Here is your complete guide to the Australian 2019-2020 bushfires with answers to all your questions using credible and sourced information. If you’d rather listen to this post instead of read it, you can here.
There is a horrifying amount of misinformation being spread by the media in the hopes of confusing people in their time of despair.
I hope to address this information in this post by providing quick, credible and sourced answers to multiple questions you may have regarding the bushfires in Australia.
I cannot promise you will find everything you want to know in this post but I have tried to include all the basics I can find from credible sources in one place.
I encourage you to continue to do your own research to make up your own opinion after you read this! And please let me know if anything else you find as well as if anything I’ve included here is incorrect or needs updating.
Please share this with your families, your friends and your work colleagues. And most importantly, please share it with people who are unsure about the science of climate change as I hope the information and facts presented below will help them in understanding.
You can click on any of the questions you are interested in below and you will be taken to your answer! I encourage you to read the whole post but if you are short in time feel free to skip ahead.
Listen to this post!
I recorded this post on Instagram TV and posted it there. You might like to listen to this post instead of read it as it’s a big one! Listen to this post here.
What media outlets can I trust?
So let’s start with the reason why I’m writing this post in the first place! The media…
Unbiased and trustworthy:
- Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC)
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
- Special Broadcasting Service (SBS)
- Google News
- The Wall Street Journal
- The New York Times
- The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Bushfire Research
- Bureau of Meteorology (BoM)
- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
- International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
- Pew Research Center
Biased and less trustworthy:
- The Australian
- The Daily Telegraph
- The Courier Mail
- The West Australian
- FOX News
- Huffington Post
- Sky News
Be careful when reading articles on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter! Don’t take a headline as fact. Click on the article and check their sources.
What is a bushfire?
- Bushfires and grassfires are common throughout Australia.
- Grassfires are fast moving, passing in five to ten seconds and smouldering for minutes.
- Bushfires are generally slower moving, but have a higher heat output. This means they pass in two to five minutes, but they can smoulder for days (Geoscience Australia, 2019).
What is the impact so far?
Summary: 30 people have been killed, more than 10 million hectares or 24 million acres have been burnt (almost the size of England), more than 2,000 houses have been destroyed, an estimated billion animals have been affected across the country and an estimated 1/3 of koalas in NSW have died.
- There have been fires in every Australian State and Territory but the biggest fires have been along the southern and eastern coasts.
- Some 30 people have so far been killed – including four firefighters – and more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km or 24.7 million acres) of bush, forest and parks across Australia has burned. In comparison, England’s land mass is 13 million hectares, only 3 million hectares than the total area of impacted land (BBC, 21 January 2019).
- The Australian bushfires are much bigger than those in Siberia, the Amazon and California in 2019. See the image below which demonstrates the size of the fires in each place in terms of millions of acres burned.
Graphic compares the size of the ongoing Australia wildfires to other current wildfires around the world (ABC News, 7 Jan 2019).
- More than 2,000 houses have been destroyed (BBC, 21 January 2019).
- In December, the smoke was so bad in Sydney that air quality measured 11 times the “hazardous” level (CNN, 10 Jan 2020)
- Up to 30% of koalas are estimated to have died in fires on the mid-north coast of New South Wales (ABC News, 7 Jan 2019).
- There is a widely-reported estimate that almost half a billion (480 million) animals have been killed by the bush fires in Australia. The figure that came from Prof Chris Dickman, an expert on Australian biodiversity at the University of Sydney. However he released a statement which explains he is referring to the number of animals that have been affected not died (BBC, 4 Jan 2020). He has since revised his estimate of the number of animals affected in bushfires in NSW to more than 800 million animals, with a national impact of more than one billion animals (The University of Sydney, 8 Jan 2019).
- Scientists say there is no way to accurately survey impact on wildlife until the fires stop.
- The fires don’t only kill animals directly, they also destroy the habitat, leaving the survivors vulnerable even once the fires have gone (BBC, 2019).
How and when do Australian bushfires generally start?
Summary: Bushfires are a natural part of Australian environments, multiple factors create favourable environments for fires including big amounts of dried plants (or a high fuel load), high temperatures and strong winds. Fires can be lit through natural causes eg. lightning or by humans through controlled burning or arson. Bushfires generally start between August and December in QLD and NSW so they weren’t actually ‘early’ this season.
- Bushfires are a natural part of Australia’s environment. Our ecosystems have evolved with fire and the landscape has been shaped by historic and recent fires. Many of Australia’s native plants are fire prone and very combustible and many species depend on fire to regenerate (Geoscience Australia, 2019).
- Multiple factors create favourable environments for bushfires – a high fuel load (the amount of plants like fallen trees, leaves and bark), low fuel moisture (dried plants), strong winds, high temperatures, low humidity (dry air) and uphill slopes (Geoscience Australia, 2019).
- Bushfires can originate from both human activity and natural causes with lightning the predominant natural source, accounting for about half of all ignitions in Australia. Fires of human origin currently account for the remainder and are classified as accidental or deliberate. Fires lit deliberately can be the result of arson or might be designed to achieve a beneficial outcome (Geoscience Australia, 2019).
- At any time of the year, some parts of Australia are prone to bushfires. For most of southern Australia, the danger period is summer and autumn. For New South Wales and southern Queensland, the peak risk usually occurs in spring and early summer. The Northern Territory experiences most of its fires in winter and spring (Geoscience Australia, 2019).
