Some of you might recall that I lived in Bucketty in the Australian bush for more than 30 years. In August we sold our place and moved to Brisbane where two of our kids live.
In October the bush fires started around Bucketty. Therefore, the new owners didn’t move in till last week.
When we lived in Bucketty we went three times through serious bushfires, on one occasion we had helicopters dumping water on our property. However, the current fires are in no comparison. While Bucketty has so far been safe (fires are hovering at around 10 to 15 kms from this community now for several months), the people here are totally exhausted. I was there just before Christmas. At that time, they had been in that situation for 2 months. At several occasions families had to be evacuated, children ended up in hospital because of the smoke (asthma). While the community spirit is amazing at the same time I have never seen the people so depressed. So, it is with mixed feeling that we are avoiding all of this from our new home in Brisbane.
The fires have now destroyed close to 5 million hectares, many times the size of the California, Amazon or Siberian fires.
You will have heard that the military has called in 3000 reservists. The navy and army are busy evacuating people and providing provisions. Millions of people in Australia (and even in New Zealand) are on and off affected by thick smoke, way above the worst-case scenario pollutions that we are seeing in some of the Asian cities.
After 3 months of basically sitting on their hands the Federal Government has now come up with a national response to the fires. In the meantime, the PM even went on holidays to Hawaii. So far, he has tried to excuse the lack of long-term national policies by downplaying climate change. His key point has always been the bad economic effects of climate change policies on the economy. He is very pro-coal and was set to go to India this week to discuss new coal deals with the government there. Reluctantly he was convinced by others that this was bad PR and cancelled the trip. While he made some great announcements re military aid and a recovering program, he forgot to inform the fire chiefs about the extra staff and how they would be integrated in the current plan, so that created more bad news for him. However, in no time he launched an upbeat Liberal Party political add on social media about what the government is doing, again something that is not sitting well with the people and not with the military who must be and are non-partisan. He consequently had to withdraw the add.
While the government is not denying climate change it doesn’t have any policies on the consequences of it. We are already for over a decade waiting on a national energy policy and when retired fire chiefs last year asked the PM for a meeting to discuss a national bush fire approach – as the scientists had predicted a gruesome summer ahead – he refused to meet with them.
So, no wonder that the PM – who not that long ago brought a piece of coal in parliament with the message coal is good for humanity – has been shunned at several communities affected by the bush fires.
The question now is will this change Australian policies? There is no doubt that the government will have to come up with policies addressing the impact on events like this. Predictions are that this could become the new normal for Australian summers. Are the economic consequences of this fire big enough to overcome the government’s fear of economic devastation if we develop better policies? A recovery commission has been announced with a budget of $2 billion.
For starters there now is the massive costs to homes and infrastructure but there are also massive losses to tourism (the fires did hit the top summer holiday destinations for thousands of Australians). There is also massive lost to agriculture and cattle. As the fire situation started in Queensland in September, we now already see notes in the vegetable aisles in supermarkets ‘sorry nor available because of the bushfires’. Other problems are the thousands of carcasses of burned cattle, while farmers have lost their equipment to bury them. This could become a health hazard.
It is estimated that half a billion native animals have been killed by the fires. It is also clear that development regulations for millions of people living in bush fire prone areas need to be changed and that new infrastructure is needed as there is often only one way in and out of these communities and all electricity is above ground. One of the major issues during this emergency is the total collapse of communications as power is cut off to all affected areas and hundreds of mobile towers are destroyed, or inoperable – you can imagine the anxiety that this causes the victims and their families. In a TV interview I have called for a national telecoms emergency plan basically aimed at created community-based redundancy capacity in the case of such disasters.
Apart from these bushfires many communities are currently running out of water, mainly because of the drought but also because higher up the catchment areas large scale international commercial agriculture companies are allowed to harvest massive amounts of water that now no longer reach these communities. Also, this issue needs to be addressed
Will this be the game changer, is Australia ready for it? The world will be watching. In the meantime, the fires are far from over they expect another horror weekend ahead of us and without solid rain the fires and the drought will continue.
Thanks for your interest and concerns.