My social media feeds are an outpouring of humanity and grief. Offers of spare rooms for evacuated residents, fundraisers, rage at the lack of coordination and empathy from those who command resources.
Our federal government must admit that this fire season is unprecedented and made more unpredictable by human-induced climate change—otherwise it condemns us to this being the new normal.
In this blog post, I try to not dwell for too long on the federal government's response to the bushfires, and point out the crisis is in fact unprecedented.
My conclusion is that prime minister Scott Morrison must meet immediately with former fire chiefs who have been requesting a meeting since April 2019. Share this demand on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube.
Andrea Leong at a Sydney climate and bushfire rally, 11 December 2019. From Instagram.
The delayed response
The federal government's response has been abysmal, but the good news is that continual shaming seems to be forcing a response. It's not known whether #ScottyFromMarketing is capable of feeling shame, but he seems to understand being unpopular.
In the first week of the year, Morrison finally committed more resources to fighting the ongoing blazes. Then he managed to give that overdue act a bad flavour by making an ad about it (featuring a Polish army uniform and, by all reports, a now-removed button to collect donations for the Liberal Party).
In person, our PM provided no solace to exhausted firies and affected communities; he had only unwanted handshakes to offer. When he realised he couldn't squeeze any positive publicity out of these devastated communities, he literally turned his back on the people there. So much for thoughts and prayers.
As for the Hawaiian Christmas holiday, Morrison's physical absence was less shocking than his mental absence. Hosting the Australian cricket team on New Year's Day, while not materially harmful, showcases his disconnect from reality and his appalling lack of judgement. We don't need our prime minister to hold a hose, but he can't isolate himself from the crisis if he hopes to retain credibility.
Interestingly, when Morrison cancelled a trip to India, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi reportedly referred to our bushfire situation as "unprecedented".
Unprecedented? Yes, unprecedented.
In 2019, Sydney was given its first catastrophic fire danger rating. The new rating was introduced in 2009, after the previous highest rating (extreme) was exceeded.
On the 20th of September, Morrison and his cabinet ministers chided students for taking a day off school to demand action on climate change. On the 12th of November, hundreds of schools from Wollongong to Newcastle were closed due to catastrophic fire danger.
Remember our PM's calls to avoid the "needless anxiety" associated with believing that climate change is real? He'd better clamp down on noted fearmongers, Playschool, which suggests that kids can decorate a pillowcase and fill it with essentials in case they need to evacuate.
Isn't *something else* about this season unprecedented?
There is misinformation going around about arson being particularly prevalent this year. This is a misinterpretation of a NSW Police press release/Facebook post and appears to be deliberate misdirection from the prime importance of weather conditions in dictating bushfire behaviour, however the fire starts.
This myth appears to have ramped up as more experts confirm that hazard reduction burning is no panacea.
Hazard reduction burns: it's complicated.
Note: I have used the term "hazard reduction burn". The terms "fuel reduction", "controlled", "prescribed", and "planned" burns may also be used. "Backburning" is undertaken to contain a fire once it has started. "Cultural burning" is, as the name suggests, a cultural practice and can be conducted for a range of reasons.
In my last blog post ('No, conservationists are not responsible…') I rebutted the claim that "greenies" prevent great swathes of hazard reduction burns every year. In fact, weather conditions often make it unsafe to conduct these burns. Queensland Fire and Emergency Services exceeded its targets for area burnt, yet it has echoed his NSW counterparts in saying that weather conditions restricted hazard reduction burns.
To reiterate, the changing climate has reduced the opportunities for safe hazard reduction burns.
The fire damage insurance bill has reached around $700 million. The federal government has committed $2 billion for a disaster recovery fund. One estimate puts the total cost of this fire season at $20 billion—along with 1,000 preventable deaths.
See this tweet on Twitter.
This is to say nothing of the psychological effects of losing a loved one, livelihood or home. Nor of PTSD for first responders, many of them volunteers, and others in affected communities. There is widespread grief and anxiety amongst Australians, the smoke haze in our major cities a constant reminder of the devastation—we are inhaling the charred remains of not just forests, but of people's homes and wildlife in ecosystems that might never recover.
Our emotions might include anger at our elected leaders for sitting on their hands when warned last decade of destructive fire seasons to come. Federal funding for water-bombing aircraft was requested in 2017 but only granted after hundreds of homes were lost in recent months.
So, what should we do?
The clearest step our PM can take right now is to meet with the former fire chiefs immediately, instead of waiting for March. Every day Morrison postpones the meeting is a day he ignores expertise that could be applied to the emergency response right now.
In the long-term, Australia must commit from the top down to decarbonising our economy and restoring a safe climate.
Opponents of decarbonisation argue that as Australia produces a small percentage of global emissions, we shouldn't bother changing anything. But the full context of this figure is that we are the 15th-highest global emitter. That means 181 countries emit less than we do. Australia's contribution to climate repair will be less in the amount of pollution we avoid emitting ourselves and more in showing leadership in cutting greenhouse emissions.
Any one of Australia's firefighters might feel that they're contributing only a small part to the wider effort, but they do it anyway because they understand the consequences of inaction. And they are all heroes.
Aren't we lucky that our firies don't think the same way as the anti-climate action commentators.
If you can, donate to these organisations, even though that's where our taxes should be going:
- First Nations communities
- Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal
- NSW Rural Fire Service
- Victorian Country Fire Authority
- South Australian Country Fire Service
- NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES)
Andrea Leong is the leader of the Science Party