- While it seems the fires in September 2019 (in south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales) started well before the onset of the summer bushfire season, the fire season in these regions generally ranges from August to December. So, the fires have been during the traditional fire season and not ‘early’ at all (CSIRO, 12 Dec 2019).
How did the 2019-2020 bushfires start?
Summary: The 2019-2020 bushfires were lit by multiple ignition sources including dry lighting, arson, fallen power lines and mistakes e.g. cars or cigarette butts.
Before we go into this section I’d like to clarify that the following things are different:
- The ways the fires started or where ignited e.g lighting
- The conditions that made the fires worse and long lasting e.g high temperatures
- The reasons why these conditions are happening e.g climate change
Were the fires started by lightning?
- NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Inspector Ben Shepherd said lightning was predominantly responsible for the bushfire crisis. “I can confidently say the majority of the larger fires that we have been dealing with have been a result of fires coming out of remote areas as a result of dry lightning storms,” he said (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
- In Victoria, “Most of the fires have been caused by lightning” said Brett Mitchell, the CFA incident controller (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
- Bush fires themselves can also drive thunderstorms, increasing the risk of lightning strikes and further fires (BBC, 21 January 2019).
But weren’t all the fires started by arsonists?
Summary: The bushfires were started by multiple ignition causes. Arson is just one of them along with lightning strikes and fallen power lines. The percentage of fires started by arson varies state to state. In QLD, 3% were deliberately lit and in NSW only 1% (24 people have been charged). Only one fire in VIC and ACT are being treated as suspicious and none in SA. In WA however 32-44% of the fires have been treated as suspicious. TAS is the only state where most of of the fires have been deliberately lit with two thirds attributed to arson.
Please note that these are just some of the ways the fires were lit. This does not explain why the fires started so easily or why they have continued for so long.
- One Facebook post claims there had been “180 people so far charged with arson.” It has been shared more than 600 times. It was also reported here by The Australian in an article that was shared on Twitter by Donald Trump Jr (son of US President Donald Trump). The Australian is a newspaper published by News Corp Australia, a company owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (AFP Fact Check, 2019). This figure is false. See below for statistic on fires cause by arson in each state.
- Analysis by the Queensland University of Technology detected a “co-ordinated” social media disinformation campaign promoting the theory that arsonists caused the fires, while seeking to discredit evidence suggesting climate change has helped increase the severity and length of bushfire seasons. Almost 1500 tweets, published by more than 300 accounts, using the #ArsonEmergency hashtag were examined (Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 2019).
Let’s take a look at the number of fires started by arson in each state…
- The Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) said only 3% of the bushfires in the state this season were deliberately lit. They also said 6% of ignition causes were being treated as suspicious. 19% were categorised as “accidental or natural” including lightning strikes (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
New South Wales
- ABC says “only about 1 per cent of the land burnt in NSW this bushfire season can be officially attributed to arson” (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
- NSW Police say “Since Friday 8 November 2019, legal action (which ranges from cautions through to criminal charges) has been taken against 183 people for 205 bushfire-related offences. 24 of the 183 people have been charged over alleged deliberately-lit bushfires, 53 have had legal actions for allegedly failing to comply with a total fire ban, and 47 people have had legal actions for allegedly discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land” (NSW Police, 6 Jan 2020).
- The majority of suspected arson relates to small grass fires and rubbish bins set alight, which have inflicted negligible damage and burnt a tiny area compared with fires sparked by lightning (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
Australian Capitol Territory
- One person has been charged for deliberately lighting a fire, according to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
- Only one fire in the 2019-2020 bushfire season is being treated as suspicious (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
- Victoria Police had no arson figures available for this bushfire season, but said in the 12 months to September 2019, a dozen people had been arrested for causing bushfires (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
- Authorities attributed almost two-thirds of the blazes burning on the state’s east coast and in the south since late December to arson. “Approximately 21,000 of the 35,000 hectares burnt is a result of deliberately lit fires,” a Tasmanian Fire Service spokesperson said (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
- None of SA’s deadliest or most destructive fires are being treated as suspicious. However, police said 10 people in SA had been reported or arrested for intentionally or recklessly causing a bushfire since September. The state’s Country Fire Service (CFS) said the most deadly and destructive fires were caused by dry lighting and fallen power lines (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
- WA DFES said 449 of the 1,537 bushfires across the state between November 1 and January 14 were considered suspicious or were deliberately lit (approx. 32%). In metropolitan areas, it was higher with approx 44% of the 679 fires being considered suspicious or deliberately lit. However, the percentage of fires categorised as suspicious or deliberate was not an unusual number compared to other years. The other major causes of ignitions in WA were cigarettes, weather conditions and vehicles, which combined made up about 24% of the ignition causes (ABC, 18 Jan 2019).
Why are these fires so much worse than usual?
Summary: the bushfires are worse this year for a number of reasons. Longer and more severe drought, strong winds, low soil and air moisture, increased fuel loads, record high temperatures, reduced rainfall and the Indian Ocean Dipole weather pattern.
- BoM made the call as part of its Annual Climate Statement that 2019 was Australia’s hottest year with a mean temperature of 1.52 degrees Celsius above average. The BoM report said the link between the fires and record low rainfall and increased temperatures was clear (SBS, 16 Jan 2020).
