If leaders can’t get their heads around the wildfire-climate link, we had better prepare for many more nasty summers
When I was a child the time between September and the summer holidays was an eternity. Now the months, seasons and years pile one on to the other, and summer is a blink away.
As time compresses, so does the world. We knew about America’s wild west then because we had Hollywood and the newsreels. We knew that like us they had bushfires (wildfires as they called them), because year after year they turned up on our cinema and television screens.
But those fires happened half a world away in our winter or spring, and like everything else on the silver screen seemed several steps away from reality: a good story, a thrilling spectacle. Not like the fires that afflicted us most summers, sometimes destroying homes and lives. Those were real.
Now, everything is merged into one, and greatly enlarged. In my youth the places I recall having summer fires were Australia, the western United States, and odd outbreaks in Latin America, Africa and Mediterranean countries. Now we hear of fires erupting in other northern lands, as far north as the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Looking back at this year so far we could be forgiven for thinking the whole world is ablaze. Almost as soon as wildfires are extinguished on one continent they seem to be breaking out afresh on another one.
2020 began with Australia’s record-breaking Black Summer fires destroying millions of hectares of forest and capturing global attention. Within a couple of months fires had broken out in Ukraine, threatening the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear plant.
A month later, smouldering peat that had been primed by years of drying and warming began to spark vegetation fires in Siberia that would eventually number over 600, emitting more carbon in two months than any preceding year and producing a smoke cloud spanning an area bigger than Europe.
The Siberian fires were still burning in mid-August when forests in California erupted into flames, more than a month earlier than the start of a “normal” season in that part of the world and less than two years after its previous record-breaking year.
At the end of a relatively quiet Californian fire season, in 2019-20 Australia got the benefit of that state’s large water-bombing aircraft, one of which crashed in the Australian Alps killing its US crew. Now, with California suffering similar devastation, we are battling to respond to its desperate appeal for reciprocal help.
Add to all those the perennial fires accompanying rainforest clearing in Southeast Asia and Brazil. The Amazon Basin situation is dire. August-September is the land-clearers’ peak burning period, and this year, with legal constraints all but destroyed under president Jair Bolsonaro, the area burnt and smoke generated looks like being even worse than what triggered last year’s global alarm.
Last week saw release of the interim report of the inquiry into Australia’s natural disaster management, led by former air force chief Mark Binskin, which was set up by the Morrison government after the Black Summer fires.
As the Black Summer fires showed, the report said, “bushfire behaviour has become more extreme and less predictable. Catastrophic fire conditions may become more common, rendering traditional bushfire prediction models and firefighting techniques less effective.”
“Climate information and climate services” headed the report’s list of information products and services to be drawn on in a future disaster management plan. Decisions about land use, it said, will need to accommodate all the possible risks attached to future change.
No close observer of climate change would be surprised by the coronavirus pandemic’s global progress and the response to it of many political and vested interests. Those interests might wish it were otherwise, but this contagion operates without any reference to the things they hold dear.
Climate change, too, doesn’t recognise human boundaries. We set it off, and by failing to curb carbon emissions, we ensured its impact would continue to grow. Yet Australian governments, ignoring dire warnings from disaster experts, continue to behave as if it doesn’t exist.
This summer may see something of a reprieve. Weather authorities anticipate a wettish spring for eastern Australia. A moist understory is less likely to kindle fire from dry lightning, which has plagued recent fire management in both hemispheres.
But hoping for good weather doesn’t replace what the experts keep saying: a fire plan that doesn’t acknowledge the overwhelming influence of climate change is no plan at all. If partisan politics and vested interests prevent us acting on this, we’d better get ready for many more summers from hell.