Australia Burning; Tourists in New South Wales and Victoria Flee to Beaches

Seeing what is happening to Australia, even from this remove, is sickening, for its people, for its wildlife, and for what it bodes for the future of significant swathes of the planet.

As most readers know, I lived in Sydney from 2002 to 2004. Even though Australia had been moving in a neoliberal direction, it was still well behind the US and UK. It was strongly egalitarian. People mixed across lines. Even in a commercially-minded town like Sydney, the prevailing ethic was to work hard and play hard. It had fine amenities like its public transportation system and beaches.

Of course, this was also the same Australia that joined the Iraq “coalition of the willing” even though 94% of the population, a level pretty much never seen in polling, had opposed the invasion.

When I was there, the business community was pushing hard for liberalized immigration, which they eventually won, pushing Australia’s population growth rate up to one of the highest levels in the OECD. This occurred despite many citizens voicing concerns about Australia already being at a high-than-sustainable population level, particularly in combination with its high level of agricultural exports, which amounted to underpricing its most scarce natural resource, potable water.

I remember the two days when I was a Sydney resident when brush fires got close enough to Sydney to turn the sky a sickly yellow and give an acrid smell to the air when it blew from inland to the harbor. That was disconcerting, yet it’s a pale shadow compared to what is happening now.

Now one can say that first-worlders are spoiled, that residents of parts of China and India endure pollution levels on an ongoing basis that are health-threatening, as large swathes of New South Wales and Victoria are now. But the suddenness of of the change, and the severity of destruction of habitat and livestock in a country that was already more ecologically fragile than most understood, is grim.

By way of background, why Australia is going up like a torch. From a November 20 article in Science:

Driven in part by a severe drought, fires have burned 1.65 million hectares in the state of New South Wales, more than the state’s total in the previous 3 years combined…

David Bowman, a fire ecologist and geographer and director of the Fire Centre at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, spoke with Science about the crisis. The flames have charred even moist ecosystems once thought safe, he says….

Q: What is unusual about these fires?

A: The geographical scale and intensity—it’s happening all up and down the country. The very early start to the fire season across eastern Australia. The scale of housing loss.

We’re seeing recurrent fires in tall, wet eucalypt forests, which normally only burn very rarely. A swamp dried out near Port Macquarie, and organic sediments in the ground caught on fire. When you drop the water table, the soil is so rich in organic matter it will burn. We’ve seen swamps burning all around.

Even Australia’s fire-adapted forest ecosystems are struggling because they are facing increasingly frequent events. In Tasmania, over the past few years we have seen environments burning that historically see fires very rarely, perhaps every 1000 years. The increasing tempo, spatial scale, and frequency of fires could see ecosystems extinguished.

Q: What is the role of climate change?

A: You have to ask: Has there ever been a fire event of 1.65 million hectares that’s burnt a large area of what is generally considered fire-proof vegetation, and also occurred simultaneously with fires in other regions of Australia and California? What is happening is extraordinary. It would be difficult to say there wasn’t a climate change dimension. We couldn’t have imagined the scale of the current event before it happened. We would have been told it was hyperbole.

This is teaching us what can be true under a climate changed world. The numbers, scale, and diversity of the fires is going to reframe our understanding of bushfire in Australia. This is a major event which will have huge intellectual and policy legacies.

Supporting our hypothesis that agriculture in Australia made a precarious situation worse, from The Conversation in October:

First, it’s important to understand that drought is a manifestation of interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, and land. In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology uses rainfall deficiencies to identify regions that are under drought conditions. Anyone on the land doesn’t need to be reminded, but the current drought is seriously bad. These maps show the patterns of rainfall deficiency over the past 36 and 18 months, highlighting the severity and extent of what we call meteorological drought.

Widespread rainfall deficiencies over the last 36 months (left) and 18 months (right) Australian Bureau of Meteorology

But along with the main driver – low rainfall – droughts can also be exacerbated by water loss through evaporation. This depends not only on temperature but also humidity, wind speeds, and sunshine. Temperature will clearly continue to rise steadily almost everywhere. For the other factors, the future is not quite as clear.

Water loss also varies according to vegetation cover. Plants respond to higher carbon dioxide levels and drought by closing the tiny holes in their leaves (the stomata) and this can actually reduce water loss in wet environments. However, in water-stressed environments, projected long-term declines in rain may be compounded by plants using more water, further reducing streamflow. Actually, we can glean a lot from studying hydrological drought, which is measured by a period of low flow in rivers.

The point here is droughts are multidimensional, and can affect water supply on a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. A seasonal-scale drought that reduces soil moisture on a farm, and a decade-long drought that depletes reservoirs and groundwater supplies, can each be devastating, but in different ways.

An ABC story from last March, which recall is the end of the Australian summer: State of the drought shows dams empty and NSW drowning in dust:

The hot dry summer has stripped the soils of moisture, water storages are down in every state and territory, and New South Wales is drowning in dust…

Lynette Bettio, a climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, said the big dry was affecting large parts of NSW, eastern South Australia and parts of the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia….

She said the dry was the result of intense high pressure over Australia that made frontal systems weaker and less frequent than usual.

