Australia’s Bushfires: A Red Light to the World
A personal take by A Rocha UK’s CEO, Andy Atkins, who spent his childhood in far north Queensland and returned at the height of last year’s bushfires.
I woke feeling refreshed. From the pleasant smoky smell my first thought was that my wife was cooking bacon and eggs for our breakfast. Then I realised she was sound asleep beside me, it was pitch black outside and, according to my phone, 2 am in the morning. It was November 19. We had arrived in Sydney from the UK about 18 hours earlier and my body clock was upside down. But what on earth was that smell?
I stood on the roof terrace of our AirBnB apartment and looked about; but instead of lights twinkling around the iconic harbour, I could see – nothing. We seemed to be enveloped in a thick fog reminiscent of a wet British winter; yet this was summer in Australia – not at all how I remembered it from childhood. Then the penny dropped. It wasn’t fog but smoke. The smell was not wood-smoked bacon but the actual forests of Australia going up in flames. I was appalled.
In the morning, so too was Sydney. I went for a walk in a nearby park and stopped to photograph the Harbour Bridge; a grey silhouette against a yellow/pink haze. A cyclist stopped and commented. ‘Awful sight, mate, isn’t it? You can usually see for miles from here, but today you can hardly see the other end of the bridge. Disaster.’
I walked back for breakfast and found TV headlines were screaming the news: overnight, for the first time ever, the entire city of Sydney had been blanketed in smoke from the vast number and extent of the bushfires raging out of control in the Blue Mountains to the west.
What was going on?
Bushfires are a seasonal risk in Australia, with ‘better’ and worse years. But this was a new, significant – and scary – development. So what was happening? Scientifically speaking, a number of human causes coincided with the natural El Nino cycle to make perfect conditions for an unprecedented fire season. East and South Australia had suffered drought for the last three years, so the land was extremely dry. Indeed, rainfall in the wet season – April and October – of 2019 and the previous two years was the lowest on record for a three year period across large parts of NSW. Successive hotter years had also triggered another problem, as trees shed more leaves the hotter it gets. By early 2019 unusual amounts of combustible ‘fuel’ had accumulated on the floor of Australia’s famous forests.
Then from mid-2019 Australia suffered a prolonged heat wave, experiencing, in mid-December, the hottest national average temperatures ever recorded (41.9 degrees C). In short, Australia’s primeval forests had become a fire bomb, primed to ignite at the first ‘dry’ lighting strike or careless local land clearance.
The result of this mix of factors meant Australia was, as we arrived, heading for the longest and most catastrophic fire season ever. Australia has always had forest fires. The new ingredient is global heating caused by human activity – particularly burning fossil fuel and clearing forests and wetlands. According to a study conducted by the World Weather Attribution, the fire weather risk was 30% higher in the 2019/2020 period than in 1990, due to anthropogenic climate change.
More fire and climate change impacts
We had come to Australia for a wedding of our ‘honourary’ daughter in the family of close Anglo-Australian friends – little else would have persuaded me to fly, because of flying’s contribution to climate change. We headed for the beautiful Hunter Valley for the wedding, staying in a quaint hamlet surrounded by forest. I noticed it was parched. A couple of weeks later the forest on the mountainside above the hamlet was reduced to stumps and ashes. By that time, we were further north but we watched the news reports with total horror. Fortunately, the town’s buildings were spared.
After the wedding, we headed to ‘Far North Queensland’ as they now call it, where I had lived until I was ten years old. For the first forty five minutes of the flight up to Cairns, the forests of New South Wales were obscured beneath us by a solid blanket of smoke sweeping out to sea. I confess I was close to tears.
It was a relief to leave the fires behind and arrive in the ‘wet tropics’. North and south of Cairns, the luscious rainforest still stretches from the Pacific Ocean, across narrow coastal plains, up the mountains of the northern Great Dividing range and across the tablelands beyond. So rare and important a habitat is it, that it now has UN Global Heritage Status as the Gondwana Forest. It includes the Daintree RainForest, better known to British TV viewers as the jungle where they film I’m a celebrity, get me out of here. This was my ‘backyard’: Daintree was part of my Dad’s parish as the Anglican rector of Mossman, 50 miles north of Cairns.
