Incendi in Australia La Presse)

Wildfires in Australia: what really happened

At the end of December 2019 and the beginning of January 2020 the wave of wildfires in Australia that in the previous few months had hit the country in an extremely dry and torrid southern summer worsened enormously.

A veritable firestorm devastated wide areas of the bush, the traditional rural landscape of Australia with its shrub, bushes and small and medium-sized vegetation. Although the wildfires had more or less been raging continuously from June onwards it was not until the beginning of the Australian summer that the wildfire problem degenerated into a national emergency.

It is estimated that since 1851 wildfires in Australia have caused the death of 800 people. The phenomenon in the “Newest Continent” is anything but new given that on several occasions Australia found itself hit by heatwaves caused by unusual climatic conditions in the Indo-Pacific area.

Very often the blazes are regional or in any case limited in scope but on several occasions they have been devastating in any case. In the heatwave that hit south-east Australia in the first few months of 2009 the wildfires of Black Friday spread and raged from 7 to 14 February in the most southerly state of Australia, Victoria, killing 173 people.

The number of deaths in the major wildfire season of 2019-2020 has been much lower: 29 according to the most recent estimates but the scale of the event given the size of the areas affected, the global visibility and social and political consequences has been unprecedented.

The satellite coverage of the evolution of the wildfires that gradually spread all over the country has been continuous, making it possible to quantify precisely the extent of the wildfires. One of the most affected areas, the south-east, has already been ravaged in the past: New South Wales and Victoria have suffered most damage together with South Australia whilst the least affected, but in any case not spared, were Queensland and the island of Tasmania.

18.6 million hectares of vegetation (the equivalent of 72,000 square kilometres) have been burned by the wildfires, an area of Australian territory not much smaller than that of the entire Czech Republic and bigger than Ireland has now been burned to a cinder. There has been enormous economic damage with more than a billion animals killed and biologists are ready to analyse whether the event will contribute to the extinction of a series of mammals, birds and marsupials deemed in serious danger in New South Wales and on Kangaroo Island.

But how was such a destructive power able to able to spread so furiously in the heart of the Australian continent? Are the causes of the blazes natural or, as is suspected, have humans contributed to it? How does the Australian case fit into the wider context of the staggering increase in the number of massive wildfires globally? How should we rate the response of Scott Morrison‘s government? The event has not yet been assessed but we already have various items of evidence for some initial findings.

The idea that the wildfires have a completely anthropic origin, which began to spread after more than 180 arrests nationally for arson that proved however not to have any link to the explosion of wildfires in December 2019 and January 2020, has now in part been discredited.

“In the state of Victoria, 43 arsonists were arrested in the season that ended in September 2019 – a fact that therefore has no connection to the current bushfire season. The reported figure of 183 “arsonists” also includes 101 residents of the state of Queensland who were identified in relation to a series of breaches, some of which were minor, of the total ban on lighting fires or fire prevention”, Qui Energia reports. Queensland police at the same time pointed out that “between 10 September and 8 January there were 1,068 fires in the state, of which 114, amounting to only around 13% of them, had been lit as a result of human activity in respect of which the police took action”.

Furthermore, believing in the theory that anthropogenic factors are decisive in the unprecedented destruction of the Australian territory would be naïve to say the least. Only an unprecedented natural phenomenon can cause the devastation we have witnessed: the analysis by researchers and scientists also reveals that overlapping factors in Australia today are causing a perfect storm.

Australia is affected by the “Positive Indian Ocean Dipole” phenomenon, a climatic event linked to the interaction between enormous masses of water in the Indian Ocean. In substance, as the BBC emphasizes, the “Dipole” refers to a significant difference in the surface temperature of the water between the far western end of the ocean (hotter) which washes the shores of Africa and the eastern tip of the ocean (colder) which faces Australia. This difference produces in the areas washed by the latter a decrease in marine evaporation and, conversely, a collapse in the already scarce precipitation and moisture content. This has repercussions on the continental climate in the form of more intense drought and higher temperatures.

