What Brought Hell to Australia?

The 4 Critical Factors That Have Devastated My Home

This disaster will impact every Australian, directly, or indirectly.

Personally, I stood hose in hand, ready to fight flames and ember attacks a few months ago. I wished I had a gun, so that I could spare the sheep and donkey an agonizing death. In my mind I had composed my final text to my daughter.

I have family who had 70 meter (229 feet) flames licking the edge of their home a few weeks ago. Other close relations were evacuated under order, then lost their home just a few days ago. Yet these examples are mild compared to other people’s experience.

It’s too early to count the total losses and costs of the current bush fires in Australia. But while we mourn lives, loss of animals and destroyed homes, we must also brace for more devastation. Summer has only just begun, and this catastrophe is still unfolding.

These fires may change the face of Australia forever. Here’s a quick snapshot of what has occurred since the fires started back in July 2019:

· More than 14.6 million hectares burnt, or twice the size of Belgium

· At least 18 people have died, with more than 20 still missing

· An estimated half a billion animals have died

· More than 1400 homes lost, just in New South Wales

· Hundreds of thousands of people forced to evacuate.

So, how did it come to this?

A complex combination of factors are at play, all of them important: extreme drought, hot winds in tandem with inadequate resources and inept response from leadership to the warnings and then the emerging crisis.

1. Drought

In order to understand the current situation we need to go back to 2017. This was the start of the drought that has gripped and crippled many parts of Australia and is still on-going with no forecast of significant rain in the near future. The map below, issued by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, shows the extent of the drought across the country. This is the worst drought in living memory.

Most of the country is suffering drought. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

But it’s when you look closer you see the real impact.

Zoom into small regional towns and you will see dams cracked and dry, farmers at their wits end as they fork out money they don’t have to buy feed for the starving stock they’ve managed to save, with no end in sight.

A close up of the impact of drought on a dam. No moisture at all.

Whole towns are running dry, literally. Some towns are now trucking water in from more plentiful areas. These towns are in agricultural areas, which further impacts on farmers, their stock and the moisture levels in the ground and vegetation.

‘Day Zero’, the day a town runs out of water has arrived in many communities and looms for many others. The severe water crisis has impacted places like Stanthorpe, Warwick, Dubbo, Nyngen, Warren, Narromine, Cobar, Parkes, Forbes, Cowra, Manilla and Boggabri. Towns like Stanthorpe have been trucking water in since November 2019. Fellow Aussies have been helping too. Russell Wantling, a truck driver featured in The Guardian newspaper, co-ordinates the donated delivery of around 340,000 litres of water a week in this drought ravaged parts of Queensland known as the Granite Belt.

These are relatively small towns, but larger population centres are fearing ‘day zero’ too. Councils in places like Dubbo, with a population of 40,000 people, Armidale with 25,000 population and Tamworth with 62,000 people are dropping bores, in the hope of tapping into an underground reservoir to avoid the forecast ‘day zero’ predicted to arrive as early as six months.

“Drought is a little bit like cancer,” says Margo Wollaston, who lives with her cattle farmer husband, Tom, 70, outside Tamworth in northwest New South Wales. “It sort of eats away at you, and it just gets drier and drier and more severe and more severe.”

Not only has the drought meant the ground is parched, the vegetation tinder dry and the water at crisis levels, it also made back burning near impossible. Back burning in cooler months allows fire and forestry management to undertake controlled burns that create containment lines that usually limit the spread of bush fires.

Bethany Roberts, Deputy Fire Chief of Victoria, told a media conference on January 4 that the drought had prevented much of the hazard reduction back burning that would normally have happened.

2. Hot Winds

The next ingredient in this recipe for catastrophe is heat combined with erratic winds. The graph below shows how annual mean temperatures have trended upwards since 1910.

Australian Heat Trends

The upward trend is clear. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

Heat affects fire conditions in two ways. Firstly, heat compounds the effect of the drought as it further dries and bakes the already tinder dry earth and vegetation. Secondly, fires are far more likely to occur in hotter weather compared to cooler. This is because hot, dry conditions increase the chances of storms, particularly dry lightning storms which carry little rain and are a major cause of wild bush fires.

