Australia has been called the most climate-vulnerable developed country in the world. It has very dry weather, volatile Eucalypt forests, and rising seasonal temperatures of over 110 degrees. The forested part of the country has been hard hit by bushfires this year—the worst in a decade.
It gets worse. According to The New York Times, Murdoch-owned newspapers there are spinning their own conspiracy theories about the causes. They’re chasing rumors of arson while minimizing the catastrophe.
Steve Burke is a forester who has raised his family in Seattle. He’s from Victoria in Australia, and his thoughts are far away. When it’s very hot and dry, as it has been in the Australian summer, there are so many points of ignition that knowing precisely how the fires got started is pointless, according to Burke. “It’s not just one fire,” said Burke. “It’s thousands.” In other words, just as in the US, wildfires can be expected to be both fiercer and more common.
Some of the Australian fires are on Kangaroo Island, where a friend of the Burkes’ lived before her house was destroyed by fire. Kangaroo Island and its Eucalypt forests are home to many bird species, as well as Ligurian honeybees and lots of mammals and marsupials imported from the mainland. About a third of its land area is protected as wilderness. This year’s bush fires have destroyed hundreds of acres there so far, many in protected areas. Homes are gone and people displaced, with two deaths recorded as of last week.
In the south part of Australia, Eucalypt forests are extra fire-prone because of the oily pitch of the plants, said Burke. The same species is good at recovering from near death, too. But 2019 was Australia’s driest year ever. Fires and fire conditions are the new normal, and not just in that part of the world. So is controversy about causes and prevention of the fires.
There is some progress on prevention. Foresters everywhere agree that part of the culprit is the overgrown forest floor, which provides fuel. And just as in Burke’s native Australia, in Washington we have succeeded in reducing fire hazard by thinning and mowing patches of undergrowth so that it is less conductive.
But there is disagreement on the idea of “back-burning,” a method of preemption that involves controlled burning of the forest understory. Such controlled burning is arguably more efficient and “natural,” but it hurts air quality and threatens vulnerable species. Opinions on this technique break down along cultural lines, with climate-change deniers on the back-burning side and “greenies” on the side of more conventional thinning and mowing.
Meanwhile, as the climate continues to heat up, local disaster planning and recovery will be ever more important in vulnerable areas. This is something that Australians can get behind, and something both sides of their culture war can believe in. Burke remembers the rural neighbors in Victoria who learned the basic skills of firefighting. Now they are more vigilant. Since the last huge disaster, which killed over 100 people on the continent, Burke’s rural neighbors in Victoria have doubled down on their warnings and evacuations, as well as their skills.
While Australians struggle to contain the fires and wait for the rains of 2020, in keeping with more wildly fluctuating weather patterns, they must now also prepare for cyclones and floods. Unfortunately, heatwaves are more likely than ever. When the rains come, the special birds and animals of Kangaroo Island will begin their slow recovery. Humans will adapt. But we may never recover completely.