Smoke from rampant bush fires in Australia has been blanketing the cities of Sydney and Adelaide for almost two weeks. Although starting around mid-November, the sheer extent and ferocity of this year’s wildfires have climatologists pointing to climate change as a new culprit, adding fuel to the continent’s woes. Particularly intimidating wildfires have so far burnt hundreds of thousands of hectares to ashes while claiming six lives in the process.

Residents in various New South Wales regions are anxiously awaiting the approach of rampant fires, hoping that authorities will be able to curb their impact on local towns. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has warned people in several affected areas that it is now too late to flee, as only greater danger awaits them if they were to attempt an evacuation at this stage of the chaos. A fire burning on the New South Wales coast has already consumed over 11,000 hectares, doubling in size as it marches inland.

Adding to the mayhem, residents elsewhere are being encouraged to leave areas authorities estimate will soon be beset by walls of fire raging through the wilderness, approaching suburban homes. Over 100 fires are currently burning on the continent, as hot, dry winds and a dearth of rain make conditions highly favourable for massive wildfires across Australia.

Part and parcel of colonial Australia

Fire has always defined historical Australia. Indeed, when James Cook first landed centuries ago, the local Aborigine population was in the process of systematically burning huge swathes of land as far as the eye could see. Observations in Cook’s journal state quite plainly that it appeared that the entire continent was ablaze. Author, mammalogist and palaeontologist Tim Flannery years ago offered his insights into the peculiar relationship Australia has with fire. His epic tale of the continent’s history, The Future Eaters, details the slow decimation of Australia’s megaherbivores at the hands of the Aboriginal population.

One upshot of this extinction was the resultant huge amount of dry matter left lying on the surface of the land, now out of the recycling loop. In the absence of animals eating millions of tons of plant matter each year, when intermittent wildfires did spring up, their effects became more deadly than anything that had gone before. Suffering the same fate as today’s modern Australians, the Aborigines developed a management approach today known as “fire-stick farming.” Hence Cook’s perception that the entire continent was ablaze, as Aborigines burnt vast swathes in one region, just as other areas were already regenerating after previous fires.

They did this, among other reasons, to compensate for the loss of grazers and browsers, which had historically kept the fuel load in balance. Since colonisers usurped the Aborigines’ ability to manage the extent and ferocity of such unnaturally intense fires, Australia has suffered repeated bouts of wildfire so intense, that many lives, houses and even towns have been lost over the centuries.

Particularly deadly bush fires in Australia are often precipitated by hot and windy or prolonged drought conditions. Such environmental contributors led to the Black Saturday fires in 2009 that killed 180 people. Previously, December 2006 gave rise to deadly and rampant fires, East Victoria suffered shocking fire damage in 2003, and in 1983 the “Ash Wednesday” wildfires startled the world as it watched Australia burn uncontrollably.

The Australian NGO, Climate Council, has observed that climate change induced by global warming has had a particularly devastating effect on the Australian continent, making for both more frequent and far more severe wildfires. Although hugely exacerbated after the industrial revolution, some observers note that the current wildfires are but the modern result of practices humans began on the continent thousands of years ago.

A continent defined by fire

Australia is largely populated by what scientists term scleromorphic plant species. The term refers to several typical attributes of such species, but also that they have reproductive methodologies able to withstand fire or, indeed, actually favoured by fire. Even though fire fighting preparedness is markedly higher on the continent than in most other nations, the combination of dry litter, combustible living vegetation and climate change-induced intensity makes wildfires in Australia especially devastating.

While there is still scientific debate as to whether the world is currently in an El Niño cycle (a persistent and intermittent weather pattern that means drought conditions for many southern hemisphere countries), the reality in Australia right now is one of unapproachable, rampant fires that consume everything in their path. For the average Australian citizen, exact scientific explanations mean little, as many now fear for their homes and the safety of their families.

Queensland and other regions remain on a knife-edge, as authorities apply more resources to quell blazes, while everything about the weather and the predictions for this summer’s weather as a whole, counts heavily against them.

It's a tough moment
LET'S STAY TOGETHER