Despite the heroic efforts of more than three thousand firefighters from a handful of nations, including the U.S., there is little sign that the fires now scorching nearly every corner of Australia will soon be under control. The fires, which pockmark five states in this sprawling nation, are far from a manageable state and could intensify significantly before firefighters, even with a serendipitous assist from Mother Nature, get things under control.
The fires that began in the fall have burned more than 27 million acres, claimed nearly thirty lives and injured scores more. With no end in sight, it is a difficult, sobering and accepted reality that these numbers will certainly climb. The fires have also killed an estimated one billion animals---mammals, birds and reptiles---many of who now face the very real threat of extinction.
But until the fires are extinguished, said Dr. Glenda Wardle, Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Sydney University, scientists can only guess as to the ultimate impact of these blazes. “When it is safe to be in the forests again, scientists will need to carefully track the response and monitor the changes over many months and years,” she said in an email correspondence.
Fire is an omnipresent reality in Australia, a country of 24 million but with a landmass comparable to the size of the United States. Many of the places where fires are burning are remote and difficult to get to regions. Getting the manpower and the equipment to these locations to fight the fires is a challenge nearly as great as extinguishing the flames themselves. But even at this stage, it is a foregone conclusion that the signature left on this season of fire will be bold, deep and indelible.
“We are concerned that many endangered ecological communities that have already been cleared to just a few remnants will be pushed beyond the boundaries of their capacity to respond to environmental change,” said Wardle. “This can create opportunities for weedy species to invade and further alter the function of these plant communities in ways that we may not have seen before.”
Fires, many of surreal magnitude, are part of Australia’s history. The constellation of fires now burning have brought back memories of 2009’s fire season and Black Saturday, so called because of the scar it left on the country.
On February 7th, 2009, a similar plague of searing misery had Australians scrambling to douse scores of fires hopscotching the nation. Officials counted more than 400 brush fires that day. But in addition to flames, the country was engulfed in drought, enduring record heat and experiencing an almost invisible humidity level of 2 percent. Adding to this combustible soup, were winds clocked at nearly 65 mph. Nature had set the table for a day of nearly apocalyptic suffering, leaving a bill of countless property loss, including more than 2,000 homes, acres and acres of endlessly scorched brush and a human toll of 173 lives.
Fires---many lightning caused in nearly inaccessible locales---are a seasonal curse in Australia. But man also plays a recurring role in this annual battle. Arson is often the cause of many of these fires though carelessness is also a factor. The Sydney Morning Herald reports “40 percent of fires are deliberately lit,” with 47 percent ruled accidental. Only 13 percent begin naturally via lightning or downed power lines. But weather is not incidental.
The last decade was “the hottest decade ever,” said Dr. Sam Ng. “They’ve had brush fires in the past,” said the Metropolitan State University of Denver Meteorology professor, “but the magnitude and occurrence have probably increased because of a shift in climate.”
The volume of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, he said, “are not natural to earth and ocean systems.” They have contributed to “warming and cooling of ocean water,” and to fewer storms in the warm season and a basic factor in drought.
With drought conditions across this southern continent, Australia’s fires have easily surpassed California’s 2018 Paradise fire in which 150,000 acres of land were burned and more than 19,000 structures were destroyed. The Paradise fire also claimed nearly 100 lives. By comparison, since September, fire has burned an area of Australia comparable in size to the state of Indiana.
As with any immense natural disaster, policy and politics are now part of the equation. The fire has now also singed Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison. He has been harshly criticized for his handling of the fires and accused of a lack of sensitivity for taking a Hawaiian vacation just as they were beginning. There is also mounting criticism for Morrison’s approach to fire. Critics say he places more importance on the economy than the environment. He has been an ardent booster of Australia’s coal industry. Australia is one of the world’s leading exporters of coal, a key ingredient in greenhouse gases.
From her office window, there is a constant smoke haze from the fires, said Dr. Wardle. “At times, it is surreal as I reflect on how much this is a wake-up call for Australia,” she said. “People are sensibly staying indoors, exercising less, not taking their holidays or trying to cope with children that cannot play outside. This will have a mental toll on all of us.”
The Denver Zoo has pledged $5,000 to aid in the recovery and rescue of Australia’s wildlife. The American Red Cross asks that if you would like to donate to the Australian fire effort, go to www.redcross.org.au.