experience throughout the bushfire crisis (Victoria State):
“We had no idea what to expect on our journey, but we knew we had to help”
When our team, Sikh Volunteers Australia, found out that the bushfires were getting out of control in East Gippsland, we headed out in a van fully loaded with groceries, utensils, and cooking appliances. We had no idea what to expect on our journey, but we knew we had to help.
On the way down, team members tried calling phone numbers on the websites of local councils and VicEmergency. We eventually got in contact with Neighbourhood House Bairnsdale and were informed that a major relief centre was being set up at Bairnsdale City Oval for the people evacuated from the affected region.
It was there that Sikh Volunteers Australia parked and ran our free food van from December 30 to January 14. For 16 days, we woke up at 4:30 am to prepare and serve breakfast by 6:30. While one team was serving at the relief centre, a second-team would start preparation of lunch and dinner. The food distribution would go on like this until 9:30 pm or even 11. We often got to bed around midnight.
A group of Sikh Volunteers Source: https://www.sikhvolunteersaustralia.org/
Help from locals, the Sikh community, and many others were abundant. People donated groceries and fresh veggies from their gardens so we could make stuffed potato bread with masala tea, veggie sandwiches, vegetable curries, pasta, and soups.
Sydney Opera House illuminates to show gratitude to the Sikh Volunteers group for their fight against the 2019 bushfires
During these 16 days of volunteering, our service team also came across a lot of heart-touching stories. There was a family living in the East Gippsland area since 1798 that had lost their home. There was a nurse who came by just to thank us without knowing that her own family was struck with disaster and staying at the relief centre. Every day, our team met people who had lost their livestock and valuables, who were completely grief-stricken.
But in those 16 days, we were also overwhelmed with the love, affection, and gratitude of the brave people in the community. We witnessed the strong will of Australians, the united spirit of Australian culture. In order to support people in bushfire-affected areas, we hope people visit these areas even after the relief work is finished. Let the people know in these areas that we haven’t forgotten about them. They are not isolated or left by themselves to restructure their hometowns. All of Australia supports them, shoulder to shoulder, and with God’s grace, we will construct again from the ashes.
— Sikh Volunteers Australia, Devon Meadows, Victoria
“We received a text message from our neighbour that her house, along with ours and many others, were gone”
Our Mallacoota holiday was broken the moment when our neighbour informed us that the impending fire could not be stopped. With our only firefighting resource being three garden hoses supplied by town water (which historically fails in a crisis) and a house full of guests not used to this type of situation, we decided to follow government recommendations and evacuate early.
We sent four of our guests into a hired vehicle toward Melbourne first. With four remaining adults and three dogs, and only a small pickup truck to get to our farm 500 kilometres away, we loaded only our essential travelling bags. We didn’t take any family possessions because, in our hearts, we truly didn’t think our house — built by my father with the help of my grandfather in the early 1970s — would burn.
By 8 am, we were heading out of a town humming with anxious people and fire engines. As we left, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was it the right decision? Should we be staying to defend our property, or was that as foolish an option as the authorities would have us believe? Could I help others? Would I be putting the lives of my partner and friends at risk by leaving or staying? Was I acting cowardly?
Throughout my career in natural resource management, I have attended quite a few large fires, saved houses, and have even been stranded in front of a fire, but never had I felt such confusion as trying to resolve what seemed the sensible thing to do when my gut feeling was to stay and defend. Now I live with the knowledge that while all of my family and crew were evacuated safely, and we avoided being stranded on the beach with thousands of other tourists and residents, some people who stayed not only saved their homes but were instrumental in saving others.
Neil Ward’s truck was gutted by bushfires in Mallacoota, Australia. - Courtesy of Neil Ward
That night and the next morning saw the weather acting savagely and heard constant warnings of the fire approaching Mallacoota. We sat helplessly glued to the Emergency+ app, watching the fire’s progress. First reports came in of an individual house burning in the town, then another, and another. Then it seemed the fire front swept in on both the northern part of town and the far southwestern corner, where our house was located. We waited and hoped. There wasn’t much else. Around 2:30 pm, we received a text message from our neighbour who had reliable news that her house, along with ours and many others in the same street, was gone. The hope evaporated.