- 2019 was the third year of continuing drought in south eastern Australia (Science News, 9 Jan 2020).
- These fires have been particularly severe because much of the east coast of Australia has been suffering from drought. For the last 18 months, large sections of New South Wales, south-east Queensland, and eastern Victoria have received the lowest rainfall totals on record, as shown in the rainfall deficit map below. Extended drought means vegetation across large parts of the countryside is available to burn as fuel. Therefore, areas usually moist and green at this time of year are more easily ignited, burn more and don’t stop fires from spreading as they usually would (CSIRO, 12 Dec 2019).
- The maximum temperature was two degrees above previous average and half a degree warmer than the previous record. This is the first time we have seen such large increases said BoMs head of climate monitoring Dr Karl Braganza (SBS, 16 Jan 2020).
- Australia’s national average rainfall total was just 277mm – the lowest recorded ever (SBS, 16 Jan 2020).
- There was also the occurrence of a natural weather phenomenon known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (similar to El Niño), resulting in a hot, dry spell across the country (BBC, 2019).
- Fires can cause “ember storms,” which can lead to additional fires when embers from smaller fires are picked up by the wind (Time, 8 Jan 2020).
What does this have to do with climate change?
First of all we better take a look at what climate change actually is! I encourage you to read this section as it will make the rest much easier to understand. Skip ahead if you already have a really good understanding of what climate change is… but maybe still read the explanation just in case!
What is climate change?
Summary: Climate change describes a change in the average conditions, such as temperature and rainfall, in a region over a long period of time (NASA, 2019).
- Changes include warming temperatures and changes in rainfall. Effects of Earth’s warming include rising sea levels, shrinking mountain glaciers, dying coral, ice melting at a faster rate than usual and increased frequency and severity of natural disasters including cyclones and bushfires. We are already seeing these impacts happen around the world (NASA, 2019).
- The past five years have been the warmest five years in centuries. Many people, including scientists, are concerned about this warming. As Earth’s climate continues to warm, the intensity and amount of rainfall during storms such as hurricanes is expected to increase. Droughts and heat waves are also expected to become more intense as the climate warms (NASA, 2019).
- The global average temperature for the first 10 months of 2018 was 0.98C above the levels of 1850-1900, according to five independently maintained global data sets. In addition, the 20 warmest years on record have all occurred in the past 22 years (BBC, 2018).
Is climate change natural or caused by humans?
Summary: In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, concluded there’s a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet (NASA, 2019).
- Certain gases (Greenhouse Gases or GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere block heat from escaping. This is called the greenhouse effect. These gases keep Earth warm like the glass in a greenhouse keeps plants warm (NASA, 2019).
- Certain human activities produce GHGs like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, resulting in more GHGs in the atmosphere then would naturally be there. These changes cause the atmosphere to trap more heat than it used to, leading to a warmer Earth. This is called the Greenhouse Effect and results in Global Warming (NASA, 2019).
- Human activities that produce GHGs include burning fossil fuels like coal, using cars, cutting down forests and burning natural land.
What is the difference between weather and climate?
- Weather describes the conditions outside right now in a specific place. For example, if you see that it’s raining outside right now, that’s a way to describe today’s weather. Rain, snow, wind, hurricanes, tornadoes — these are all weather events (NASA, 2019).
- Climate, on the other hand, is more than just one or two rainy days. Climate describes the weather conditions that are expected in a region at a particular time of year. Is it usually rainy or usually dry? Is it typically hot or typically cold? A region’s climate is determined by observing its weather over a period of many years—generally 30 years or more (NASA, 2019).
What is the different between global warming and climate change?
Summary: Although people tend to use these terms interchangeably, global warming is just one aspect of climate change.
- Global warming refers to the rise in global temperatures due mainly to the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
- Climate change refers to the increasing changes in the measures of climate over a long period of time – including precipitation, temperature, and wind patterns (U.S Geological Survey, 2019)
- You can read more about the causes of global warming, the science behind it and why carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouses matter in my blog post, How composting literally saves the world and combats global warming.
Why do people keep talking about keeping global temperatures below an additional 1.5 degrees?
Summary: If we continue to live the way we are, it is likely the global average temperature will rise by at least 1.5C by the end of the 21st century. Other predictions have estimated increased of 3-5 degrees. An increase of just 2 degrees has long been regarded as a tipping point (or point of no return). Policy makers are arguing that the world needs to keep the global increase to 1.5C to reduce the worst impacts of climate change but we will need rapid and extreme change to accomplish this. Even if we can reduce increases to 1.5C we will still see a huge increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters.
- In its 2013 assessment of the science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast a range of possible scenarios to determine how much the global average temperature will rise in the future. It indicated that if we continue the way we are going, the increase is likely to exceed 1.5C by the end of the 21st Century relative to 1850. Others say that if the current warming trend continues, temperatures could rise by 3-5C by the end of this century (BBC, 2018).
- But an IPCC report in 2018 suggested that keeping to the 1.5C target would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. Even if we cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically now, scientists say the effects will continue because parts of the climate system, particularly large bodies of water and ice, can take hundreds of years to respond to changes in temperature. It also takes greenhouse gases decades to be removed from the atmosphere.
- An increase of 2C has long been regarded as a dangerous tipping point. Policy makers have argued that keeping temperature rise to within 1.5C is a safer limit for the world (BBC, 2018).
