Australia’s bushfires rage out of control

Hell: Wildfires can burn millions of acres and can travel up to a mile every four minutes. © Getty

Are bushfires the price for using fossil fuels? Huge infernos are burning across eastern Australia. Critics say they are linked to the climate crisis, and the country must stop mining coal.

They’re calling it Catastrophic Tuesday.

When the fire danger level reaches catastrophic, you must abandon your home and seek safety immediately. Yesterday, schools closed and towns were evacuated, as hot gusty winds spread fires over 2.5 million acres.

People used a phone app to track and escape the approaching wall of flame. But they had to move fast. At the weekend, two people were killed in their cars trying to escape the deadly heat.

The Australian government has declared a state of emergency. The army, firefighters and volunteers are helping with search and rescue, but with more hot weather on the way, the New South Wales fire chief warns it may be months before the fires are brought under control.

Bushfires are nothing new in Australia. Occasional fires return nutrients from plants to the soil and for thousands of years people, animals and plants have adapted to the annual “bushfire season”.

Indigenous Australians developed ways of managing the fires by controlled burning of “fire-loving” plants, like bracken and eucalyptus, helping fire-resistant herbs and grasses to grow. The government also uses fire to create barriers between urban areas and places of high fire risk.

What is new is the scale and intensity of bushfires. There are more of them than ever before; they are more ferocious, and the bushfire season is starting earlier and earlier.

But why are things getting worse? The evidence points to the climate crisis.

A report in 2013 found a “clear link” between the climate crisis and bushfires. “When you have more frequent hot days and less rain,” the report stated, “it increases the likelihood of extreme fire weather.”

The government called the report “hogwash” and ignored warnings that fires would become more common if carbon emissions were not reduced.

Now critics say it is time to act. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and, so, environmental campaigners believe that if Australia is serious about fighting bushfires and the climate crisis, it needs to stop mining and exporting the fossil fuel.

Are bushfires the price for using fossil fuels?

Playing with fire

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack says it is “disgraceful” to play politics when people’s lives are in danger: “We’ve had fires in Australia since time began, and what people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance.” Coal is very important for jobs and the economy, and the country’s opposition Labor Party says, “The moral responsibility for emissions lies with the nation that burns the coal, not the nation that supplies the coal.”

Greenpeace says politicians don’t want to talk about coal because the industry has a “murky influence” over government. Green MP Adam Bandt agrees, saying, “The government has had every opportunity to minimise the risk of these catastrophic fires and, instead, it has chosen to pour fuel on the fire.” British businessman Richard Branson says this is a wake-up call for Australia, that could spark a “revolution in clean energy, which can create thousands more jobs than coal could ever produce”.

You Decide

  1. Will stopping coal mining help reduce the bushfires?
  2. Why do politicians ignore the advice of scientists?

Activities

  1. Use the Expert Links to design a poster with information on how to prevent bushfires. Think about short-term and long-term causes, and decide what is more important.
  2. Imagine that, tomorrow, the world stops mining fossil fuels. What happens next? Write a one-page description of what would change, and what wouldn’t.

Some People Say...

“The anger is real. The anger is justified. Because this disaster was all foreseen and predicted.”

Carol Sparks, Mayor of Glen Innes Severn Council

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Over the last century, the average temperatures in Australia have risen by one degree, increasing the days each year when there is a high or extreme risk of bushfires. January 2019 was the hottest month on record, and the area burning in New South Wales is already four times greater than the whole area affected last year. So far this season, five people have died and at least 100 homes have been destroyed.
What do we not know?
In the coming days and weeks, temperatures, wind direction and air humidity will affect how the fires spread and how quickly they can be controlled. As the bushfire season extends, it begins to overlap with natural emergencies elsewhere. No one knows whether the emergency services will be able to cope with the increased demand, or whether there will be enough time for the region to recover and prepare for next year’s bushfire season.

Word Watch

Catastrophic
An event causing sudden damage. When the level is severe or extreme, people are advised to leave as early as possible in order to survive. At catastrophic, leaving is the only option.
New South Wales
Often abbreviated to NSW, this is the most populous state in Australia and the centre of this week’s bushfires.
Bushfire season
A period of the spring and summer when hot and dry conditions increase the risk of fires. The season is starting earlier than in the past.
Indigenous Australians
Also known as Aboriginals, the original inhabitants of Australia before the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century.
Fire-loving
Fire-loving plants are often dry or oily and burn easily. They grow back quickly after a fire, replacing slower-growing plants. The area then becomes more at risk of further bushfires.
Greenpeace
An organisation that campaigns on environmental issues and climate change.

Subjects

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