Australia's Black Summer

A digest of significant news and opinion regarding the bushfire crises in Australia in the 2019-20 summer:

Crisis summer fuelled by climate change: new report

11 March 2020: The Climate Council has produced the first comprehensive overview of the devastating climate impacts Australians experienced this summer. According to the report, Summer of Crisis, the catastrophic bushfires spewed an average estimate of 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is approximately the same as annual emissions from commercial air travel worldwide. "The fires produced more greenhouse gas emissions than Australia normally emits annually," said Climate Councillor and former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, Greg Mullins. "We must remember that the recent fires took place in a world that has warmed just over one degree," said Climate Councillor Professor Will Steffen.

The report's key findings:

  • Climate change fuelled Australia's devastating Black Summer.
  • Thirty-three people died in the bushfires, 25 of them in NSW.
  • Nearly 80% of Australians were affected either directly or indirectly.
  • Nationally, an estimated one billion animals were killed.
  • This season's fires were incredibly large in area, even compared to forests all around the world. Around 21% of Australian temperate broadleaf and mixed forests was burnt. The average annual area burnt for most continents, including Australia, is well below 5%.
  • Catastrophic fire danger ratings were experienced at locations and times of the year never before recorded.

Abridged from Analysis and Policy Observatory. https://apo.org.au/node/277911

Weather bureau says hottest, driest year on record led to extreme bushfire season

9 Jan 2020: The Bureau of Meteorology's annual climate statement confirms 2019 was the nation's warmest and driest year on record. It's the first time since overlapping records began that Australia experienced both its lowest rainfall and highest temperatures in the same year.

The average national rainfall total was 37 mm, or 11.7%, below the 314.5 mm recorded in the previous driest year in 1902. The national average temperature was nearly 0.2°C above the previous warmest year in 2013. Globally, 2019 is likely to be the second-warmest year, with global temperatures about 0.8 °C above the 1961–1990 average. It has been the warmest year without the influence of El Niño.

Abridged from The Conversation. Full article: https://tinyurl.com/tqkd9ef

Underlying causes of Australia's shocking bushfire season

Why has this bushfire season been so devastating? Extreme heat and dryness are two important influencers of fire and, on both measures, 2019 was remarkable for Australia.

What role is climate change playing in the risk of fire? In advice issued in November 2019, Australia's National Environmental Science Program was unambiguous. "Human-caused climate change has resulted in more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires in recent decades for many regions of Australia."

Scientists also believe that 2019 was a "standout" year in Australia for the formation of extreme bushfires that became "coupled" with the atmosphere, generating their own lightning and gusty, violent and unpredictable winds. Rainfall is replaced with blackened hail and embers that can be shot out over distances of 30km.

Prof Matt England, of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, said: "What we have seen in Australia this year will just be a normal summer if we warmed the planet by 3C. And an extreme summer would be even worse than we've seen now."

Abridged from The Guardian. Full article: https://tinyurl.com/v2lpn8x

'It's miraculous': owners say cultural burning saved their property

6 Jan 2020: Phil Sheppard watched with trepidation as a giant blaze approached his beloved Hunter Valley property outside Laguna, near Cessnock. Three weeks ago, he and other owners were forced to evacuate. To his amazement, when he returned two days later, traversing the long gravel driveway on foot after fallen trees blocked vehicle access, most structures remained perfectly intact.

Owners say the property was saved by the traditional Indigenous technique of cultural burning conducted on their land three years ago. Aboriginal cultural fire practitioner Dennis Barber led a series of cultural burns on six hectares of bushland at Ngurrumpaa in 2015 and 2016 ‒ the first burns in the area since a wildfire swept through in 1994.

Unlike hazard reduction burning, cultural burns are cooler and slower moving, usually no taller than knee height, leaving tree canopies untouched and allowing animals to take refuge from the flames. Small fires are lit with matches, instead of drip torches, and burn in a circular pattern.

Mr Barber says the ancient practice is informed by thousands of years of traditional knowledge. "It's more than just putting the fire on the ground ‒ it's actually knowing the country, knowing what's there … the soil types, the geology, the trees, the animals, the breeding times of animals, the flowering times of plants," he said. The timing and frequency of burns depend on the environmental "system".