“We’ve just come off a record-warm summer, and that extreme heat that we saw, especially those heatwaves in December and January, certainly exacerbated those drought conditions and really added to the intensity of the impacts.”

And the coming months aren’t looking good, Dr Bettio added.

“For autumn, for rainfall, there’s really an increased chance of below-average rainfall across much of eastern Australia.”

So worsening conditions were likely even before the super hot days set in.

Lambert found this National Museum of Australia article on the Federation Drought of 1895 to 1903, which gives some perspective on contemporary droughts and fires. Very much worth reading in full. Some key bits:

Historical accounts and scientific analysis indicate that South-Eastern Australia experienced 27 drought years between 1788 and 1860, and at least 10 major droughts between 1860 and 2000.

The Millennium Drought (2001–09) was one of the most severe. In 2017 drought set in again across parts of New South Wales and Queensland.

The Federation Drought received its name because it coincided with Australia’s Federation. Many consider this drought, which affected almost the whole country, to have been the most destructive in Australian recorded history, owing to the enormous toll it took on sheep and cattle numbers….

In 1892 Australia had 106 million sheep, two-thirds of which were in the eastern states. By 1903 the national flock had almost halved to 54 million. The nation lost more than 40 per cent of its cattle over the same period, nearly three million in Queensland alone.

Drovers sought feed for hungry stock along travelling stock routes (known as the ‘long paddock’) or moved stock to pastures on the east coast and southern mountains where conditions were less dire.

Droving took an immense toll on sheep and cattle with losses of up to 70 per cent recorded, particularly in regions where watering points could be 100 kilometres apart. In 1902 local newspapers reported that more than 2000 steers lay dead along the Goondiwindi to Miles route in Queensland….

Dame Nellie Melba, November 1902:

I have seen with my own eyes the brown, burnt paddocks extending for hundreds of miles, with no vestige of grass left upon them. I have seen starving sheep leaning against the fences, too weak to move … It is simply appalling.

Then the losses were to agricultural wealth. What happens to already over-valued-looking residential real estate, particularly given that Australia also has high levels of credit card debt? And Australia’s banks are already very exposed to housing? Even though bank tightening took some air out of the bubble starting in 2017, prices started moving up again smartly earlier this year.

Even when I was in Oz, it was stunning how much banks were willing to lend against incomes. Having borrowers spend 50% of their earnings on property payments was seen as not unreasonable. My impression that level of personal leverage has become pretty common. This take is confirmed by this transcript from a Real Vision video earlier this year, courtesy John Mauldin:

Australia’s household debt to GDP was 120.5 per cent as of September last year, according to the Bank for International Settlements, one of the highest in the world. In 2007, Ireland was sitting at around 100 per cent.

At the same time, the RBA puts Australia’s household debt to disposable income at 188.6 per cent. Ireland was 200 per cent in 2007, while the US was only 116.3 per cent at the start of 2008.

RBA figures also show more than two thirds of the country’s net household wealth is invested in real estate. In 2008, that figure was 83 per cent in Ireland and 48 per cent in the US. Meanwhile, 60 per cent of all lending by Australian financial institutions is in the property sector.

A sampling of today’s stories. First, from the BBC, Australia fires: Thousands flee to the sea as fires race to coast:

Several holiday spots along the coast between Sydney and Melbourne are currently cut off by fire fronts….

Residents in the NSW holiday towns of Bermagui and Batemans Bay also fled on Tuesday morning to the waterfront or makeshift evacuation sites near the shore.

Locals told the BBC they had “bunkered in” as the front approached, raining ash on the beaches.

“It was bloody scary. The sky went red, and ash was flying everywhere,” said Zoe Simmons in Batemans Bay.

In Mallacoota, one of the worst-affected spots on Tuesday, residents fled to the beach or took up shelter in fortified homes when they heard the warning siren go off at 08:00 local time.

“It should have been daylight but it was black like midnight and we could hear the fire roaring,” said David Jeffrey, a local business owner. “We were all terrified for our lives.”

“There’s a rock wall that they’ve built to keep back the sea, and that was where we were going to jump into the water if the radiant heat had hit,” he added….

Temperatures exceeded 40C (104F) in every state and territory at the start of the week, with strong winds and lightning strikes bolstering the flames.

Meteorologists say a climate system in the Indian Ocean, known as the dipole, is the main driver behind the extreme heat in Australia.

From ABC, Mallacoota residents and holidaymakers describe ‘apocalypse’ as bushfire approaches Victorian town, via the Rev Kev: “Many weird images. Pitch black in the late morning and now everything red. Is this what climate change looks like?”

Residents and holidaymakers in Mallacoota in Victoria’s far east have described the sky turning from pitch black to blazing red as fire raced towards the seaside town.

Residents also reported hearing gas cylinders explode in the Mallacoota town centre…

“Unless you’re here, you can’t even imagine what it’s actually like,” she [Facebook user Jann Gilber] says in one of the videos.

“It’s hard to breathe, even with a mask on.”

“This is really scary now, it’s just red, everywhere.

“The wind is intermittently howling, which brings more embers.”…

In a video uploaded to social media, a man wearing a cloth over his face and ski-goggles broadcasted from a boat, pointing at Mallacoota behind him.

