The Australian coast is burning. I’m sure you’ve seen the apocalyptic images of small towns going up. Of day turned to night and the orange glow of approaching fire fronts. Of people huddled on the beach with their kids and animals, waiting at the waterline, knowing that if the fire comes over the hill there’s only one place left to go. It’s been a confronting time.
In the past week, it’s been the NSW South Coast that has gone up in flames. Between Culburra and Mallacoota most of the coastline has burned. Two people have died, half a billion animals have perished and hundreds of homes have been lost, but as tragic as that has been, the fact that the death toll hasn’t been even higher is a miracle and testament to the work of largely volunteer firefighters. Almost 12 million acres have gone up in recent days. That’s more than double the area of California’s wildfires in 2018 and five times what burned in the Amazon last year.
Australia, of course, is no stranger to bushfire. It has burned for tens of thousands of years. The First Australians used fire as a tool to both hunt and also manage the land and prevent larger, catastrophic bushfires. The dominant eucalyptus trees that cover much of the continent actually survive by fire. They’ve evolved to burn. Their stringy bark is designed to catch fire then be taken ahead by the wind, starting new spotfires. Since European settlement, fire has continued to be part of the Australian landscape. It was only a decade ago that the Black Saturday bushfires outside of Melbourne claimed 173 lives in the worst bushfire tragedy Australia has experienced.
Australians live with fire but there are worrying signs that the current fires herald the beginning of a new age of fire. This hasn’t been just Black Saturday, or Black Friday… it’s been a Black Spring and a Black Summer. The fires that burn today on the NSW South Coast and in the Snowy Mountains and on Kangaroo Island have been preceded by fires burning in southern Queensland, the NSW North Coast, Sydney’s Blue Mountains and the Adelaide Hills. Since last August it’s been a rolling series of bushfires moving around the country and it’s clear to see why.
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The place is a tinderbox. Last year was officially the hottest and driest year Australia has ever recorded. Just two weeks ago, Australia experienced its hottest three days on record, the average maximum temperature across the whole country topping out at 105, 107 and 106 degrees on consecutive days. That’s just the average temperature, remember. Last week Sydney experienced its hottest day on record, with Mick Fanning’s birthplace of Penrith topping out at 120 degrees. They are desert temperatures being experienced in the city and on the coast. Huge balls of supercharged heat have been rolling east and south from Australia’s red center. It’s been hot and dry and smoky and it’s worked on the national psyche. Even in the cities you can’t escape it. Sydney was blanketed in smoke for weeks. Air quality index readings above 200 are considered bad. Canberra, the nation’s capital, just the other day recorded 7,700.
Wayne Lynch is no stranger to bushfire. Back in 1983, he and his family had to flee for their lives when the Ash Wednesday fires tore through their property on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. The house was burned to the ground. When he finally returned there was nothing left but ash and a long, snaking piece of aluminum that had, before it melted, been his boat. It now sits on the wall above his shaping bay out the back of Byron Bay as a reminder of the power of fire here in Australia… although those reminders have been everywhere lately. Back in November, Wayne’s property was again ringed; seven fires burning in the caldera above his house. The Lynch’s had the car packed, ready to go if it got any closer. Further south at Nymboida, Nat Young wasn’t so lucky. The house he’d built by hand back in the ‘70s burned to the ground. Nat’s other place at Angourie was spared but only just. The fireys set up a perimeter around the iconic surf village and managed to hold the flames off.
The Australian bushfires have made huge news overseas. Last week the front pages of all the UK newspapers were aglow with reports of Australia burning. The Australian government only last week released a $15 million TV commercial aimed at getting Brits to visit Australia; that $15 million now up in flames. No one in their right mind would holiday here. The fascination of the press in the US and the UK in particular with the Australian fires stems largely from Australia’s recalcitrance to reducing their carbon emissions. At the recent Madrid climate conference, Australia actively lobbied to have targets relaxed, despite being amongst the world’s highest per capita carbon emitters. The Australian government is currently facilitating a wholesale expansion of the fossil fuel industry. The Adani coal mine in Queensland. The Equinor oil well in the Great Australian Bight. Gas development pretty much everywhere. Both here in Australia and abroad there’s a feeling that these fires are almost symbolic. Australia has become the poster child for climate change. The world is getting a first look at what the new normal might look like… and it’s happening to one of the countries responsible for driving it. The world has made the link between fossil fuels, fire and climate, and the fact Australia’s leaders haven’t has made us a pariah.
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Not that you’ll hear that from Australia’s leaders. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison is currently on the run. In the middle of the fires he infamously took a week’s holiday at the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore, and when the images of him throwing shakas with Aussie tourists while quaffing mai tais made it back to Australia he was set upon by an increasingly anxious Australian public. It was only last week–three months after the fires started–that he announced any significant measures to combat the fires. He’s still however spending more on a statue of Captain Cook ($50 million) than he is on fighting the fires.
Although a southerly change came through overnight and cooled off temperatures, the South Coast is currently still being evacuated today by the navy. People are fleeing Kangaroo Island on the ferry. Australia’s usual summer holidays have been cut short on much of the coastline. There’s no immediate prospect of significant rain, and historically the late summer months of January and February are the most dangerous as the country dries out progressively in the summer heat. The long, hot Australian summer, once a defining part of the carefree national identity, isn’t quite being celebrated that way right now.
This article originally appeared on Surfer.com and was republished with permission.
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