Bushfires: not just a week-long news story
For many, 2020 will be remembered as the year the pandemic started. For 3,000 Australians, it was also the year their home burned down. Bushfire intensity and frequency are on the rise. What does this mean for the environment, and what does this mean for us?
In December 2019, Australia was on the news worldwide. News features cut between firenados, firefighters driving through fire, and beach-stranded families watching their homes turn to ash. I was in Vietnam in early January, and the first thing locals and other travellers asked me was, “Is everyone OK?”. I didn’t know what to say.
According to the Department of Home Affairs, 12.6 million hectares of land was burnt (the largest in over 20 years) resulting in 434 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and 3,000 homes lost to fire. NSW had one of the largest recorded forest fires in Australian history. Approximately 11.3 million Australians were impacted by poor air quality, and 10.6 million were concerned about their safety at some stage during the disaster.
What does this mean for the environment?
Over one billion animals were killed in the 2020 Australian fires, causing scientist Professor Chris Dickman to fear the extinction of native species such as the glossy black cockatoo and velvet worm. Many animals were already at risk of extinction before the fires started due to severe deforestation and now require drastic recovery and support initiatives to prevent long-term losses. It’s clear from the dire circumstances that proper planning was not in place and now finger pointing amongst NGO’s and government departments has led to questions of who is responsible. Amelia Young, Victorian campaign manager for the Wilderness Society says “If we had properly implemented recovery plans for our forest fauna over the last 20 years, then the extinction risks from these fires would have been greatly reduced”. Biodiversity and vegetation recovery is expected to take many years to return to healthy levels.
Conclusions made by the Climate Council have clearly stated that bushfire events are exacerbated by climate change. However, what’s particularly concerning today is how climate change is exacerbated by bushfires. Smoke injected into the atmosphere has increased aerosol levels to record-breaking highs, according to NASA. The 2020 fires were close to matching Australia’s total 2019 CO2 emissions.
Carbon dioxide is reabsorbed by forest vegetation during regrowth, meaning that fires are typically considered carbon neutral. But, with unpredictable climate conditions due to global warming, carbon neutral bushfires will be less likely in the future. With more emissions remaining in the atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse effect, future risks of bushfires will be more severe and dangerous.
What does this mean for us?
Alongside the immediate and direct destruction of the homes and infrastructure, smoke from bushfires have long term health consequences. Whilst not entirely understood, long term exposure to air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and small particulate matter, has been associated with the worsening of heart and lung disease, asthma, and is a significant risk to children and pregnant women. In January 2020, Canberra’s air quality was one of the worst worldwide. Long term health impacts of smoke exposure are still relatively unknown and many Australians continue to suffer from smoke inhalation symptoms.
Water pollution has also been a serious cause for concern. The inevitable heavy downpour following fire results in toxic runoff containing nutrients and trace metals which, if drunk, can cause gastroenteritis. Run off can also encourage the growth of blue-green algae which can deplete water bodies of oxygen and kill aquatic organisms. Approximately 80% of vegetation in the Warragamba Dam catchment area was burnt this year, seriously threatening freshwater supply.
Post-fire recovery also supplies another set of challenges. For disadvantaged Australians, recovery will be a long and painful road. Economic disparities between city and rural areas are a particular cause for concern due to the high rates of service exclusion in rural areas. When bushfire-impacted areas, the majority of which are in rural regions, require basic medical and financial services they are limited and expensive. Many indigenous communities are established in remote regions, and are similarly disadvantaged (see Intersectional Environmentalism). Future management requires improved early-warning systems and healthcare which protect remote and disadvantaged communities.
Current models of property insurance must also be updated with climate-induced home destruction predicted to increase. A report by the University of New South Wales predicts that by the end of the century 1 in 20 Australian homes won’t be insurable. Current insurance models make it difficult for low-income homeowners to fully insure their homes in case of disasters and the ethical question of who is at ‘fault’ makes improvements controversial. Mental health conditions including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder can be triggered by direct experiences of fire and/or financial strain post-fire. Common symptoms of natural disasters include strained and/or abusive family relationships, headaches, chest pain, anxiety, depression and increased environmental sensitivity.
What can we do about it?
Join a ConserVentures trip and contribute to the conservation effort to repair bushfire damage. This can include landscape regeneration by planting seeds and support local wildlife by building nest boxes for native birds.
Vote with the climate in mind. To prevent further government inaction, take part in formal and systemic change by voting for parties that will cut greenhouse gas emissions, and prioritise sustainable energy technology. To learn about the policies of major Australian political parties go here.
Spend money in the right places.
For small businesses, the pandemic swooped in like a slap to the face. With limited travel during lockdown many businesses are struggled to stay open. Bushfires represent one of the clearest intersections between humanitarian and environmental justice. Despite many Australians knowing the high risk of fire in our country, they are often left surprised at the devastating effects. The outcomes of the 2020 Australian bushfires symbolise our inaction, ignorance and naivety towards climate warming mitigation. As a community we must continue to take action and prepare for the future. Even when news stations stop reporting.