“It’s f***ing chaos,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”..

Mallacoota resident Don Ashby told ABC Gippsland that fire sirens went off shortly before 8:30am as the bushfire reached the edge of the town.

“The agreement was when all the trucks turn the sirens on that was when the fire hit and everybody had to go and get down to the waterline,” he said.

He said he could not see anything as the sky turned black and ash fell as the roar of the bushfire came closer.

“It s like the darkest, darkest night,” he said…

Later, authorities said the fire had bypassed the town following a wind change, news that was met by cheers from the town’s jetty.

But CFA chief officer Steve Warrington said houses had burnt down on the outskirts of town.

One of many tweets by resident @brendanh_au:

From another Down Under reader:

He also just sent this summary of a live broadcast from ABC:

1. South Coast of Australia to lose telecommunications tonight.

2. Australian military will be rescuing Australians that fled to Victoria shores.

3. Just announced that Australian government has requested international help with fires. Basically, send your fire fighters.

And on the black humor front:

Australia needs its fabulous luck in spades right now. But has it finally run out?

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66 comments

      1. norm de plume

        Yes, Permaculture must be part of any effective solution. It’s ironic that its co-founders Bill Mollison and David Holmgren are Australians, unheeded prophets in their own land. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed men are kings, unfortunately.

        As David Bowman says in Yves’ post, this crisis ‘is going to reframe our understanding of bushfire in Australia. This is a major event which will have huge intellectual and policy legacies’

        As Wall Streeters could tell you, every crisis is an opportunity, and this period of ‘reframing’ policy and practice needs to embrace permaculture as part of the palette of sound options for prevention of future catastrophic events.

        Another crucial element of any halfway decent approach will be the integration of indigenous land management techniques, in particular the use of ‘fire-stick burning’ Seems counter-intuitive but as Professor Bowman says in an ABC News article:

        ‘Indigenous fire practices could play an important role in land management systems of the future, but they would need to be adapted to suit the current times… The key message is that we can take the idea of humans using fire skilfully — we can manipulate vegetation, we can reduce fuel loads, we can sharpen fire boundaries’

        He includes it in a Guardian op-ed he wrote with another Prof, Ross Bradstock, who is director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong:

        ‘Are existing administrative arrangements in firefighting and emergency management appropriate? What is the right balance between community/individual responsibility vs. centralised command and control?
        What is the role and sustainable capacity of volunteer fire management? What can Indigenous fire knowledge bring to bear in stem these blazes? How can biodiversity and ecosystem services, like water and carbon storage, be protected?’

        Mollison once defined Permaculture thus: ‘Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system’

        Having recently read Bruce Pascoe’s important re-appraisal of Aboriginal agricultural practices, Dark Emu, it seems to me that a permaculture/indigenous techniques nexus could prove to be a very fruitful one. With Mollison’s comment in mind, this is Pascoe’s description of the 5 principles of fire stick burning:

        1 fires were used in a rotating mosaic which controlled intensity and allowed plants and animals to survive in refuges
        2 the time of year fires were lit depended on the type of country to be burned and the condition of the bush at the time
        3 the prevailing weather was crucial to the timing of burns
        4 neighbouring clans were advised of intended fire activity
        5 burning during the growing season of particular plants was avoided at all costs

        Obvious synergies in approach there, but the obstacles are immense. Quite apart from the brain dead News-addled majority of the populace and the co-opted politicians (amazing how often we elect followers as leaders) there remains the brute fact of how we do agriculture in this country, the generations of sunk costs and the almost religious place we have for it, despite the fact that it has destroyed in 200 years the ‘park-like’ landscapes bequeathed by the indigenes, which early explorers and pioneers repeatedly mention in their diaries. For our farmers, fire is an enemy; for the Aborigines it was a tool.

        But it wasn’t just a change in fire practices:

        ‘The introduction of new predators, notably cats and foxes, caused (and continues to cause) mass extinctions of species. The introduction of hooved animals, in addition to their utterly different patterns of grazing, also hardened the soil and changed the extent to which rain is absorbed or runs off the surface of the land, often carrying soil into rivers which now run faster but also then silt up and slow down. The removal of perennial, deep rooted vegetation for annual crops causes groundwater to rise and dissolves salt crystallised in the soil, resulting in soil salinity… Rabbits and other rodents out-compete native herbivores, while European carp have transformed the major river systems of the south east’

        There is also the small matter of public (or community) vs private ownership. There were no fences in pre-settlement Australia, but we have been building them ever since we got here, and the existence of many thousands of small fiefdoms militates against effective approaches to systemic maintenance and repair. The Aborigines had no such restrictions and could operate systemically at a regional level, within the rituals crafted over thousands of years to govern how this occurs.

        I wondered whether Pascoe and the indigenous approach had any formal link to the permaculturalists and was cheered to find this video which includes part of a talk Pascoe had with David Holmgren at Daylesford in 2016. The mutual respect was palpable. Unfortunately the Soundcloud link to the actual discussion has disappeared.