- “We are seeing disasters with a 1 degree warming of the planet so far, and we know that we’re headed for a 1.5 or 2 or 3 degree warming so you can only imagine how bad the disasters are going to get” said Peter Gleick climate scientist and co-founder of Pacific Institute in California (Time, 8 Jan 2020).
- The Australian Academy of Science says we must take stronger action as part of the worldwide commitment to limit global warming to 1.5° C above average. This may allow us to reduce the worst impacts of climate change (Australian Academy of Science, 10 January 2020).
Are the 2019-2020 bushfires caused by climate change?
Summary: The fires were ignited by lighting strikes, fallen power lines and people. The reason they are lasting so long and have been so severe is the result of a combination of things. These include increased temperatures, reduced rainfall, the Indian Ocean Dipole phenomenon and, longer and more frequent droughts – all of which are linked to climate change.
- CSIRO say asking if “climate change cause this event?” is the wrong question… climate change didn’t start a fire or create a drought. What climate change may do is change the likelihood of the event or make the event more severe or last longer than would have been the case without climate change (CSIRO, 27 Nov 2019).
- “The scientific evidence base shows that as the world warms due to human induced climate change, we experience an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events says the Australian Academy of Science, an independent and authoritative scientific adviser to the parliament and to nation” (Australian Academy of Science, 10 January 2020).
- CSIRO says “many parts of Australia have historically experienced extensive and severe bushfire seasons so in that sense it isn’t unusual. However, we expect the impacts of climate change will mean we will have more of this type of weather and that may result in an increase in the number and severity of bushfire events” (CSIRO, 12 Dec 2019).
- Bushfire risk depends on fuel type, fuel amount, fuel dryness, weather conditions and ignition sources including lightning and humans. Fuel and ignitions are partly dependent on fire management practices, while fuel amount and dryness also depends on the weather conditions in the months leading up to the fire. There is now considerable evidence that climate change affects the prevalence of intense fire weather conditions and the heat prior to fire events. Climate change may also affect the low rainfall in the months prior to the fire that pre-conditions the landscape for fires as well (CSIRO, 27 Nov 2019).
- As mentioned earlier, Australia set a new highest temperature record twice in 2019 with an average maximum of 41.9C recorded on 18 December (BBC, 2019)
- “The Australian bushfires were exacerbated by two factors that have a well-established link to climate change: heat and dry conditions” says Stefan Rahmstorf, department head at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and a lead author of the United Nations’ IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. Rahmstorf also says that climate scientists believe wildfire conditions are worsening because climate change affects the water cycle, which in turn “leads to less rainfall in already dry parts of the world, and more rainfall in the already wet parts of the world” (Time, 8 Jan 2020).
- “It’s not a question of whether climate change has caused these fires. Fires start for natural reasons — or for human cause reasons. What we’re seeing is a worsening of the conditions that make the fires in Australia unprecedentedly bad,” says Gleick. “All of these factors — record heat, unprecedented drought, lack of rain — all contribute to drying out the fuel that makes these fires worse. What we have are fires that might have occurred anyway, but the extent, the severity, the intensity of these fires is far worse than it otherwise would have been without the fingerprints of climate change.” said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and co-founder of Pacific Institute in California. He also points out that these fires are very similar to recent highly destructive fires in Brazil and California (Time, 8 Jan 2020).
- Fires add carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, which increases climate change. “Climate change is making these disasters worse, and these disasters are making climate change worse,” said Peter Gleick climate scientist and co-founder of Pacific Institute in California (Time, 8 Jan 2020).
- The main climate driver behind the heat has been a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) – an event where sea surface temperatures are warmer in the western half of the ocean, cooler in the east. The difference between the two temperatures is currently the strongest in 60 years. As a result, there has been higher-than-average rainfall and floods in eastern Africa and droughts in south-east Asia and Australia
- When the Indian Ocean Dipole weather pattern is in its positive phase (like in 2019), Australia has some of its worst fire seasons including Black Friday. Climate change increases the frequency of the positive phase. This is also the reason why we’re seeing huge impacts in East African countries where rains, flooding and landslides killed more than 300 people and affected hundreds of thousands more in 2019 (Science News, 9 Jan 2020).
- In 2014, a study found that if we continue the way we are going, the frequency of extreme positive phases and the resulting bushfires will be three times as common by 2100 (once every 6 years instead of every 17). The good news is, if we cut emissions enough so that global average temperatures don’t rise by more than 1.5 degrees, this frequency can be reduced (Science News, 9 Jan 2020).
- Further reading – How CSIRO determines whether events are related to climate change
I’d like to point out that in writing this section, I found quotes from scientists from all over the world stating that there is a clear and proven link between the intensity and severity of these fires and climate change. I have included statements from only a handful.
What is back burning?
Summary: High fuel loads (dried plant matter) creates favourable conditions for bushfires. Prescribed burning, controlled burning or hazard reduction burning is the lighting of controlled fires before the bushfire season. This preventative method reduces the amount of fuel on the ground and therefor reduces the severity of the fires once the bushfire season begins. This is different from back burning, a last resort fire fighting method that is used once the fires have begun. This involves burning strategic locations around the path of an approaching fire before it arrives in the hopes of reducing fuel loads.
