Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Feeling the heat - Australia’s catastrophic bushfires


Sunday Morning in Canberra - 5/1/2020. On New Year's Day Air quality reached more than 22 times the hazardous rating and smoke could be seen in New Zealand and South America


Dear friends,  as you have probably seen and heard, it hasn’t been a Happy New Year here.
I have been meaning to finish that bit about New Zealand, but we all seem to be in a state of suspended animation since Christmas and it’s hard to focus while the country burns. Although Tasmania has been largely spared so far - only two major fires, and our peak fire season tends to be later, all eyes have been on the mainland where  6,300,000 hectares have already been burnt. Day after day we have watched scenes of devastation and the fires have cast a pall not only over the festive season, but the whole summer, indeed all of our summers.  Summer used to be a time we eagerly looked forward to – beaches, barbecues, family and friends and the shedding of winter woollies, but now it has become a time of dread.  People are still heading to the beaches in places such Southern New South Wales and East Gippsland, but these days it has been to escape fires or to be evacuated by the navy.

Although Prime Minister Morrison has ordered in the troops as of Saturday and has allocated more funds for volunteers, fire -fighting and rebuilding, it’s a great pity that no one in government thought of this before. According to the Guardian, around 200 fires are still burning, more than 1500 homes have been lost as well as 23 lives. Businesses, farms and public buildings such as schools have also been destroyed, along with an estimated 480 million native animals. At the time of writing, farmers are still counting their stock losses, 23,000 people on the South Coast of NSW are still without power and Canberra has worse air quality than New Delhi on a bad day.

Florey Monitor in Canberra - on the same day.

Air quality is another casualty even in regions which haven't burnt - the ACT has started importing thousands of face masks

Apart from that idiot in Tasmania who used the opportunity to break into the Fire Services building, crises do seem to bring out the best in people. Volunteers and people like Chris and Leisa Tague who lost their own home on New Year's Day, are helping each other out in our devastated country towns.

Celebrities from Pink to Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, Rebel Wilson, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Helen deGeneres have all pledged funds via the International campaign started by comedian Celeste Barber, along with those by tennis stars such as Ash Barty and Nick Kyrgios, not to mention the efforts of ordinary people – from delivering hay to burnt out farmers, a Tasmanian bartender, Jess Clennett offering her day's wages and tips, or making donations via other platforms and sites. One of the more unusual efforts includes that by The Naked Philanthropist, an L.A. Based nude model Kaylen Ward, who managed to raise over $500,000, by offering nude pics of herself for every ten dollar donation, until Instagram shut down her account. (I mention this only because it adds a bit of humour in what has otherwise been a grim situation). I do hope our bankers have contributed generously from their indecent bonuses following the Royal Commission.


However, fighting spot fires – even massive ones, or promising to help those affected afterwards, is not the same thing as preventing them in the first place and doing something about the causes. I have to ask, why is it being left to individuals and volunteers to deal with these things until it's too late? Isn't that why we have governments -to protect us from things like this? And where is the insurance industry in all this? They won't always be able to pass the costs on to the long suffering public, which is happy to help out now and then - if their own needs aren't too desperate, but not again and again. That indicates a systems failure.

With the worst of our summer yet to come and the record breaking temperatures set to continue, not just here but around the globe -Greece, California, Spain and even Alaska and Scandinavia have all experienced unprecedented fire seasons with earlier and deadlier fires than ever, we can’t just keep patching things up after the event. In the short term, we need to rebuild our homes, towns and farms, not just as they were before, but using fireproof materials and better designs, incorporating safe zones and solar panels, and passive heating and cooling to reduce our dependence on coal and electricity in general. Since Australia is at the frontline and has the most to lose from climate change, we should be at the forefront of this technology.

Rebuilding also offers the opportunity to incorporate the kind of town planning which could reduce the need for private transport and fossil fuels. Coal miners and power station workers fearful of losing their jobs could immediately be deployed and trained in this type of construction to prevent such catastrophes in future.  Since even  the fossils in our government are beginning to understand that we cannot eat a surplus when everything has gone up in smoke, perhaps the funds could come from the generous subsidies currently being used to prop up coal mines and coal fired power stations. Even in the wake of the present disaster, I expect that it would be too much to hope that we could stop supplying coal to other nations, particularly those which refuse to limit their emissions, but perhaps it is time to diversify our exports and have a serious think about who our trading partners should be.

My Dad used to say “Wer nicht hören will, muss fühlen” by which he meant I was about to get a hiding for doing something after he had warned me not to, but the translation roughly means, “People who don’t listen, must feel the consequences.” Let’s hope those elected by a slim majority are starting to feel the heat.

OVERNIGHT: Lower temperatures and light rainfall have given firefighters a bit of a reprieve, but there has not been enough rain to put out the fires and temperatures are set to rise into the low forties again by the end of the week.

I have offered to help, but sometimes having more people around, especially untrained ones, in an already chaotic bushfire situation is not only unhelpful, but dangerous, though an exception should surely have been made for Doctors. Donations of goods can also be problematic, so read through the Links below to find the most appropriate ways to contribute:

Useful Links:


If you are worried about family or friends in Bush Fire Zones:
Call the Red Cross' Register. Find. Reunite site and register their names. You can also register in person at evacuation centres or via their website 

How to Help
Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund 
The Red Cross also welcomes Donations of Blood
 
Helping the Animals
- Wires
- The RSPCA
- On the Road 


Bush Fire Emergency Plans
What to do in a Heatwave 

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