        If those two could be teamed up with Bowman and Bradstock and other parties with complementary ideas and practices, I would feel a bit more confident we can negotiate our way out of Armageddon than I do with the ambitious suburban lawyers (and marketing executives) that run the country right now.

        Sorry for the long comment.

        Reply
        1. Tony Wright

          Long comment, but well analysed and written.
          I travelled widely in Western Australia between 1976 and 1999 whilst studying and investigating mosquito borne diseases. The wheatbelt is particularly salt affected as you explained – in 1992 I drove from Northampton in the north to Katanning in the Great Southern at “highway speed’ and I never went more than 5km. without seeing seriously salt affected land.
          And ferals? Cane toads all the way from their negligent introduction in Queensland to the Kimberley, leaving a trail of destruction of natural predators like Varanid lizards and many other predator and competing species.
          And feral camels, descendents of those left behind by the Afghan drivers when they were evicted under the White Australia Policy during the early 20th century and their services replaced by trucks, are numerous, healthy and steadily increasing . They are heavily grazing fragile ecosystems throughout the arid zones.
          Plenty of other feral disasters too.

          Reply
  1. The Rev Kev

    In a few more hours we will see the last of 2019 close out and the beginning of a New Year. And our last memories of this year will be the red skies of Mallacoota and news of yet more deaths and people missing. The firefighters there admitted to being scared ****less at what they had to deal with. That is the thing about the fires right now – they are so relentless and constantly find new areas to devastate.

    Eventually the last of the fires will burn out and the dead will be buried. But these fires will never be forgotten. I heard that one young firefighter killed recently was only recently married and leaves behind a pregnant widow. A fiery wind swept through and, to the disbelief of the other firefighters, flipped the eight-tonne truck he was in and the sweeping fires burnt two other men in the cabin with him.

    But the question is whether anything will change. I have an older brother who is emphatically against the science of climate change and blames Greenies for all the fires and claim that the whole thing is some sort of lefty plot. But then again he seems to get a lot of his news from Fox and some websites so who knows what he has been seeing. You cannot convince him of the need to make fundamental changes and I suspect that he is not that different from the Prime Minister and other Federal politicians. The questions remains whether they will make any changes or will they try to fob it all of and defer it indefinitely. They are neoliberal enough to look for ‘market’ solutions rather than taking government action.

    We have been lucky here in Australia in that we have few natural disasters but more to the point, we have not experienced economic hard times since the early 1990s. But what that means is that a whole generation have grown up never really knowing really hard times and knowing it enough to vote with their financial interest in mind, hence that last shock win of the Coalition government who promised to keep everything running. Thus I doubt that they will vote for radical change for our economy to make the changes necessary. Sad but true.

    Mind you, I would not be surprised if the northern hemisphere also copped these fires too, particularly California in the US. Now would be a good time to make preparations. One major reason for these fires, by the way, is that for the past 20-30 years a band of strong westerly wind that usually sits below Australia’s south coast in winter and creates rain-bearing cold fronts has shifted south towards Antarctica. The rains that use to fall on the southern continent now fall in the ocean instead. But try explaining that to a professional politician

    Reply
    1. Slbrown

      i want to express my grief and horror at what is happening in Australia. Many of your fireries helped battled our wildfires in Northern California. I am glad to know that there are US fire fighters in your country now helping you out. I will keep all of your in my thoughts and prayers.

      Re: deniers and will things change. We need to move past these people and take action or they will take us all down.

      Reply
      1. oliverks

        It is very sad to see what is happening there, but the fire fighters seem to be doing a heroic job.

        I hope this starts serving as a wake up call we need to tackle climate change. I know solutions are controversial, but whatever we do, we need to:
        1) Start reducing CO2 emissions
        2) AND sequestering CO2

        Even if the plan isn’t perfect, we should get behind any plans that push us in that direction. Plans can always be improved, but second best today is better than perfect 10 years from now.

        Reply
      2. John Farnham

        “deniers and will things change” Apparently not. Against all reason bush roads are blocked and preventative burns are buried in bureaucracy. Rule One : You do not do ‘carbon sequestration’ in a tinderbox. The results are predictable.

        Reply
    2. Suzan

      Last I read…Sydney is going on with fireworks??? Insane, at the least. I’m in Florida…bad stuff here too…toxic Gulf of Mexico, bird, mammal,sealife die offs…our poor mother Earth

      Reply
        1. Chris

          Our son went a (paid) NYE party in a Sydney last night. Ticket holders were polled, and voted overwhelmingly to ditch the fireworks, and donate the cost to the Rural Fire Service.

          Reply
    3. fajensen

      Mind you, I would not be surprised if the northern hemisphere also copped these fires too,

      This summer, we had 4 months of unbroken sun and blue skies from April. There were 80 forest fires in Sweden this summer (nothing like those in Australia but unusual and unprecedented).

      The water levels in the large lakes 2.5 meter below normal and the canoe trip we planned to do was not possible because the streams were dry so we had to stay at the overcrowded big lakes.

      We went on another trip in beginning of October with nice sunny T-shirt weather, and lake water warm enough to swim in. That was the last nice days of the year. Since then we had about 4 days of sun in Skåne, clouds from Mordor, very little frost, with rain, rain and some more rain, then heavy mist. The mist is normally a feature of August – December.