Consequently, because of the interaction between the Australian summer and the ocean dynamics the country is experiencing a summer of unprecedented heat and lack of precipitation. On 18 December, according to the data of the Bureau of Meteorology (an Australian government agency), the maximum average temperature nationally was 41.9 degrees, passing the previous record of 40.3 C “established” in January 2013, with peaks of 49.8 degrees in the town of Eucla, Western Australia. The previous record had been set in 1972 with 49.5 degrees in Birdsville, in Queensland.

Generally, writes forestry researcher Giorgio Vacchiano on his Facebook profile “the biggest wildfires however tend to be caused by lightning strikes because they affect the most remote and uninhabited areas where it is less likely that human activity will occur” and they hit with great intensity because of the intense drought and the level of electricity accumulated in the air. According to Ross Bradstock of the University of Ollongong, “a single fire caused by lightning (the Gospers Mountain Fire) has already affected from October until today more than 500,000 hectares” of bush and could be the greatest fire ever recorded in history”.

2019 was the year of the wildfires. Australia followed in quick succession Siberia and Amazonia which were devastated in June and July by a series of forest fires that struck at the heart of the “green lungs of the planet”.

At the same time it was the year of the great protests held across the western world inspired by the Greta Thunberg, who became an international icon.

Greta’s kids were driven by intense emotions, with a palingenetic spirit that very often accuses industrial society of being the exclusive cause of a substantial part of the climatic change taking place across the globe, focusing in a virtually exclusive manner on emittances of carbon dioxide as the cause of pollution and the problem of the environment.

However, cases such as the wildfires in Australia should invite us to reflect upon what is still to be understood in the field of environmental studies. And to consider the fact that the real challenge will, first and foremost, be to understand just how much climate change can irrefutably be put down to human activity. Well aware, as the climate dynamics that caused the Australian wildfires demonstrate, that nature by its own constitution has, to paraphrase Fernand Braudel, “long-term historical trends” and that it would be simplistic to imagine that they can be changed.

The invitation is therefore to choose between radical environmentalism and the most extreme negationism by opting for a third way. In other words for a political, ecological and social choice that bears in mind that every battle for the environment must have man at its centre, his prosperity in relation to his environment and his dynamics and the defence of the social groups most at risk from environmental problems as well as the costs of the economic transition. The stimulus therefore is to strengthen the risk prevention mechanism as a response to environmental problems. Man can already do a lot in this way but the lesson is very often not heeded. And the greatest human responsibility in the Australian context does not come from far away but is clearly visible upon a simple consultation of the public accounts of the executive.

Canberra as Athens, Scott Morrison as Alexis Tsipras. In the summer of 2018 Europe mourned its dead in the great fires that ravaged Greece and discovered huge cuts in spending on civil defence carried out in the name of austerity. Today in Australia Morrison’s liberal government is similarly inspired by the dogma of the withdrawal of the state from the economy and society and is planning linear cuts amounting to billions of dollars on public spending, including cuts to funding for crucial fire-fighting services.

In the last budget New South Wales suffered a cut of 40 million dollars to essential civil defence services impacting both professional and voluntary firefighters, a move that put Morrison, who won the recent general election, under intense scrutiny. The army and the navy were mobilised in order to evacuate members of the public put in danger by the advancing fire but this does not compensate for the demobilisation of front-line emergency services that could have helped fight the wildfires.

Australia has found itself faced with an unprecedented event. An environmental “black swan” of unimaginable proportions, a phenomenon we will have to get used to and face with increasing preparedness given the current acceleration of climate change. While we wait to understand how much man has impacted the millennial changes to the global climate, we could start by preventing damage caused by environmental disasters by not sacrificing on the altar of economic ideology vital and essential services necessary to preserve a unique eco-system like the Australian bush.


Translation by Dale Owens