- Controlled burning is the lighting of controlled fires under conditions that result in relatively mild fire behaviour, generally in late autumn, winter and early spring. The fuel (dried plant matter) is burnt up without the risk of the fire escaping. This reduces the amount of fuel on the ground for the bushfire season. Once the fire season begins it’s often too late to conduct controlled burning because the risk of fires escaping is too great (CSIRO, 12 Dec 2019).
- A plethora of scientific papers describe controlled burning as the easiest and most effective tool of bushfire management — more effective than slashing, weeding, herbicide use and so forth (ABC, 12 Dec 2020).
- Hazard reduction burning methods include controlled burning as well as other activities such as “thinning” bushland (cutting down trees), clearing, slashing or mulching ground litter, ploughing fields, cleaning guttering on houses and other buildings, and through fire-resistant garden design and maintenance (ABC, 12 Dec 2020).
Does the government control burn or not?
Summary: Bushfire management activities are conducted by state governments. QLD and NSW both exceeded their controlled burning targets for 2019. However, experts say these targets are too low and experts and fire brigades are calling for increases in funding to carry out more preventative burning. Controlled burning has also been restricted by drought which reduces the number of cool days where burning can be carried out.
- Bushfire management activities in Australia are conducted by state and territory governments and their relevant authorities (fire emergency services) as well as by municipal councils and individual property owners. At a federal level, bushfire management is regulated by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (ABC, 20 Dec 2019).
- Queensland fire management groups, including volunteer fire brigades participate in the yearly operation Cool Burn — a hazard reduction coordinating effort organised by QFES which generally operates from April 1 to August 31. In 2019, QFES and its partners completed 229 priority mitigation activities to reduce bushfire risk at high-risk sites. This includes 108 of 175 planned hazard reduction burns, 83 targeted education activities and 38 fire line upgrades. Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service QPWS conducted 291 planned burns over 1,443,882 hectares in 2019, the largest area covered in the last six years (ABC, 12 Dec 2020).
- In NSW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) works with the NSW Rural Fire Service, Fire and Rescue NSW, Forestry Corporation and Sydney Catchment Authority. Hazard reduction efforts in NSW have increased under the Enhanced Bushfire Management Program (EBMP), which came into effect in 2011. Over the last eight years, according to its website, the NPWS carried out hazard reduction burns in NSW parks and reserves covering more than 680,000 hectares — more than double that of the previous five-year period. They have undertaken 80 per cent of the total hazard reduction burning effort recorded in NSW, despite managing less than 9 per cent of the state (ABC, 12 Dec 2020).
- Although the NSW RFS met its targets for prescribed burning in the last full fire season of 2018-19, experts say the targets are too low. Professor Ross Bradstock, the director of Wollongong University’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, last week said research showed funding for hazard reduction burns in NSW needs to increase five-fold to manage the increasing bushfire threat. Such an increase would bring total funding to $500 million. Former fire chiefs have also been calling for increased funding for hazard reduction (ABC, 6 Jan 2020).
- The main reason more prescribed burning has not been done is the risk the deliberately lit fires will get out of control and burn down property, or otherwise choke population areas with unhealthy amounts of smoke. This risk has gone up with the drought, which has meant there are fewer days every year with low-risk fire conditions. It’s also gone up with population levels, which has meant more people are affected by prescribed burning. “With many prescribed burns now conducted close to the expanding urban fringe and close to essential infrastructure and agriculture, the community tolerance levels are very low to heavy smoke and potential damage to delicate ecosystems,” Dr Thornton says (ABC, 6 Jan 2020).
What does it have to do with The Greens Party?
Summary: The Australian Greens Party do support hazard reduction or controlled burning and have done so for years. More controlled burning could not be completed due drought and hotter and drier conditions that would have made it too risky to complete burns. The Greens Party aren’t even in government at federal or state level.
- The chief accuser is Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce who says “greens policy” gets in the way “of many of the practicalities of fighting a fire and managing it”. This claim, just to be clear, is about the policies of a party that has never been in government. Joyce also blamed the Greens for “paperwork” that made it harder to carry out hazard reduction activities (The Guardian, 12 Nov 2019).
- A former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, Greg Mullins, wrote that the hotter and drier conditions, and the higher fire danger ratings, were preventing agencies from carrying out prescribed burning. He said: “Blaming ‘greenies’ for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim” (The Guardian, 12 Nov 2019).
- The Greens website states the following – “the Australian Greens support hazard reduction burns and back burning to reduce the impact of bushfires when guided by the best scientific, ecological and emergency service expertise” (The Greens, 2020).
- The Greens have supported hazard reduction burns for a long time. For example, here’s a Facebook post from 2013 (The Greens, 2020).
- All Greens policies are made in close consultation with First Nations peoples. We acknowledge that First Nations peoples have always led the way in caring for Country. Governments at all levels should be co-designing and consulting with First Nations peoples when making decisions about land management and the environment (The Greens, 2020).
What does this have to do with Aboriginal fire management?
- Fire management is part of how Aboriginal people look after country. It is often called ‘cultural burning’ (Creative Spirits, 17 Jan 2020).
- Aboriginal people, Australia’s traditional owners, used controlled burning as a method of fire management. I first read about this in Bruce Pascoe’s fantastic book, Dark Emu.