Mr Barber says Aboriginal people should be better resourced to lead the implementation of cultural burning across NSW and Australia, alongside existing fire authorities.

Abridged from The Age. Full article: https://tinyurl.com/v54udgr

Indigenous Australians' grief over bushfires deepens the trauma felt since colonisation

17 Jan 2020: Australia's catastrophic bushfires have has not only burnt over 10 million hectares of land, but they have also deepened the trauma Aboriginal people feel over the British colonisation of the country in 1788.

Yorta Yorta First Nations man Neil Morris said Indigenous Australians' connection with the land is central to their spiritual and cultural identity, and seeing the fires destroy nature in front of their eyes is a reminder that that land was stolen from them 232 years ago.

"I don't want to reduce anyone's experience," Morris said of Australians who have lost their homes or lives in the bushfires that began in September. "What I do want to express is the fact that all Indigenous communities are living in trauma on a day-to-day basis at the hands of living in a colonialised society. Our people are already in a deep state of trauma. In many communities, we are in a state of recovery, and that's a big process, obviously, with the severe disadvantage that our people have been at."

Indigenous fire practitioner Oliver Costello agreed. He said seeing "all our plants and animals decimated" as a result of the bushfires has been beyond devastating. "They're our ancestors; they're our kin," he explained. "Our cultural knowledge systems mean we're a part of the land. We've been burnt. Our skin is the skin of the earth. We're in trauma."

Many Indigenous communities have fled their homes and been evacuated to refuge centres this bushfire season, and Morris said the displacement of communities and burnt land means "you cannot carry out your obligations as First Nations peoples".

Abridged from Huffington Post. Full article: https://tinyurl.com/wofocjx

Fire Country book

Fire Country, released in February 2020, was written by indigenous writer, filmmaker, musician and consultant Victor Steffensen and published by Hardie Grant.

Kevin Tolhurst, associate professor in the school of ecosystems and forest sciences at the University of Melbourne, writes:

"Victor Steffensen takes the reader on discovery of the lore, customs, knowledge, and totems that connect Indigenous Australians to the land through the lens of fire. His quest for traditional knowledge starts by trying to document language and knowledge on video, understanding that much has already been lost and more is being lost with the passing of Indigenous elders. ...

Following years of learning and teaching about fire, Steffensen concludes that knowledge has to be transferred from person to person and generation to generation through direct human interaction ''on country''. Being ''on country'' is important because direct experience and observation is a critical part of gaining knowledge and understanding. It is here that the philosophy of ''if you look after the country, the country will look after you'' becomes apparent.

"Bill Gammage's analysis in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia is largely consistent with Steffensen's thesis. Gammage demonstrates how traditional owners used fire in a deliberate and skilful way to improve the sustainability of the landscape for a range of objectives, including food, hunting, access and amenity."

Fire Country can be purchased at www.hardiegrant.com

Kevin Tolhurst's review is posted at www.tinyurl.com/fire-country

One in 10 children affected by bushfires is Indigenous

The catastrophic bushfire season is officially over, but governments, agencies and communities have failed to recognise the specific and disproportionate impact the fires have had on Aboriginal peoples. Addressing this in bushfire response and recovery is part of Unfinished Business: the work needed for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to meet on more just terms.

In our recent study, we found more than one quarter of the Indigenous population in New South Wales and Victoria live in a fire-affected area. That's more than 84,000 people. What's more, one in ten infants and children affected by the fires is Indigenous.

But in past bushfire inquires and royal commissions, Aboriginal people have been mentioned only sparingly. When referenced now, it's only in relation to cultural burning or cultural heritage. This must change.

We identify three foundational steps:

  • acknowledge that Aboriginal people have been erased, made absent and marginalised in previous bushfire recovery efforts, and identify and address why this continues to happen
  • establish non-negotiable instructions for including Aboriginal people in the terms of reference and membership of post-bushfire inquiries
  • establish Aboriginal representation on relevant government committees involved in decision-making, planning and implementation of disaster risk management.

Abridged from The Conversation. Full article: www.tinyurl.com/fire-children

The climate science deniers spreading misinformation about Australian bushfires

13 Jan 2020: Prime Minister Scott Morrison's position on climate policy has been bolstered by a group of fringe climate science deniers pushing conspiracy theories and misinformation about the relationship between the fires and climate change.

