Australias major cities including Sydney and Melbourne are filled with smoke.More than half a billion animals are dead and the human toll is still climbing – 25 people have so far lost their lives.
In total, the area burned by bushfires is almost the size of England.
Australia’s six hottest days on record have all come this fire season.
Holiday-makers are being evacuated from coastal towns in dramatic rescues requiring navy vessels.
These are unprecedented conditions. So it makes sense that somebody asked the question: “How long will Australia be liveable?”
A new report in American magazine The Atlantic this week considers whether this horror bushfire season is an anomaly or something Australia will have to get used to.
And whether it’s time to start making hard decisions about which parts of this hot, dry land we stop calling home.
The report’s author, Bianca Nobrady, has reason to be pessimistic. She and her family live in Blackheath, at the top of the Blue Mountains. They fled when wildfires scorched the land and returned, thankfully, to find their home had been spared.
She says the idea that life just goes on and Australians can continue their lives in the bush has its flaws.
“What happens after the fires have passed through and Australians return to either their intact homes or smoking ruins, dead cattle, a blackened moonscape where crops once grew?” she asks.
“The lucky ones give thanks and get on with their life. The unlucky ones grieve, rage, shake their fist at fate – and defiantly rebuild on the same ground. The battler spirit triumphs again, but for how long?
“As the country suffers through one of its worst droughts on record, and heatwaves shatter temperature records not once but twice within the same summer week, some are asking whether Australians can afford to keep returning to the same parched, scorched landscapes that they have occupied not just since the European invasion two-and-a-half centuries ago but for tens of thousands of years before that.
“Even before climate change, survival – particularly of agriculture – in some parts of Australia was precarious.
“After the Black Saturday bushfires, the state government attempted to buy back land from people in the most high-risk areas who had lost their homes in the fires. Very few took up the offer. Now there’s a record-breaking drought on top of the fire threat.”
Catherine Ryland, an urban planner with expertise in bushfire resilience, told Nobrady there was a reason Australians refused to take up that offer.
“There is definitely something about the Australian way that people want to stay and defend and don’t necessarily want to think about moving away from the bush,” she said.
Instead, Ms Ryland says, Plan B needs to be fleshed out.
“Everyone is suddenly starting to realise that we actually need to plan better for those things instead of just keep sprawling out into the bush or closer to the ocean,” she said.
David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, suggests there’s a Plan C.
“We’re talking about real money, talking about bunkers, safe sites massively changing our firefighting capacity, fire preparation, communication systems, our understanding of what nature is, our understanding of what being Australian is, our understanding of the value of water, the understanding of our relationship to other life forms, our understanding of what fire is,” he said.
The ideas and many like them would be fleshed out at a royal commission should one be started. Firefighting associations yesterday demanded one, declaring it’s time for a good hard look at the way we understand our landscape and the danger bushfires pose.
“Lives have been lost, and fires are going on for months,” NSW Volunteer Fire Fighters Association president Mick Holton said.
“We need to look at the fires as we are, even if they’re put out tomorrow the next fire season is in nine months’ time.”
Ten million hectares have burned this bushfire season, including five million hectares in NSW. It’s double the land that was razed during Victoria’s devastating Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 that claimed 173 lives.
For further scale, 890,000 hectares burned during the Amazon wildfires last year, and 809,000 hectares burned during the California wildfires in 2018.
Emeritus Professor Stephen Pyne of Arizona State University, the author of the book Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia, summed up the escalation from fire season to fire season Down Under.
“Fires are becoming more and more savage, and they are more frequent. They used to happen every 30 or 50 years, now they seem to be happening by the decade,” he told
“It sort of seems to be these endless fires, forever fires, that are going on and on.” | @ro_smith