- A case study from the Kimberley, Western Australia – Aboriginal people in the Kimberley have been undertaking traditional fire management for thousands of years. However, with the onset of colonisation and the removal of Aboriginal people from traditional lands, traditional burning was largely stopped during the twentieth century. This led to the emergence of large, uncontrolled wildfires, usually occurring late in the dry season and destroying important ecosystems and habitats. Often these late dry season wildfires impact grazing pasture, infrastructure and other assets. In the last 25 years, with the introduction of native title and the recognition that western fire prevention methods have not been working effectively, we are now seeing a reinvigoration of traditional fire management in the Kimberley and all across northern Australia (Kimberley Land Council, 2020).
How are the 2019-2020 bushfires being managed and why can’t they put them out?
Summary: Firefighting strategies include using water from the ground and air, creating control lines by removing fuel loads (dry plant matter), applying flame retardant from the air and back burning. Conditions like strong winds and drought have made some of these fires impossible to put out. Water bombing from the air is only useful for some fires. We need sufficient rain over a long period of time or the strong winds to die off to put the fires out.
- Professional and volunteer firefighters are fighting the 2019-2020 fires and US, Canada, and New Zealand have sent firefighters to help (BBC, 2019).
- 3,000 Army, Navy and Air Force reservists have been brought in to help fight the fires (ABC News, 7 Jan 2019).
- Firefighting strategies usually include direct attack of the flames, with water from the ground or the air, and indirect attack, where control lines are constructed by physically removing the fuel on the ground or applying flame retardant from the air. Back burning can also be used as a last resort. This is where new fires are intentionally lit to consume the fuel between a control line and the advancing fire (CSIRO, 12 Dec 2019).
- In the past, firefighters could be confident that a fire would eventually run up against wet ground or plants, which would slow its progress. Without dry fuel, it would eventually die out (ABC, 12 Jan 2020).
- Water booming only works in some areas. The water usually fails to fall any further than the tree-tops, when dropped on fires burning in wooded areas. Our eucalypts are such a big heavy tree, we have heavy canopy, lots of leaf and lots of branches and the water will just not penetrate through. By the time the water hits the canopy, it’s a very, very mild amount of water hitting down onto the ground. As a result, any waterbombing efforts are directed towards those areas where firefighters are trying to protect property (ABC, 12 Jan 2020).
- The message from fire authorities is clear: only heavy, consistent rain will put an end to these megafires before the bushfire season ends (ABC, 12 Jan 2020).
- South-eastern Australia has been “abnormally dry” since September 2019, which means that it would need significant rainfall repeatedly over a period of weeks to become damp enough to cut down the risk of fires, says Dan Pydynowski, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather (Time, 8 Jan 2020).
What about all the cyclones up north?
Summary: Cyclones hit Western Australian and the Northern Territory while the fires were burning along the south and east coasts. But, climate scientist Professor Will Steffen from the Australian National University said that “We can’t actually count on cyclones pulling us out of this mess. In general, they don’t have a strong influence on the south-east of the continent… We depend, particularly in the cool seasons on fronts coming off the southern ocean and we know that those are very likely affected by climate change” (SBS, 16 Jan 2020).
What has the government done?
Summary: 42 Local Government Areas (LGAs) in QLD, NSW, VIC and SA have received $1 million each from a new $2 billion bushfire recovery fund. A further $18 million has been set aside to offer extra money to larger local governments and the most severely affected communities. Firefighters will receive payments depending on their employment status and number of days spent fighting fires. NSW has committed an additional $1 billion to help rebuild communities. VIC declared a state of emergency in six local areas.
- In April 2019, 23 former fire chiefs and emergency leaders issued a letter warning the government about “increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events”. It requested a meeting which was declined by the government (BBC, Nov 2019).
- There are 70,000 people in the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, most of them unpaid. Up to A$6,000 for privately-employed volunteers in NSW will be offered. Volunteers who are employed by small- and medium-sized businesses or are self-employed will be able to apply for up to A$300 per day that they have volunteered if they have spent more than 10 days battling the flames (BBC, 29 Dec 2019).
- Full list of the local councils receiving funding found here. Local councils are free to allocate the cash, which can be spent on everything from immediate maintenance and repairs through to new public activities and events to rally communities together and attract tourism back into the area (9 News, 9 Jan 2020).
- Scott Morrison has flagged further payments to boost tourism, help small businesses and for environmental rehabilitation and habitat restoration in the coming weeks and months. (9 News, 9 Jan 2020).
- The NSW Government has committed $1 billion to help rebuild bushfire-ravaged communities (ABC, 9 Jan 2020).
- The money will go towards repairing and rebuilding damaged infrastructure such as roads, rail lines, bridges, schools, health clinics and communications facilities (ABC, 9 Jan 2020).
- It comes on top of more than $200 million already committed by the State Government, and a $2 billion national fund provided by the Federal Government (ABC, 9 Jan 2020).
What climate action has the government taken?
In the past…
Summary: Australia has two targets under international agreements. The first is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below 2000 levels by 2020 under the Kyoto Protocol. The second is to reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030 under the Paris Agreement. The second target has been criticised as too low and we are not even on track to meet that. Australia is also counting the carbon already reduced under the first target (The Kyoto Protocol), something no other countries are doing.
- Under international climate agreements, Australia has two targets to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions:
- 5% below 2000 levels by 2020 (under the Kyoto Protocol) and
- 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030 (under the Paris Agreement).