      So, yup, the weather is screwed up here too!

      Reply
    4. xkeyscored

      But these fires will never be forgotten.
      I’m afraid I think you’re very wrong there. My guess is these fires will become a yearly, if not yearlong, occurrence, and 2019 will not be generally remembered as in any way special – even, perhaps, being remembered as the good old days before things got really bad.
      The one ray of hope is that they might act as a wake-up call to those who still deny climate change or think it unimportant, but nothing I’ve seen, from Australia’s prime minister, your older brother, or a few deniers I know, for example, leads me to think their opinions are being swayed.

      Reply
    5. Potted Frog

      Re: …an older brother who is emphatically against the science of climate change and blames Greenies…questions remains whether they will make any changes…

      I live in Chicago but I was recently out near Orange, NSW, visiting a friend and his family. My friend warned of the dry conditions. But looking at the land…. Parched. I chatted with a cousin of his during the visit – a climate activist and also on the land. He said well-over-most of his neighbors are still in deep denial despite what they face when they step out their doors every day. Back in Chicago, lake Michigan is something like 2.5 feed above normal, leaving areas of the concrete beach along the city center under inches of water. And then there is storm surge…. Hello! How do *you* price risk?

      Change takes place at the margins, of course – first a little then a lot – under the sustained pressure of circumstances. The shift in attitudes towards Socialism in the US, for example, is a positive sign, as is the “need” for someone like Bloomberg to jump into the Democratic Primary.

      I had a fish tank i did not take care of. I know what collapse looks like.

      Reply
    6. Prairie Bear

      I am in central Iowa and we have been having some unusually wet summers lately. But really, it is not hard to imagine a combination of just the right conditions, or the wrong ones I suppose is more accurate, that could lead to massive fires here. A growing season that started out with normal moisture or higher and then turned hot, dry and windy after the corn and soybeans had put on a lot of growth, and we could have fires sweeping thousand of square miles.

      Reply
    7. JBird4049

      Can anyone explain to me just how the Australian Greens are supposed to be responsible for the fires and/or climate change???

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        Simple. The “legend” is that Greenies are stopping back burns in winter months and stopping fire roads from being built – all to save the trees. We’ve all seen this tactic before. Blaming people that have no power or agency for things that people with power have neglected to do. The Prime Minister spreads this crap as well.

        Reply
        1. JBird4049

          Eyeballing the map, the fires cover the same area as the six westernmost American states. That would be a lot of road building and control burns. Would this be connected to taxes, or the lack of them, by chance?

          Reply
          1. The Rev Kev

            Partly. But there are several factors at work. We are used to bushfires here but not of this scope or magnitude. This is one for the records. The fire chiefs tried to organize a meeting several months ago with the Prime Minister to warn him but he was not interested. He is a bit like that Harper guy that Canada had.

            Another factor is that although in size we are about the same as the continental United States, we have less people that the State of Texas so not only are you talking about less people for firefighting but a smaller tax bases as well. That is why the Volunteer Firefighters are so important-

            https://volunteerfirefighters.org.au/

            With firefighting, we only send in trained people so we don’t send in prisoners nor will you see troops being sent in. It is too dangerous for that. Things like that have changed in the US too. I have a book on US firefighting and in rural towns when there was a fire, you might have had a truck go by the bar in the bottom end of town to pick up all the guys inside. Those days are long gone now thankfully.

            Reply
  2. Slbrown

    Important. Retired fire commissioners from across Australia sought to meet with Prime Minister Morrison when he entered office earlier this year. They warned of catastrophic fire conditions well before these bushfires started and wanted a national summit convened later in the year so professionals, politicians, and communities could brain storm how to deal catastrophic fire conditions driven by climate change. The link below is to a recent press conference they gave. If you are concerned about what is happening in Australia and frustrated by politicians lack of response, please listen. These are brave people and no doubt are volunteering to help their communities out during this bushfire crises.

    Reply
    1. AstoriaBlowin

      Where are the water bombers? Trying to stop these fires with firefighters is pointless and just puts lives at risk. Same thing in California, a few guys digging trenches isn’t going to do it. Of course if you have multiple concurrent outbreaks of fire it is hard to contain them but you have no chance without a proper fleet of water bombers. If this is going to be a yearly thing then the govt needs to seriously invest in proper fire mitigation.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        There are only so many water bombers and helicopters and we are in size about the same as the continental United States. Some of those fires are about three thousand kilometers apart as is the gear. Some people have kicked up a fuss that we are not hiring water bombers from the northern hemisphere as they are not being used at the moment but the government has not gone with this idea. Or most others for that matter. These fires are ferocious. I read that when you have some of these fires really flaring in height, that they can be higher than the Sydney Opera House.

        Reply
        1. Slbrown

          Fire fighters in one of these bushfires reported flames as high as 21 stories (had to use apps to covert meters to feet to stories to understand what they faced).