During this fire crisis Australia has dealt with extreme heatwave conditions with many places experiencing record breaking high temperatures. On January 4 Penrith reached its highest ever temperature of 47.8 C (118.4F). December 2019 was the hottest month on record and this record has already been toppled a few days later with Penrith reaching a maximum temperature of 48.9. Hotter temperatures reduce humidity levels, which coupled with erratic winds create the perfect conditions to spread fire, creating several fronts as the winds change.

Once the fires took hold they even created their own weather patterns. The diagram below, from the BBC, shows how smoke plumes build and can create more fires from lightning generated. The downburst can also be fatal. Full size fire trucks were thrown in the cyclonic force winds caused in the downburst, causing death and injury.

Fires this big create their own weather systems that create typhoons and lightning storms, causing more fires.

3. Prior Planning Prevents . . .

The next critical factor to impact the severity of this devastation is how the Australian Federal Government neglected to prepare for the crisis, primarily through neglect.

The Government ignored warnings from national, independent organisations like Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial and Research Organisation, Bureau of Meteorology, and Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centres Program that the country was facing catastrophic events this bush fire season.

Before the fires began, in April 2019 a cohort of 23 former and current Rural Fire Services Chiefs from several States asked for a meeting to design a National approach with any prospective new Federal Government, after the May election. Their major concerns were predicted fire conditions and insufficient equipment and resources to cope with fires burning in several states simultaneously with multiple fronts. The request was denied by the incoming Coalition Government lead by Scott Morrison.

The Federal Government then ignored the fact that out of control fires had begun earlier than ever before, in July, Australia’s winter and that fires continued to erupt. Since July this current crisis has seen thousands of fires burn out of control throughout Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania. Yet even after a rolling five months of cross-border crises, the Government refused to listen or act.

This current Government openly denies climate change and any ensuing environmental concerns. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said recently about climate change activism in general and Greta Thunberg in particular:

“I want children growing up in Australia to feel positive about their future, and I think it is important we give them that confidence that they will not only have a wonderful country and pristine environment to live in, that they will also have an economy to live in as well. I don’t want our children to have anxieties about these issues.”

Finn Burns, 11 steered his family to safety in their little boat. Anxious about the future? Source: Nine News

Later, in August 2019, this hubris in their own narrow economic rationalist world view propelled the Government to dismiss Queensland Rural Fire Emergency Services warnings of catastrophic fire events.

The 23 Fire Chiefs, past and present from across the country, tried again to seek an audience to generate a National approach and more equipment to deal with predicted conditions and climate change concerns in November 2019. Again, Scott Morrison refused. This refusal to meet with the fire experts looked like a tactic to avoid any suggestion that climate change is the cause of the worrying conditions. One of the contingent, Greg Mullins, Former New South Wales Fire and Rescue chief said:

“It is very, very disappointing that we weren’t listened to earlier because we actually predicted exactly what’s happening now. Measures could have been taken months ago to make the firefighters more effective and to make the community safer.”

The same month schools across Sydney closed due to poor air quality brought on by the smoke from months of bush fires.

By December 2019 Australians had been breathing thick smoke for months, people had died, thousands of our wild animals and birds had perished, hundreds of homes had already been lost, fires were spreading faster than they could be contained and resources were stretched. Overseas personnel arrived to help, and the Government still refused to acknowledge this was evolving into a national emergency. Instead they went on holiday. The Prime Minister went to Hawaii.

4. The Response

On December 21 Mr Scott Morrison returned to Australia, saying the issue was still up to the State governments to deal with, but that he’d give a hand if he was asked. People, including Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese and National Party MP, Darren Chester called for assistance to the largely volunteer fire service personnel who had foregone thousands in lost wages. The Prime Minister said this “was not a priority,” that “they want to be there” and the crisis continued to evolve.

Christmas came and went with fires burning in several states, continuing to spread. Temperatures began to soar and New Year’s Eve saw catastrophe at a new level. But finally, Morrison announced a Government assistance package to provide some financial assistance to some fire services volunteers. By this time three volunteers had died in the fires.

Mr Morrison has been conspicuous by his absence, even since his return from Hawaii. He has rarely been seen publicly since Christmas Eve, preferring to communicate to the nation via social media, video recordings and short press conferences.