With a weird numbness, we phoned our boys and told them the sad news. The rest of the afternoon and evening, which was New Year’s Eve, vanished in an avalanche of phone calls and text messages regarding the fate of our house, neighbours, and friends. The depth of concern and commiserations were a tangible reminder of how important that house had been for so many of our friends and family, as a place of escape and sanctuary, laughter, warmth, revitalization and relaxation, an almost spiritual-like home base. Gone.
What we had witnessed on our journey was a good preparation for what we knew would be a difficult visit. Yet our breath was still taken away at the sight of the destruction to our neighbourhood. A scene that we generally associate with bomb attacks or the worst cyclone was laid before us. At our driveway, the sight of our truck completely gutted and distorted, and with its chassis laying on the ground, was immediate proof of the finality of the destruction. At first glance, all that remained where our house once stood was the iron roof, split and awkwardly draped and twisted over bent steel uprights. The walls and contents were completely swallowed by the fire.
As the rain stopped, we ended up with a handful of items salvaged that could help remind us of what was lost. A long walk along the empty beach and a nude swim in the beautiful green ocean began the process of washing away the ash, dust, and tears — of mending our hearts and helping us to begin the rebuilding of our new family home.
— Neil Ward, natural resources and conservation manager, Chiltern and Mallacoota, Victoria
"Australia is, more than any other, a fire continent," writes ecologist and historian Stephen Pyne in his book "World Fire." The continent’s trees have evolved strategies to handle intermittent fire seasons. Eucalypt trees grow tufts of emergency foliage called epicormic leaves from their blackened trunks, which provides a boost of photosynthesis until their canopy leaves grow back. The good news is the IOD has already shifted to neutral which brought some much-needed relief to Australia in early 2020, just before the COVID19 pandemic began.
People involved in the battle:
At least 3,700 firefighters were on the ground at any one time across the country during the worst periods, according to the country's state fire services. Most have been in the worst-hit states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria - (source - state authority, Australian govt.)
Source: BBC news
Transportation involved in the battle:
Fire crews used a combination of aircraft and land-based equipment to fight the fires. NSW Rural Fire Service says it had about 100 aircraft in the skies every day when the fires were bad, while Victoria Country Fire Authority says it has more than 60.
Source: National Aerial Firefighting Centre
They include helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and larger air-tankers, most of which can be used to "firebomb" water onto fires or drop retardant from the sky above.
Local Volunteers and Celebrity Donations:
The rescue efforts rely heavily on local volunteers who put their daily lives, and jobs, on hold to combat the blazes. Volunteer fire brigades are common across southeast Australia. Recruits come from towns and rural communities, where bushfires are a fact of life in summer months.
Celebrities including Chris Hemsworth, Nicole Kidman and Sir Elton John have made donations in support of rescue efforts.
While most organisations seemed helpless The Australia Zoo left no stones unturned to rescue the dying animals. Australia Zoo was founded by conservationist Steve Irwin, which usually administers lifesaving treatment to between 6,000 and 8,000 animals each year. But staff of the wildlife hospital have treated tens of thousands of animal victims of the bushfires, including birds, kangaroos and koalas.
As Prime Minister Scott Morrison was heavily criticised for his management of the crisis, many countries began offering extra personnel to help. (source - Euronews)
New Zealand was the first one to respond to being the near neighbours, sending 157 firefighters and personnel to the country as early as October.
Singapore offered helicopters to help combat the wildfires, which the Australian Prime Minister welcomed.
The US sent 100 American firefighters in early December, 44 forest service and wildfire personnel on December 30th and another 21 on January 4.
Canadian firefighters also joined the effort with leaders recalling the help that Australia provided during the Canada wildfires.
On 6 January, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the federal government would allocate at least $2bn for bushfire recovery. On 20 February 2020, the Federal Government released the Terms of Reference for the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, known colloquially as the "Bushfires Royal Commission." (source - Royal Commission)
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the scale of the Black Summer bushfires presented new challenges for all levels of government, which required a detailed national inquiry.
“My priority is to keep Australians safe and to do that, we need to learn from the Black Summer bushfires how nationally we can work better with the states and territories to better protect and equip Australians for living in hotter, drier and longer summers,” the Prime Minister said.
Heartwarming Photos Show Bush coming back to life after the fires:
We need to protect our animals for our next generations - www.ronaldshots.com
As of today's date, Australia has recovered from the devastating bushfires. But as the global temperature rises and warms the oceans, phenomenons like the IODs could happen more frequently. These kinds of fires fueled by unusually dry vegetation could become the new normal.
The big question is: What are we doing to prevent this from happening again?