Alex Jones' InfoWars / NewsWars: An article on the alt-right website NewsWars makes the false claim that "authorities in Australia are working on the premise that arsonists and lightning strikes are to blame for bushfires that have devastated numerous areas of the country, not 'climate change' as many global warming alarmists have claimed." Independent factcheckers from Climate Feedback (climatefeedback.org) judged the article to be "misleading".

Murdoch media: Murdoch outlets "continue to spread climate denial, attack other outlets providing lifesaving coverage, and ignore local fire threats," according to a report from nonprofit watchdog Media Matters for America (MMFA). MMFA points to multiple commentators on Sky News Australia who refer to those saying climate change is driving the fires as having "joined a cult" and "been brainwashed."

Bots: Multiple reports have also pointed to the role of social media bots helping to spread conspiracy theories to counter the claim that climate change is driving the fires. Analysis by Queensland University of Technology senior lecturer Dr Timothy Graham found a "current disinformation campaign" on Twitter's #arsonemergency hashtag due to the "suspiciously high number of bot-like and troll-like accounts", the Guardian reported.

Abridged from Renew Economy. Full Article: https://tinyurl.com/u48exmg

MMFA report: https://tinyurl.com/mmfa-fire

While Victoria's forests burnt, logging continued

17 Jan 2020: The state government's timber agency was permitted to log Victorian forests as catastrophic fires ravaged bushland and native animal populations. The logging by VicForests occurred on days a total fire ban was in place throughout the state, with waste from felling leaving the area exposed to additional fire risks. Emails exchanged between VicForests and community members confirm that the Central Highlands region … was logged as part of the agency's ongoing summer operations. Last week a leaked federal government report warned that 31% of the state's rainforests had already gone up in flames, as well as 24% of wet or damp forests, and 34% of lowland forests.

Abridged from The Age. Full Article: https://tinyurl.com/tdwumhf

Victoria's Regional Forest Agreements

On 30 March 2020, the Victorian and Federal governments renewed Victoria's Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) for another decade in spite of the horrific impacts of the recent bushfires. For over 20 years, thousands of hectares of forests and precious habitat have been logged under these dodgy agreements. The contracts between the State and Federal government give logging special exemption from Federal Environment law. The logging industry is the only extractive industry that gets this special treatment.

Logging has been suspended in East Gippsland because of the fires, but its due to start up again under these agreements. Forests and wildlife need to be protected to ensure they recover from the bushfires. Every patch of forest that's left in East Gippsland should be protected in light of the devastating fires, and the legal exemption thrown out.

Abridged from a Goongerah Environment Centre statement: www.foe.org.au/vic_rfa_10years

Health effects of Australia's bushfires

Last summer's bushfires exposed about three-quarters of the population to prolonged levels of smoke, causing 417 excess deaths, over 3,000 hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory problems as well as 1,300 emergency hospital visits for asthma alone.

The preliminary assessment, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found a "substantial" health impact in the fire-hit regions of the ACT, NSW, Victoria and Queensland between October 1 and February 10, 2020.

The researchers studied exposure to particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in size using public air quality data. The highest reading of 98.5 microns on January 14 quadrupled the national standard and was 14 times more than the historical average.

To identify excess deaths, the researchers compared actual deaths, cardiovascular and respiratory-related hospitalisations and emergency response presentations with asthma against the levels that would be expected on any other day.

Lead author Fay Johnston, an epidemiologist at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, estimates 80% of Australia's population of about 25 million was blanketed by smoke this summer. "The fires were unprecedented in Australia's history, in terms of vast amounts of smoke, the huge populations affected by the smoke and the long duration," she said.

Professor Bin Jalaludin from the University of NSW school of public health and community medicine, and another of the paper's authors, said the excess death estimate was probably conservative. "We only looked at the outcomes where we have strong evidence," he said. "There are many other health effects caused by bushfires, for example, mental health effects, hospital admissions or [emergency department] visits for other conditions which we did not evaluate."

https://doi.org/10.5694/mja2.50545

Pollution experts team up to propose major new study into health impacts of bushfire smoke

14 Jan 2020: Australia's top pollution experts are teaming up to propose a major new study into the long-term health impacts of bushfire smoke. Guy Marks from UNSW said he was not confident in the current health advice offered by authorities because there was very little evidence available. "Are masks even that effective? What about air filtration? Or staying indoors. We're not sure that any of that is right, but they're all testable questions," Professor Marks said.