          Reply
      2. Slbrown

        Greg Mullins 2018 video answers your question. Greg is a retired NSW Fire Commissioner.
        https://youtu.be/HjOk1w5ZPHw

        We are very fortunate in California to have a state government that acknowledges climate change. Before the 2019 season government, fire, and emergency officials met to plan their response to the oncoming 2019 fire season. They strategically placed firefighting resources throughout the state were they expected the worse. California government’s firefighting budget has also been significantly been increased and this year Cal Fire bought seven more aircraft to fight our fires. This in not happening in Australia.

        Reply
        1. norm de plume

          The fact that Morrison went on hols during the worst crisis we have recently had is (especially for such a marketing maven) bad enough… ‘where the bloody hell are ya?’ !

          But his refusal to meet with the fire chiefs is surely worse, given the fire season that followed. It would be instructive to see a list of all the interest groups he DID consent to see in that time.

          And it is difficult to imagine either Shorten or Albanese refusing to see them. To be fair I can’t really see Abbott or Howard ignoring them either. In fact I can’t picture any of the 4 going to Hawaii under the circumstances, and there is little chance any of them would so comically pretend they hadn’t for the first day or so two. Jeez, even Trump or BoJo would think twice, surely.

          Ex Deputy PM and erstwhile ScoMo colleague Julie Bishop skewered him nicely:

          “The Prime Minister is testing the theory that the best way to resolve a crisis is to be as far away from it as possible.”

          This report from the fire front on the South Coast is by (for my money) the most admirable Australian politician since Bob Brown retired – ex-Greens senator Scott Ludlam. He remains the only politician state or federal who has ever responded to one of my missives (it was about the TPP, after he had made a brilliant speech in the Senate about it):

          https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/01/i-fled-the-bushfires-with-ash-falling-from-the-sky-but-this-is-what-community-feels-like

          Ludlam unfortunately retired from the Senate. He was caught up in the absurd citizenship crisis, but apparently he resigned due to depression. Not surprising, as he was daily battling against what he terms the ‘smirking vacuum’ that is political leadership in this country.

          Reply
        2. JBird4049

          I agree with this. As much as I loathe California’s corrupt neoliberal state government, it’s response to the recent fires has been good as has some of the efforts to dealing with climate change. It just makes the little I understand about Australia’s responses, somewhat… confounding.

          Reply
  3. Paul Hodgson

    “South Coast of Australia to lose power tonight” should read “Much of the south coast of New South Wales to lose power tonight”

    (I’m not for a minute disputing the severity of the situation.)

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The ABC banner last night similarly treated it as obvious that “south coast” = south coast of NSW and coast area of NSW and Victoria border. But I can see this confusing non-Aussie readers.

      Reply
  4. Wukchumni

    The images are just horrific, I can’t imagine the ordeal of what might be termed ‘the longest summer’ if this keeps up…

    Americans sometimes express the desire to go up over to live, but it’s an unobtainable pipe dream for most, whereas Australians can uproot & go live in New Zealand fairly easily, if i’m not mistaken.

    EnZed has it’s issues such as quakes and volcanoes and a wowzer of a housing bubble, so it’s not as if you’re entering a fool proof Eden of sorts, but I wonder why more Ockers don’t up and leave their crummy political situation & climate change hotspot for one that’s hopeful, in the land of the long white cloud?

    Reply
    1. Prairie Bear

      There is nowhere to go to “escape” this. Nowhere. On. Earth. You might be better off for a while, and if you are old enough, you might be better off for long enough to live out to your more or less natural lifespan. Maybe not even that.

      Reply
      1. Wukchumni

        Hard to say, really,

        When 200 & 135 year droughts hit California, Europe was in the middle of the Crusades, so the climate there must’ve been ok, in comparison.

        Reply
    2. GavinH

      I’m working on the South Island just now, just off the coast. The whole island is shrouded in haze, smoke blown over from Australia, which is quiet eerie.

      The South Island had a few large bushfires last year, and still gets very hot during the summer. Combined with insane house prices and lack of decent jobs, it’s really not the Eden that everybody seems to think it is.

      Reply
  5. Darius

    I was in Victoria three years ago. One experience characterized the whole trip. The botanic garden in Melbourne had a lovely cafe on a pond. It was bustling with wait and clean up staff. They made delicious sandwiches on site. Plus scones and jam. All at reasonable prices. Truly unforgettable.

    In the US, such a place would have a Starbucks or similar with prepackaged food and a couple people behind the counter. Or just vending machines. They never would go so far as employing a whole staff.

    It was similar at the cafe at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka in Ballarat. The thing I remember most there, besides the museum, was the naturally flavored soda concocted to order on the premises. By people. Outstanding.

    Reply
    1. norm de plume

      Enjoy that relative freedom from franchise hell in Australia while you can, because that blight has been gaining pace in recent years, and wherever America goes we tend to follow slavishly, a few years later.

      A couple more Murdoch, sorry LNP governments and we will have caught up.

      By that time, Australian democracy itself may be displayed at the Museum of Australian Democracy.

      Reply
  6. Jokerstein

    I know things are terrible there on personal, local, regional, and national scales, but they pale into insignificance on a planetary scale when compared to equatorial Africa. That is where the planet is being destroyed quickest.

    The majority of those fires were almost certainly started deliberately to clear forest for agriculture.