In Mossman I visited several family friends of my parents’ generation, including sugar-cane farmers George and Shirley Vico. We sat catching up in the relative cool of the veranda of their ‘heritage’ Queenslander House, looking over the cane fields to the rainforest-covered mountains beyond. George was very concerned about the fire-risk. He told me he’d been keeping temperature records on the farm since I was knee high to a grasshopper (50 years in fact!) and that 2019 had broken all his records. Worse still, he warned, the northern Australian summer was still a month or two away from its normal peak-heat period.
He was right to be worried. Australia’s fire nightmare was far from over and only really ended three months later, in early March 2020, following exceptionally heavy rains in NSW. By that time, the bushfires had done devastating damage across the continent. No state was spared. Worst hit were New South Wales and Queensland. In total, a mind-bending 46 million acres or 72,000 square miles of forest land was burned according to Australia’s Centre for Disaster Philanthropy. This included 53% of the Gondwana rainforest in Queensland – though thankfully there were no fires in the Mossman and Daintree area - and a staggering 80% of the Blue Mountains Forest of New South Wales, also a World Heritage site.
When forests catch fire, it’s not just trees that burn: it’s wildlife too, the birds, mammals, insects, amphibians and reptiles. They are killed outright or die later of injuries, starvation or exposure, having lost their food supply and shelter. WWF Australia now estimates that the fires killed more than 1.25 billion animals.
This is a terrible loss for nature and the people of Australia and, indeed, the whole world: Australia has more than 200 ‘endemic’ species – found nowhere else in the world. It is very likely that some already rare species will have been burned to extinction. This includes the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, a carnivorous marsupial found only on the Island. It is estimated that New South Wales lost a third of its remaining koalas, on top of declines they had already suffered in recent years from land clearance and drought. Recovery for them and for many other species will be difficult because of the loss of habitat over vast areas.
The fires have had a considerable human impact too. While the direct death toll has been mercifully low considering the scale and duration of the fires – 33 people – the indirect health impact has been more dramatic. Figures published in the Medical Journal of Australia put the number of deaths due to smoke pollution at more than 400 people – ten times the number killed directly by fire. It is estimated that 80% of Australia’s population of about 25 million was blanketed by smoke this summer. The long term health effects are not yet clear.
Greater fire risk – and the probability of more catastrophic fire seasons – are not the only side effect of climate change now threatening Australia’s people and wildlife. I saw other consequences, as well as inspiring resilience and determination to overcome them.
Back to my roots
After visiting the ‘far north’ rain forest area, we flew even further north to the Torres Strait Islands, between mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea. Our destination was the island of Mer where my parents worked – and I have my first memories – before we moved to Mossman. Mer is a tropical paradise: a green mountain in a turquoise sea, skirted by coconut fringed white beaches. It has a population of about 450 people with their own language, Meriam, and ancient traditions. The islanders have long lived from the fruit of the earth and sea. We were grateful to the indigenous island council for granting us a permit to visit – and deeply moved by their welcome of this ‘Mer boy, come home’ as Fallen Passi, the Chair of the Island Council described me.
As a child, a permanent sight was a wavy band of blue-grey in the water, a few yards wide and a few yards from the shoreline. These were vast and thick shoals of sardines. For dinner, you only had to wade into the water, throw a traditional multi-pronged spear into the shoal, and you would almost inevitably catch several plump fish. But now, I could see no sign of them. I asked Fallen, who was giving us a tour of the island, about it. ‘They disappeared about 6 months ago’ he said. The cause? The chief suspect, he said, was global heating. The local government environment department believes that the shallow inshore water had got too hot for the fish and they had moved much further offshore. Hopefully they will come back; but with climate change promising more frequent super hot weather, this disappearing act of one of the island’s main food supplies will also become more frequent and possibly permanent.
An even bigger disrupter creeping up on Mer is sea level rise. I was sitting on the steps of the old Mission House, chatting with the current Anglican minister, islander Reverend John Noah. The house had been built for my family in the 1960s on the headland above the beach, four metres above sea level at the most. I remarked to ‘Father John’ that the sea now looked much closer than it used to; but of course I was a small child then, so any distance would have seemed further. ‘It’s not your imagination’, replied Fr John, ‘the sea is rising up Mer.’ Those living on the narrow coastal strip between beach and mountain, probably about three-quarters of the island’s population, are increasingly vulnerable at storm times and high tides.
The well-organised island council is encouraging people to move inland and ‘uphill’. This is complex, as there is no ‘empty’ land: it is all owned by one or other of the island’s families. But with good local leadership and cooperation between the clans, it will happen. But pity the countless Pacific Islands that are simply coral atolls, with no hill to retreat up.