Marks is putting together a team of two dozen top Australian researchers to investigate the medical fallout from the fires. The researchers are members of a consortium, the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Abridged from ABC News. Full article: https://tinyurl.com/t88nz8w

Conservationists and scientists fear bushfires that have ravaged parts of Australia have had a catastrophic impact on flora and fauna

15 Jan 2020: The sheer magnitude of plant and animal species potentially wiped off the face of Australia by unrivalled bushfires is unknown. But when the fires that have torn through a combined area almost as big as England eventually ease, scientists fear a brutal outcome. Most of the animals that escaped the unprecedented crisis will eventually perish.

"Even the animals that haven't immediately been killed from the fires and the smoke, most of those that are displaced will eventually die," said Professor Martine Maron from the University of Queensland's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Predators like foxes and cats will thrive, buoyed by easy pickings and room to move.

The fires have claimed at least one billion animals, according to University of Sydney environmental sciences professor Chris Dickman. That figure only takes in birds, reptiles and mammals, excluding bats, frogs, insects and other invertebrates. It is being described as conservative, as government officials and non-government experts rush to map the real toll. Ecosystems that rely on many parts working together could collapse.

Abridged from SBS. Full article: https://tinyurl.com/rnedzfg

Microgrids: how to keep the power on when disaster hits

11 Feb 2020: Bushfires, storms and floods regularly leave thousands of Australian homes and businesses without power. One part of the solution is more connectedness, so one transmission line being severed is not the crisis it is now. But just as important is ensuring connectedness isn't crucial. This means moving away from centralised systems – powered by a few big generators – to decentralised ones, with many local and small-scale generators. Instead of one big grid, we need many microgrids, interconnected but able to operate independently when necessary.

Power in a warming world: First, hotter and longer heatwaves put more pressure on grids. As energy demand spikes on hot afternoons, so does the incidence of coal-fired generators breaking down. At the same time, heatwaves reduce the capacity of both coal and gas generators. Hotter weather also impedes the efficiency of photovoltaic solar panels as well as the capacity of electrical wires to transport power.

Second, hot and windy weather increases the chance of electrical wires sparking fires by contacting dry plants.

Third, as already alluded to, a warmer climate increases the regularity and intensity of bushfires, floods and storms – events that in recent weeks have cut off power to communities right when they needed it most.

Modern microgrids: A microgrid is simply an electricity grid built to a more local scale. The national electricity grid stretches from Port Lincoln in South Australia to Port Douglas in far-north Queensland. A microgrid might stretch no further than a few streets. It might cover an industrial estate, a town or a region.

Rather than relying on electricity generators hundreds or thousands of kilometres away, it has enough local generators to generally meet local demand. Though "grid-tied" – drawing or contributing power to a bigger grid as needed – it can also "island" (disconnect) and run independently.

Australian demonstrations: There are microgrid projects around Australia. One is in the Melbourne suburb of Mooroolbark. It has demonstrated a single street (of 18 houses) can continue to operate on its own solar panels and battery storage for 22 hours before reconnecting to the national grid.

At a regional scale, the ESCRI project near Dalrymple in South Australia combines a much larger battery array with 55 wind turbines and solar systems. So long as there's enough wind, the system can provide electricity indefinitely to 4,600 customers.

Managing distributed energy resources: Microgrids are not only ideal for isolating regions from blackouts. They also help integrate "distributed energy resources" such as rooftop solar systems and electric vehicles, which pose a challenge to the way centralised way grids have traditionally been controlled. The main investment required for a "grid of microgrids" is for each region to install a battery and microgrid controller (and potentially more local generators). In remote regions this may be cheaper than the cost of maintaining transmission lines.

Abridged from The Conversation. Full article: https://tinyurl.com/rxls3no

See also 'Bushfire crisis shows the answer to future energy security lies on our rooftops', https://tinyurl.com/sk2akex

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Published in Chain Reaction #138, May 2020. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. www.foe.org.au/chain_reaction


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