- The Paris Agreement is the global deal to tackle rising world temperatures. Australia’s target under the Paris Agreement is a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2030. Some have criticised that as inadequate for a G20 country. The G20 is an international forum for the governments and central bank governors from 19 countries and the European Union (BBC, Nov 2019).
- The UN reported that Australia (the world’s largest coal exporter) was not on track to meet its commitment. “There has been no improvement in Australia’s climate policy since 2017 and emission levels for 2030 are projected to be well above the target.” About half of the G20 countries (those with the biggest economies), including Australia, are falling short. It highlighted the country’s no-show at a UN climate summit in September and its withdrawal from an international fund to tackle climate change (BBC, 2 Jan 2020).
- Australian emissions will be only 16% lower than 2005 levels in 2030, according to projections published in December. But it says it will meet the 2030 targets by counting the quantities of carbon already reduced under the previous international climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol. (BBC, 2 Jan 2020).
- The Government intends to achieve its target mainly through the use of Kyoto carry over – a move that a number of other countries with such carry overs have explicitly rejected. These carry over units make up more than half of the abatement task based on current government projections. Australia’s emissions have been increasing since 2014 when the federal government repealed the carbon pricing system. Emissions are projected to grow through 2030, instead of reducing in line with the 2030 target (Climate Action Tracker, 2020).
- While the federal government continues to repeatedly state that Australia is on track to meet its 2030 target, the Climate Action Tracker is not aware of any scientific basis, published by any analyst or government agency, that would support this. The OECD has warned the Australian Government that it will not achieve its target without intensified mitigation efforts (Climate Action Tracker, 2020).
Policies and programs
Summary: In 2012 the carbon tax was established, a carbon pricing mechanism. In 2014 the carbon tax was repealed. Australia’s central emissions reduction policy is now the 4.5 billion dollar Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF).
THE ERF supports businesses and land managers to run projects to reduce emissions. They earn credits through this which can then be bought by the government or businesses seeking to offset their emissions. However the scheme is only voluntary and it’s success is questionable.
The previous Carbon Farming Futures program was absorbed into the ERF. The Turnbull Government put forward the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) but this was finally dumped in 2018. Other current key programs include the Renewable Energy Target and Clean Energy Innovation Fund.
State policies and programs have much better policies and programs, many with aspirational or legislated zero emissions targets.
State policies and programs
- All states now have either aspirational or legislated zero emissions targets, and some have strong renewable energy targets as well as green/renewable energy hydrogen strategies in place. These goals are not without effect, but a federal level commitment to zero emissions and a Paris Agreement consistent 2030 target as well as a renewable energy target beyond 2020 are necessary to ensure a consistent federal framework for a fast transition (Climate Action Tracker, 2020).
Federal policies and programs
The Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF)
- Several proposals to establish an emissions trading scheme have come unstuck, with the former ALP Government finally establishing a carbon pricing mechanism in 2012. However, the ‘carbon tax’ was repealed by the Abbott Government in 2014. Instead, the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) is now the centrepiece of the Australian Government’s current policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
- Australia’s central climate plan is the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF). The government put forward an additional $2 billion spread over 15 years to help businesses and farmers reduce emissions, bringing up total investment to $4.5 billion. The government says it will deliver 100 million tonnes of emissions reductions (BBC, 2 Jan 2020).
- The Emissions Reduction Fund supports Australian businesses, farmers and land managers to take practical actions to reduce emissions and improve the environment. By running projects to reduce emissions, businesses, local councils, state governments, land managers and others can earn Australian carbon credit units (ACCUs). These units can be sold to the Australian Government through a carbon abatement contract, or to other businesses seeking to offset their emissions. Over 770 projects have been registered under many eligible activities, including energy efficiency, waste management, revegetation, livestock management and savanna fire management. There has been a total of $4.5 billion put into the fund (Department of the Environment and Energy, 2020).
- The Emissions Reduction Fund is a voluntary scheme that aims to provide incentives for a range of organisations and individuals to adopt new practices and technologies to reduce their emissions (Clean Energy Regulator, 2020).
- Twice a year, the Clean Energy Regulator holds reverse auctions, where companies bid to win the emissions reduction work. The cheapest good-quality bids are awarded Emissions Reduction Fund contracts. Those contracts are for a range of projects, including stopping planned tree-clearing and installing energy efficient appliances (ABC, 2 Aug 2019). In 2019, analysis of government data shows contracts terminations have meant nearly 20 per cent of expected emission reduction in some auctions did not happen (ABC, 17 Jun 2019).
- Under the Carbon Farming Futures (CFF) Program, which began in 2012 and ran through to June 2017, the Australian Government invested more than $139 million in 200 projects, involving 350 organisations with more than 530 farm trial sites. The CFF program has been absorbed by the ERF (The Department of Agriculture, 2020).
- The Turnbull Government’s signature energy policy was the National Energy Guarantee (NEG). This was dumped in 2018. The policy was criticised for its weak targets and poor design (Greenpeace, 2018). The ERF is Australia’s main policy instead.
- Subscribe for updates on the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund here.
The Renewable Energy Target
- There is also The Renewable Energy Target which operates through the creation of tradable certificates which create an incentive for additional generation of electricity from renewable sources (Clean Energy Regulator, 2020).
- Through the scheme, large renewable power stations and the owners of small-scale systems are eligible to create certificates for every megawatt hour of power they generate—creating the ‘supply’ side of the certificate market (Clean Energy Regulator, 2020).