    Reply
    1. mle detroit

      That link is to visual data about Africa that shows humans increasing the size of the Sahara.
      The site it’s on is AMAZING, satellite imagery provided by NASA — well worth our taxpayer dollars. Don’t tell Trump, it’s science, he’ll cancel it.

      Reply
    2. nlowhim

      Holy crap! Thanks for sharing this. Should be front page news. I am absolutely shocked that it isn’t (but not really). If we thought Boko Haram was bad things out there are only going to get worse

      Reply
  7. Prairie Bear

    I have since childhood had a weakness for “apocalyptic” movies, TV shows, etc. Maybe I sensed that things would be like this in my lifetime, or maybe a lot of other reasons. Who knows?

    One of my favorites is These Final Hours. It is an Australian film, set in Australia, made in 2013. It looks almost literally like what happened in the movie is happening.

    Reply
    1. Tony Wright

      I lived on 80acres outside Uki, northern NSW from January 2000 until December 19, 2019. We then drove 5days to Adelaide, via overnight stops at Armidale, Dubbo, Griffith and Mildura. 2147kilometres. For family reasons. The bushfire smoke accompanied us all the way to Mildura, with visibility down to 300 metres in places, despite that we changed our planned route to give the fires a wide berth.
      Judging by the fire maps I reckon 40-50% of the remaining natural habitat along the Great Dividing Range between Sydney and the Queensland border has been burnt. Let alone the more recent absolutely apocalyptic conditions in southern NSW and East Gippsland, as evidenced by the Mallacoota photos above.
      When we arrived in Dubbo it was 45degrees C, and still 40C by 10pm.
      In September Binna Burra lodge, nestled in rainforest (which is not supposed to burn at all), burnt to the ground, along with surrounding rainforest.
      Rainforest trees on Mt. Nardi are dying in areas not affected by the recent fire because of drought.
      I recorded daily rainfall figures at our Uki home for 15years. Annual totals varied between1200mm and 2400mm – we deliberately chose to move to a wet spot coming from Perth, WA in 2000, with climate change very much in mind.
      In 2017 we had an unprecedented flood with over 700mm rainfall over 36hours.
      2019 rainfall total for the whole year? 670mm.
      And our Government is happy to mine and flog coal as fast as it can. F…ing unbelievable, but sadly true. I am ashamed of both them and the myopic, ignorant and narcissistic fellow Australians who voted for them.
      Happy New Year to all NC readers.

      Reply
      1. norm de plume

        ‘With no place to hide, what do you do?’

        There is a school of thought that us humans can be divided into two groups: those who, on a beach as the mother of all tsunamis arrives, will resolutely face it in its full horror, study it and warn others about it and try to build some sort of rickety protection.. and those who at the first hint of trouble, will resolutely turn around to face what they know and love and don’t have to think hard about. A variation of fight or flight I guess.

        Of course if the wave is big enough it doesn’t matter which camp you’re in, we all drown anyway. But if there is a chance of survival via those desperate rickety protective measures, a collective effort is required to bring it off. Unfortunately the stubborn resistance of that second group of people makes this scenario unlikely.

        I am with Tony here:

        ‘I am ashamed of both them and the myopic, ignorant and narcissistic fellow Australians who voted for them’

        Trying to talk to people at work or the pub or at family gatherings about climate change is a genuinely depressing experience. I have farming cousins unmoored from the reality of their situation. I still love them, but in the way you love unruly children, without the respect you have for fully formed adults.

        Might as well turn away from that wave…

        Reply
    2. norm de plume

      I suffer from this syndrome too, and have sat through some very average plots and performances to get my fix of mayhem. I date this from the time I saw Earthquake and The Towering Inferno on the same rainy day while on holiday as a kid. When I run out of fiction I resort to the real thing, such as Tony Robinson’s Catastrophe series. Planetary collisions, meteors, massive volcanism, ‘snowball earth’… it’s all there:

      https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1329590/

      My nephew recommended These Final Hours at Xmas so I will have to look it up.

      Oz apocalypse cinema began with On the Beach in the 50s, which of course was an American production. So American that Tony Perkins had to play one of the lead Australian roles. Peter Weir’s 1977 The Last Wave was followed by the Mad Max series, though I guess that’s more post-apocalyptic. We like us some disaster..

      Reply
      1. Prairie Bear

        The first major world political event that I have memories of was the Cuban Missile Crisis. I wasn’t old enough at all to have any kind of real grasp of what was going on. My family — Mom, Dad, and uncle who lived with us and four kids, of which I was the youngest — would be sitting around watching TV and a bulletin of the latest developments would interrupt. The adults put on a show of calm as best they could, and the older kids too. As I said, I didn’t understand much, but I could pick up that it was very, very scary. Like we could all die.

        Ever since then, I have had recurring dreams about nuclear war and all kinds of other disasters. I don’t know if that experience was formative in some way, or just one part of a complicated mix. Maybe I have some innate sociopathic tendencies, although I literally don’t even like to hurt flies anymore.