Many towns and cities cancelled their firework celebrations due to total fire ban restrictions. Sydney was granted permission.

Still the catastrophe escalated. In the coastal town of Mallacoota in Victoria around 4000 people were forced to the beach for safety as the flames bore down on them on New Year’s Eve. They remained stranded for days.

Around 4000 people and their furry friends sought safety on the beach. Source: ABC News
All people could do was be close to the one you love in safety and watch the horror unfold.

Hundreds of thousands of holiday makers heeded emergency services orders to evacuate and hit the roads to get back home. It is the largest peacetime evacuation in Australia’s history. Everyone seemed to leave at the same time, causing traffic chaos across several states. A staged, National approach could have saved much anxiety and frustration.

The start of 2020, January 1, did not bring much joy. Power, water and internet outages were wide spread. More than 170 homes were lost, but that would double in the next 24 hours. Fire fighters say they will be forever haunted by the dying screams of koalas as they battled flames, helpless to save them. Mr Morrison spent that day playing cricket in the back yard of Kirribilli House. He was not seen in public, nor did he answer any media questions, but he released a statement lamenting the backdrop of “terrible events” for the Test Match against New Zealand.

It’s just not cricket. The PM and teams pose for the cameras.

Morrison’s neglect, lack of empathy and care is appalling hypocrisy given his public professions of living to a high Christian ethos. But it’s not the first time this has been called out.

Image by Dan Jensen, Independent Australian.

Since then the Prime Minister has appeared more often in public, but not always with success. Notably he seemed to beat a hasty retreat from Cobargo after he was jeered, sworn at and snubbed by both townsfolk and fire fighters. After several awkward attempts at reciprocated handshakes he was in his car and off. You can see it here.

The backlash at Mr Morrison’s lack of compassion and inaction seems to have had an impact. In the days after the Cobargo incident Mr Morrison has spent more time with locals in crisis and looks to have been listening.

Now, for the first time ever 3000 Australian Defence Force Reserve personnel from Army, Navy and Airforce have been compulsorily deployed. They will assist with evacuations, assessment of roads, preparation of fire breaks and provision of essential supplies to isolated communities. No end date has been set for these operations.

Unfortunately, Mr Morrison misjudged this as well. Quite apart from the fact that this measure has been called for months ago, by Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, emergency workers and volunteers, his actions immediately after the announcement have deepened dismay about his judgement, compassion and leadership qualities.

Just a few hours after Mr Morrison announced this vast, national approach to providing military assistance to Australians, a glossy television ad appeared lauding the Government’s efforts and responses to the bush fire crisis. The advertisement has been called out as a cynical political stunt.

Advertising guru Todd Sampson, Tweeted,

“There is something not right about running political advertising during a devastating National Crisis. It’s like being ‘sold to’ at a funeral. PR Crisis 101: say less and do more. (Btw, the bouncy elevator music is too juxtaposing and really annoying.)”

Renowned Australian Broadcasting Commission Political commentator, Barry Cassidy, called the ad “absolutely obscene.”

You can watch it here.

Lessons

There are lessons to be learnt from this catastrophe, not just for Australia, but other countries too. These lessons are about bi-partisan, national and state responses working together, in partnership.

A recognition of the environmental and meteorological realities need to take precedence over politicizing the cause of these realities. Putting aside speculation about the causes, denial that temperatures are more extreme more often, or that the drought is unprecedented is folly of a sinister kind.

Mr Morrison is said to have had his ‘Katrina moment’. That, according to journalist Laura Tingle, his massive misjudgments and inadequate responses have doomed his political career. George W. Bush learned this too late after the hurricane and Morrison may have too. Other and future politicians need to heed the importance of maintaining empathy, compassion and leadership that a country in crisis and pain needs. Absence, glossy ads and a Pollyanna type of optimism are hurtful to say the least.

As for the future of Australia? As we Aussies say: She’ll be right. Maybe not for a very long time, but we’ll stand together and get through it. In truth no one knows when the fires will end. The Victorian Fire Chief has said that “only nature” will end the fires. Rain. Much needed, wide spread rain is the only solution. Even when the fires do finally go out, the emotional, financial, environmental and social wounds will take years to heal. But we will prevail.

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