- Wholesale purchasers of electricity, mainly electricity retailers, buy these certificates to meet their renewable energy obligations—forming the ‘demand’ side of the certificate market (Clean Energy Regulator, 2020).
The Clean Energy Innovation Fund
- The Clean Energy Innovation Fund is the largest dedicated Australian investor of its kind. It was created as a specialist financier to invest $200 million in early-stage clean energy companies (Clean Energy Finance Corporation, 2020).
- The Fund targets technologies and businesses that have passed beyond the research and development stage and which can benefit from early stage seed or growth capital to help them progress to the next stage of their development (Clean Energy Finance Corporation, 2020).
- It draws on CEFC finance to provide primarily equity finance to innovative clean energy projects and businesses which involve renewable, energy efficiency and low emissions technologies (Clean Energy Finance Corporation, 2020).
Since the fires began…
Summary: Scott Morrison admitted you can’t link climate policy to a specific fire event but he accepts climate change is impacting the world’s weather systems. However, despite the backlash, Morrison said he would not consider downsizing the nation’s coal industry in a bid to tackle global warming. He also completely rejects the notion that Australia is not doing enough to tackle climate change, even though we were ranked one of the lowest countries for climate action.
To put it into perspective, the carbon emissions from the 2019-2020 bushfires alone were more than the emissions of the 116 lowest ranking countries combines, so were Australia’s domestic emissions in 2018. The carbon emissions from our coal and gas exports in 2018 were three times the amount of the lowest 116 countries.
How you can you help?
Share this post
This information will be important long after the fires stop, as will our actions, so make your first action sharing this! Information is power and that power is yours for the taking.
Please share this post with your families, your friends and your work colleagues. Most importantly, please share it with people who are unsure about the science of climate change as I hope the information and facts presented above will help them in understanding.
- Donate your time and money to local businesses and families within your community!
- Donations can also be made to several organizations working toward victim relief and recovery, including the Australian Red Cross, Salvation Army Australia, the NSW Rural Fire Service, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society Australia.
- You can also help the devastated animal population by giving to wildlife rescue and treatment groups like WIRES, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, and Currumbin Wildlife Hospital.
- Check to see what companies are matching donations – this might be a good way to increase the value of your donation!
Write a letter
- This is equally important as donating money! The government works for you! Help them do their job by writing to them and telling them your concerns and provide them with some solutions. Physical mail makes the biggest impact but an email is better than nothing! Do both if you can.
- Find a full guide to writing your letter at 1 Million Women.
- Find out who your Local MP is here.
- There are certain protocols on how to address your MP, which differ depending on whether you’re writing or speaking to them. For details see these Guidelines for Contacting Senators and Members. For more information, see this Caritas Guide on Engaging Your MP.
When writing your letter, be sure to include key information and solutions! I’ve outlined some below:
- Demand that Australia takes stronger action as its part of the worldwide commitment to limit global warming to 1.5C above the long-term average to reduce the worst impacts of climate change.
- We must enact a plan to switch to renewables with a realistic goal of 50-100% by 2030.
- We must cut our greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and deeply to reduce the impact of future bushfires and other extreme events. Burning fossil fuels, like coal, oil and gas, must be phased out. Yet Australia’s emissions have been rising year-on-year for the past five years (Department of the Environment and Energy 2019) and the Federal Government has no credible policy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Australia is not on track to meet even its dismal Paris target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030.
- We have the solutions at our disposal to tackle climate change: we need to accelerate the transition to renewables and storage technologies, and non-polluting transport, infrastructure, and food production. Now we need to Federal Government to step up to protect Australian lives from worsening disasters in the future (Climate Council, 13 Nov 2019).
- The response to the bushfires must extend beyond the immediate and essential need to rebuild and recover. To have the best chance of succeeding, we must draw on all the available evidence and knowledge, including working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
- Grab a copy of my letter for inspiration and to use as template.
- See my Instagram “Bushfires” story highlights for more examples.
Sign a petition
There are a number of petitions you can add your name to. Here are two:
- Climate Council – Protect Australians from the bushfire threat
- Change.org – Call for a royal commission into the Australian bushfires 2019 and 2020
You can protest for the climate or any thing your heart desires! School students are still protesting for the climate every Friday as a part of the Fridays for the Future campaign.
If protesting isn’t your thing, don’t worry! You can always sign a petition, donate and write a letter to your Local MP.
Reduce your environmental impact
The fires will stop eventually bu global emissions will continue to rise. Do your bit by reducing your environmental impact!
Examples of ways you can reduce your impact include:
- Ride a bike, walk more, use more public transport and drive less
- Start composting and try and grow some of your own food
- Eat less meat and choose sustainably produced meat grown through regenerative practices
- Swap to renewable energy if you can
- Avoid buying new things and shop second hand
- Reduce your waste – use newspaper instead of bin bags or make your own toothpaste and deodorant!
Start small in areas that you can make change easily and quickly in order to build up momentum. Once you have done that you can move onto areas of your life that make the most impact and tackle them head on!
Ready to take climate action and start reducing your environmental impact?
Start by reading the following posts:
- How composting literally saves the world and combats global warming
- Five reasons why industrial livestock production isn’t sustainable
- Why I choose a plant based lifestyle
- Organic Food – What you already know, don’t know and should know
- Minimise your grocery list