        Reply
        1. norm de plume

          No need for a personal psychological explanation; your dreams are hardly surprising if you lived thru the age of atomic/nuclear propaganda. I will never forget my shock watching The Atomic Cafe in the 80s at the often hilarious but deeply disturbing measures taken to reassure the populace that nukes were harmless if you took sensible precautions, like ‘duck and cover’!

          https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083590/

          Sheesh. That must have traumatised tens of millions.

          Reply
  8. moss

    Here over in southern nz it’s just before noon new years day, and grey and overcast, but there’s an eerie yellow light, quite extraordinary and many houses have their lights on. It’s too dim to read a book without lights. Through the window the whole garden is glowing with a preternatural lush green.

    Talking about it with a friend on the phone he said that on the news it’s attributed to the oz bushfires.

    Reply
    1. skippy

      The authors bio read like a cult follower with income expectations …

      I guess as long as there is no totalitarian government response it’s all manna from above – water from spaceX …

      Cue Cecil B. DeMille …

      Reply
        1. xkeyscored

          It looks like he’s in favour of a Christian theocracy; he certainly thinks it should be on the agenda:
          “This is a nation where you have the freedom to follow any belief system you choose. Secularism is just one. It has no greater claim than any other on our society.”
          I guess if his house were to burn down he’d manage to interpret it as encouragement from above. Still, a nice song for sure!

          Reply
          1. skippy

            His devotion is to the prosper church brand and in this specific case its a well oiled marketing PR entertainment business – very MLM sort of arrangement. The owner and proprietor of this buisness in not unlike Richard Pryor in the move Carwash.

            Kev … oldest son knows these boys through a long time working muso friend, for a number of bands, sunshine coast sorts. Well thought of in their age group and not just for music. This is not Smokos demographic. BTW some are already pondering the call for a spill, too much baggage and brand destruction.

            Reply
  9. Barry

    ¨ a few guys digging trenches isn’t going to do it´
    Give me a break! No one does that in Australia
    They use bulldozers for firebreaks where they are relevant – which is not often

    Anyway on aircraft
    Here is an extract from the National Aerial Firefighting Centre

    The National Aerial Firefighting Fleet comprises approximately 130 contracted aircraft. These aircraft, contracted by NAFC on behalf of state and territory governments, are supplemented by additional state owned, and state contracted aircraft and other aircraft hired to meet peak demand across Australia. In total more than 500 aircraft, provided by over 150 operators, are available for firefighting across Australia.

    Reply
    1. skippy

      Part of the problem is during extreme conditions air assets can’t fly, so just when its needed the most its grounded. Its hard for the average person to grok this sort of thing until faced with it.

      So much MSM and political aversion to informing populations due to market factors and hoping the population sleep walks through the entire agenda till its too late and then told they voted for it.

      Reply
    2. vlade

      The overturned truck that killed a firefighter was a result of a “fire tornado”. Imagine what it would do to a plane(s)?

      Fires like these make their own weather, which is very inclement to flying slow water bombing planes. Not to mention that water bombing is really mostly PR when you have a even a low hundreds of hectares. You’d need a small lake to drop on that – at once everywhere – to make any difference.

      Reply
      1. skippy

        Very true, the size and complexity of these fronts means human intervention is really only to protect property or lives, rest just burns past. Fire firefighters will abandon any wooden property as soon as it is alight or the size and intensity of the front make chances of survival low, need to prioritize resources.

        Just the fact that infrastructure through most of these regions is in and out or served by only a few roads compounds deploying resources. Not to mention huge amounts of the bush fires is completely outside any basic infrastructure, remote is putting mildly.

        Reply
  10. vlade

    Australia, meet climate change.

    Just a few comments:

    I have to say that most Australians I met aren’t really what I’d term people in line with nature. I say “most” – I’m sure there are some, but TBH, even the farmers out there are often in the business of asking the nature for the impossible. Australia is the size of the US, but at the same time one of the the most urbanised countries in the world. Japan and Argentina are the only two large countries more urbanised. Israel is actually the one that has the most similar conditions (highly urbanised country in a desert with substantial agriculture), but Australia doesn’t seem to learn too much from it (as far as I know, happy to be corrected).

    Maybe, just maybe (I’m not so sure, gauging reactions of most of my Aussie friends), this will wake up the city dwellers that they are on the forefront of the climate change (of the developed nations), while being one of the least prepared. Ironically though, they are (via the coal exports) one of the largest contributors…

    Reply
    1. skippy

      Whilst Ag and some cases urbanization plays a part in this the drama is a huge amount of these bush fires are in locations that rarely or have never burned. Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) is the key factor in pushing already dry conditions into catastrophic, don’t think any regional attempts could influence the IOD.

      Lots of old wooden structures in these regions, 100 years old in some cases and they go poof in minutes when lit. Did basic training in old WWII barracks and fire guard duty at night was for a reason, almost whole platoons have died during a fire at night.

      Big wooden decks or verandas and balustrades with forest meters away for the view, its lovely until its not, traditions in a non traditional environment.

      Reply
      1. vlade

        I don’t mean that the local decision could affect it – most likely, they could not. But, TBH, that is the point – few of us can make local decisions that will affect us directly. But all the local decisions we make will affect our clima and where the world goes..

        Reply

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