By now, most of us are all too familiar with the story. We have read the news accounts and seen the horrific pictures. The destruction is on a magnitude so great that the mind cannot wrap itself around it. It is so extensive that it is difficult even to ascertain and comprehend reliable estimates. Most of the damage has been concentrated in the southeast portion of the country in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. That includes some of the most heavily populated areas and the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne.
Vox News has estimated that at least 25 persons have been killed and some 2,000 homes have been destroyed. Moreover, the smoke from the fires represents a considerable health hazard. For example, Vox reported that in nearby Sydney breathing the smoke is equivalent to smoking 37 cigarettes.
Vox has estimated that up to 15.6 million acres of bushland have been destroyed and one billion animals killed. Those are unfathomable numbers. For example, to put it in some perspective, 15.6 million acres exceeds the area of the entire state of West Virginia! Can you imagine an entire state being destroyed by wildfires in less than four months? Can you imagine ONE BILLION animals killed?
As horrific as that is, it may very well be an underestimation of the damage to the area affected. There is no accurate way to measure the long-term damage to the area’s ecosystem resulting from the destruction of insects and other microscopic creatures, which, ecologists say play a vital role. Moreover, many of the organisms that managed to escape the fire will eventually perish due to the destruction of their natural environment and/or other organisms upon which they rely for food, shelter and water.
Furthermore, Australia is home to some of the world’s most unique creatures, many of which, such as kangaroos, wallabies, and koalas, are not found anywhere else. If these species were to be wiped out by these fires they would become extinct, which would be a tragedy in and of itself. Some of these animals are familiar to us, such as kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, and various other marsupials (basically, animals that are only partially developed when born and thus are carried in their mother’s pouch until they are fully developed). However, there are dozens of others, which few people outside of Australia are aware of, but whose continued existence is just as vital, For example, are you familiar with or have you even heard of the potoroo or the frilled-neck lizard? Probably not. You might find it worthwhile to “google” them, as I did, and educate yourself.
So, what caused these devastating fires? Could they recur, or is this year a “one-off?” Good questions,. Read on for the answers.
Based on news reports from various sources, such as Vox News and CBS, among others, it appears that the wildfires resulted from a “perfect storm” of negative factors, such as:
- Hot, dry weather. High temperatures, dry weather and brisk winds are typical in Australia during the summer, but this year those conditions have been very extreme. Australia has been in the midst of its hottest and driest year on record. Triple digit temperatures have not been uncommon in many parts of the country, including the areas most afflicted. Also, human activity, such as carelessness and arson, or natural occurrences, such as lightning have played a role.
- Changing weather patterns. Some have blamed climate change even though, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the country’s average temperature has only increased one degree Celsius over the past 100 years. I know climate change is a very controversial and contentious topic. I decline to debate it here. You can decide its effect on these fires for yourself. The ABM also reported that although rainfall has increased in the north, it has decreased in the southeast where the fires are concentrated. In addition, Australia has been in a three-year drought. Even the annual monsoons have played a role. They commenced later than usual in 2019, which resulted in the accumulation of more heat in some parts of the country.
- The fire season. It is becoming longer and more dangerous. We all know that the ecosystem depends on fires, to some extent. Fires enable many organisms to clear decay, germinate and recycle nutrients. But, the extreme weather has led to more and more extreme fires.
Furthermore, there are various long-term consequences of these wildfires.
- Australia’s biodiversity. I have already touched on this, but I believe it bears further discussion. Due to its isolation Australia has evolved into one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Ecologists estimate that there are some 250 species of mammals that are unique to Australia. Its ecosystem is fragile. Maru Saunders, an ecologist at the University of New England in Australia has opined that the forests contain “hundreds of different species that rely on each other. And if you lose one, it is like [losing] a link in a chain, you then lose the others that it is connected to.” As an example, Saunders cites insects. Although they’re largely invisible (out of sight, out of mind) she considers them to be “absolutely critical” to the functioning of an ecosystem.” They build ecosystems from the ground up. They decompose decaying matter, aerate the soil and pollinate the plants, which, in turn, helps to develop and nurture the forests.
- The smoke. The smoke from the fires constitutes a serious health hazard in and of itself. It is an irritant that exacerbates respiratory illnesses and heart problems. According to the EPA it contains very fine particles that can lodge in one’s lungs or bloodstream. It can lead to burning eyes, runny noses, bronchitis, and a myriad of other heart, lung and respiratory diseases. If you think the effects of the smoke will be limited to Australia, think again. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported that the smoke from these fires has begun to circumnavigate the globe. Already, prevailing winds have pushed it as far as South America.
- Mental health. According to Vox studies have found that following a major disaster the survivors normally exhibit a 5% to 15% increase in the incidence of mental health problems. This is brought on by the stress of loss of property, pets and, most importantly, loss of life of loved ones. This is very insidious, because, as we know, often these conditions are not recognized and treated in a timely fashion.
So, what can we do, other than the obvious of extinguishing the fires? In the short term, there have been reports of assistance from firefighters and persons with emergency response training from other countries, and Australia’s national government is providing assistance. Donations to wildlife and relief charities are also helpful.
But, long term solutions are also needed to prevent a recurrence of this level of devastation. Otherwise, I fear we will be facing the same situation again and again. In the meantime, I, like most of you, will be following the situation carefully and praying for a prompt and positive resolution.
I am not an expert in ecology or the environment by any means, but I hope that experts are working on the problem I would welcome any suggestions from you, the reader.