Sydney Faces ‘Catastrophic Fire Danger’ for First Time as 130 Australian Bushfires Burn
More than 130 wildfires were burning on Australia's East Coast Sunday, The Guardian reported. The blazes have killed three and destroyed at least 150 structures so far, and conditions are expected to worsen Tuesday, when the greater Sydney area will face "catastrophic fire danger" for the first time.
"Everybody has to be on alert no matter where you are and everybody has to be assume the worst and we cannot allow complacency to creep in," New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney, according to Reuters.
Sydney is the capital of the southeastern Australian state of NSW and the most populous city in Australia. It is expected to see temperatures of up to 37 degrees Celsius Tuesday, which will combine with high winds to increase fire danger.
This appears to be the first such "catastrophic" fire risk designation (the highest level, above "extreme") for… https://t.co/59OM9dULkg— Daniel Swain (@Daniel Swain)1573365021.0
Firefighters and scientists have observed that it is unprecedented for so many extreme fires to ignite so early in the season, The New York Times reported.
"The consequences are absolutely apparent and evident over the last few weeks and particularly highlighted in the last 24 hours," Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons of the NSW Rural Fire Service told The New York Times. "We have got the worst of our fire season still ahead of us. We're not even in summer yet."
Scientists have predicted that the climate crisis would make Australia's bushfires more frequent and more extreme: Australia's Climate Council first warned that climate change was already increasing fire risk in 2013. The fires also come as the country has been suffering from a drought, and some of the affected areas are now burning.
Over six years the Climate Council has released 11 reports about the link between climate change and worsening bush… https://t.co/K3pSKPSR3p— Climate Council (@Climate Council)1573438596.0
But Australia's political leaders dismissed concerns about climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who supports the coal industry, refused to answer questions this weekend about the connection between climate change and the current fires, Reuters reported.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack went further on Monday, accusing climate activists of politicizing the sufferings of fire victims.
"They don't need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they're trying to save their homes," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) radio, as Reuters reported.
I'm a rural Australian I'm a survivor of Black Sat bushfires I'm an agricultural scientist I'm a volunteer CFA fire… https://t.co/jv7bae98zH— Ruth McGowan (@Ruth McGowan)1573429340.0
Former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner and Climate Council member Greg Mullins pushed back against the idea that it was inappropriate to talk about the climate crisis while fires were burning in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald Monday.
"In the past I have heard some federal politicians dodge the question of the influence of climate change on extreme weather and fires by saying, 'It's terrible that this matter is being raised while the fires are still burning.' But if not now, then when?" he asked.
Greg Mullins is a former NSW fire chief who has just visited firefighters battling blazes in northern California. H… https://t.co/C6BKzt35Aa— abc730 (@abc730)1573425632.0
Mullins pointed out the fingerprints of climate change on the last two decades of Australian fires:
In NSW, our worst fire years were almost always during an El Niño event, and major property losses generally occurred from late November to February. Based on more than a century of weather observations our official fire danger season is legislated from October 1 to March 31. During the 2000s though, major fires have regularly started in August and September, and sometimes go through to April.
The October 2013 fires that destroyed more than 200 homes were the earliest large-loss fires in NSW history – again, not during an El Niño.
This year, by the beginning of November, we had already lost about as many homes as during the disastrous 2001-2002 bushfire season. We've now eclipsed 1994 fire losses.
Mullins also noted that this year's drought was more intense than a major drought in the 2000s; that this year's wildfires were making their own thunderstorms, something that did not used to happen often when he was fighting fires; and that fires were burning in new areas like rainforests in NSW and Queensland.
Terri Nicholson watched firsthand as the fire menaced rainforest from her parents' property in Terania Creek. Her parents, Nan and Hugh Nicholson, were instrumental to a successful blockade that saved the forest from logging 40 years ago.
"Nan and Hugh Nicholson hosted the site of the Terania protest to defend this great rainforest from logging and now we're here defending it due to the effects of climate change," Nicholson told The Guardian. "I don't even have the words right now. It's just gobsmacking and distressing to witness."
The deadliest fire raged near the town of Glen Innes in NSW. Two people died in that blaze, The New York Times reported. One woman was found unconscious and severely burned Friday and died in the hospital. Another body was found in a car Saturday.
The woman has been identified as 69-year-old Vivian Chaplain, a grandmother of six who died trying to protect her home, Radio New Zealand reported. The victim found in a car was identified as George Nole. Another woman, Julie Fletcher, died north of Taree.
At least seven people are also missing from the fire near Glen Innes, according to The New York Times.
"People were burned, lives were lost," Glen Innes Mayor Carol Sparks told The New York Times. "People battled to save their houses and then had to walk out because their cars had blown up — it was just horrific."
As well as extensive damage to homes, buildings and facilities, there is also broad damage to infrastructure includ… https://t.co/4IeS7Jt6v8— NSW RFS (@NSW RFS)1573269993.0
More than 50 fires were also burning in the northeast state of Queensland Sunday, where homes were destroyed and thousands were forced to flee, The Guardian reported.
"Most people just want to go back home to see what's actually happening. That's making them very anxious. That's what they're telling us," Red Cross Queensland's emergency services manager Colin Sivalingum told the ABC, as The Guardian reported.
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By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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