The unseen costs of Australia's fires

A sense of security and a way of life are casualties, too, in the unprecedented conflagration

The little beachside community of North Durras on the New South Wales (NSW) south coast lies deep within a thickly forested national park not far from the town of Batemans Bay, the access road winding through patches of lush temperate rainforest.

The hamlet is a collection of holiday parks and homes, and sits near an expansive, white, sandy beach and the mouth of an inland tidal lake. It is a remote, peaceful place where kangaroos graze among the caravans and chalets, and visitors laze in deckchairs or play on the beach.

I have fond memories of North Durras. It is a place I spent many childhood summers in, and as an adult, I've continued to visit the south coast on holidays. So, a huge bush fire that tore through the area early last month, burning the forest all the way down to the beach, came as a shock.

Fires had not affected the area in years, in part because the forests were always wet. That changed after a prolonged drought and years of record-breaking heat dried out the surrounding national park and many other forested areas along the south coast.

North Durras survived, but the surrounding forests were left blackened.

Local photographer Josh Burkinshaw witnessed the fire that menaced North Durras. He told The Straits Times: "It's burned out. It's crazy. It's going to take 10 to 15 years for that rainforest to recover."

He recently went back to North Durras. While the damage is depressing, he said, there were signs of the forest starting to regenerate.

But where he lives, in Batemans Bay, the fire on New Year's Eve was much more intense. It destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings, including those belonging to close friends of his. "It's just surreal, and I admit to shedding a tear," he said.

Mr Burkinshaw's feelings of shock and loss are something that I and many other Australians feel as well. Areas where we formed close bonds are damaged or destroyed, livelihoods ruined, and friends and family are affected.

The fire season has another two months to run, and it's deeply worrying when our family members could be in the path of the next big blaze.

My sister's house farther down the south coast survived a large fire that threatened her town recently.

Just to the north of Canberra, not far from the coast, my mother lives on a 180ha farm with patches of flammable eucalyptus forest. She hasn't had any decent rain for two years; the farm is as dry as dust and primed for fire.

She will have minutes to escape if a fire heads her way. I was helping her in late November, clearing gutters, buying hoses and raking up dead leaves. But given the ferocity of the fires, such steps are likely to matter little.

A man in Lake Conjola, New South Wales state, trying to save his property from a bush fire on New Year's Eve. The current fire crisis in Australia is unprecedented in scale and intensity. The fire season started earlier than usual and has become a series of climate change-linked disasters fuelled by record heat, high winds and a long-running drought. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WHAT'S DIFFERENT THIS TIME

That's the thing about this fire crisis. It is unprecedented. Over the years, there have been Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Black Thursday, Black Saturday and a number of other horror fire disasters, which are listed on a display in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

What's different this time is the scale and intensity of the fires, which have affected most states. The fire season started two months earlier than usual and has become a rolling series of climate change-linked disasters fuelled by record heat, high winds and a long-running drought. Who will be affected next?

The crisis has changed the country. The question now is: How will Australians respond and adapt to future fire seasons as climate change gets worse?

The carefree ritual of the summer holiday by the beach may change. People are likely to be more cautious about where and when they go, and have an evacuation plan at the ready. The images of residents and holidaymakers fleeing infernos to the safety of beaches and lakes will be forever etched into the memories of Australians.

"Perhaps it's time to rearrange the Australian calendar and reschedule the peak holiday period to March or April, instead of December and January. It's easy to dismiss this idea as stupid but that's the nature of adaptation," Dr David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, recently wrote on The Conversation website.

The scale of the loss and destruction of wildlife and national parks is also unprecedented. Australia is on the verge of an extinction crisis, adding to the deep sense of national loss.

Ecologists have calculated that fires have burned 6 million ha of habitat that is home to at least 250 different threatened species. Twenty-five of these species are listed as critically endangered. In other words, they are on the brink of extinction in the wild, Ms Michelle Ward from the University of Queensland told Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) online on Monday.

BURNING ANGER OVER LEADERSHIP FAILURE

The bush fire crisis has ignited concern about the threats from climate change and triggered a deep sense of anger. This is a fire crisis fuelled by human action via weak climate policies and it is easy to point the finger of blame: the government in Canberra.

Many Australians want more action and want the government to show leadership.

Almost four-fifths of Australians surveyed earlier this month said they are concerned about climate change, a 5 percentage point increase from last July, according to The Australia Institute, a public policy think-tank which commissioned the poll. Almost half said they are "very concerned", a 10 percentage point gain, and 67 per cent said they believe climate change is making bush fires worse.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been severely criticised for lack of leadership, lack of empathy and initial reluctance to link the fires to climate change and the nation's coal-friendly policies.

He infamously went on a Christmas holiday to Hawaii with his family as the crisis deepened, only to be hounded back home after severe criticism by fellow politicians, voters and the media.

Former emergency services chiefs have also criticised him for inaction, despite their warnings last April that a severe fire season was likely.

Mr Greg Mullins, a veteran fire services chief, was among 23 former leaders of fire and emergency services from around the country who wrote to Mr Morrison, citing their own experience as well as evidence from climate scientists and meteorologists.

"We were ignored and trivialised," Mr Mullins wrote in an opinion piece in The Guardian on Monday. "There has been an appalling failure in national leadership from Canberra. Failure to recognise and prepare for what was coming. Failure to accept briefings from experts."

Among fire victims, emotions have run high, and Mr Morrison's visits to fire-damaged towns and firefighters have been filled with embarrassing moments.

Earlier this month, he was heckled by locals from the tourist town of Cobargo on the south coast of NSW, after fire ripped through the town centre.

Ms Zoe Salucci-McDermott, a pregnant woman who had lost her home, refused to shake the Prime Minister's hand unless he agreed to provide additional funding for the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Video footage of the encounter showed Mr Morrison forcibly grabbing the 20-year-old's hand anyway, setting up a storm of criticism on social media.

MURDOCH MEDIA'S CLIMATE DENIAL ROLE

Mr Morrison isn't alone. Anger has also been directed at media mogul Rupert Murdoch for fuelling climate denialism.

Mr Murdoch's newspaper and TV outlets have been staunch supporters of the Liberal-National Coalition. The Murdoch media machine has fed a narrative that arsonists and Australian political party The Greens' policies against hazard-reduction burning are largely responsible for the fires.

In fact, police data shows arson has played a very minor role in the fires, and accusations of insufficient hazard-reduction burning operations during cooler months have also been dismissed by the rural fire service.

NSW government data shows prescribed burning to remove fire hazards has more than doubled in the decade to 2018-2019 in state national parks, ABC reported yesterday.

Mr Murdoch's son James and daughter-in-law Kathryn have criticised the bush fire coverage by his family's news outlets, including News Corp and Fox Corp. Stories on the fires, in particular, have promoted the denial of climate change, a statement from the couple suggested.

Earlier this month, a senior News Corp employee, in an e-mail to all staff, criticised "the misinformation campaign that has tried to divert attention away from the real issue which is climate change".

It remains to be seen if the demand for change will lead to capitulation by Mr Morrison's government and a weakening of ties to the Murdoch press and powerful interests, such as the mining sector.

For the rest of the world, what has happened in Australia has rightly stirred feelings of horror and fear. This is what climate change looks like and it demands stronger political leadership.

For now, those in North Durras and elsewhere affected by the fires are picking up the pieces.

Mr Andrew Dalzell of the Durras Lake North Holiday Park said this week that business is down 95 per cent. He's hoping business will pick up again by the April school holidays.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2020, with the headline The unseen costs of Australia's fires. Subscribe