Microsoft News US is supporting Microsoft News Australia in its campaign to help respond to the devastating bushfires that are ravaging the country. Together we are raising funds for Australian Red Cross, St Vincent De Paul Society and The Salvation Army. These organizations are helping communities across the country. You can help by donating here . For the latest news on this disaster from MSN Australia, visit ?Bushfire emergency.
? Tracey Nearmy/Reuters
Australia's Fires Threaten to Upend the Way People Live
The human, environmental and economic toll of Australia’s devastating wildfires is mounting each day, but the country has barely begun to grasp the total cost of the “unprecedented” blazes and how it will change the way people live.
Igniting two months earlier than the usual start of the Australian fire season, the flames have torn through an area about the size of West Virginia—killing at least 20 people, shrouding cities in choking haze and stretching firefighters to a breaking point.
Severe drought over several years has created tinder-dry conditions, perfect for fires. It has intensified a national debate about the link of rising average global temperatures to the fires and the contribution of Australia—a major coal miner—to global warming.
The death toll is lower than the 173 killed in the Black Saturday fires in Victoria state in 2009, but in other respects these blazes—which could persist until March—are being viewed by experts as unprecedented.
The scorched area is vast, with more than 23,000 square miles burned nationwide since early November. Almost every state has been affected—thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes and tourists visiting summer holiday spots were trapped by advancing fires.
Australia’s insurance council says more than $260 million worth of claims have been lodged since Nov. 8, when it declared a catastrophe, but that represents a trickle of what is to come. Another $39 million in claims were lodged before Nov. 8 for fires in September and October.
Claims typically peak a couple of months after a disaster but can still be received up to a year later, said the council’s spokesman Campbell Fuller.
It is still too dangerous for property owners to return to some areas, and many communities in the two worst affected regions—southern New South Wales state and eastern Victoria—have no power or telecommunications.
“We’re talking several thousand homes destroyed, thousands more badly damaged, thousands of acres of farmland, vineyards, orchards, grain crops, livestock absolutely destroyed,” Mr. Fuller said. “The economic impact on Australia is going to be far above and beyond purely the raw numbers of insurance losses.”
The environmental toll has also been severe. A researcher from the University of Sydney has estimated that as many as 480 million animals have been killed by wildfires in New South Wales alone since September. Footage of distressed koalas—the iconic Australian bearlike marsupial—approaching people and drinking water has been widely viewed.
Large tracts of the country’s famous eucalyptus, also known as the gum tree, have been razed and there are fears forests may be permanently stunted.
Thomas Fairman, a forestry ecologist, said Australia’s gum tree forests are typically able to bounce back from a severe fire every two decades or so. But he said his research suggests that resilience wanes when severe fires occur in relatively short succession, such as twice or more a decade.
Some alpine forests of gum trees and other species have already collapsed in Victoria’s highlands due to repeated fires between 2003 and 2014, he said, which in turn endangers the wildlife that depends on them for survival.
Australia’s carbon emissions have also ballooned. Niels Andela, an assistant research scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who helps maintain the Global Fire Emissions Database, said fires in Australia’s New South Wales alone from August through Dec. 31 emitted 260 million tons of carbon dioxide—nearly half of the country’s regular annual greenhouse-gas emissions according to government data.
He said there is “large uncertainty” about the figures because the fires in 2019 were extreme compared with the historic observations that the estimates of emissions are based on. Final data could take months, he said.
“These fires will have an effect on the earth’s climate, they’re certainly having an effect on the earth’s CO2 concentrations,” said David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and director of the fire center at the University of Tasmania. “The forests are so stressed and damaged they may never recover.”
Australia’s tourism industry is also bracing for a hit. Apocalyptic images of raging flames, towering clouds of smoke and the charred remains of kangaroos have been beamed across the world.
But the Australian Tourism Industry Council fears effects of the disaster will be felt most keenly by the small- and medium-size businesses that cater to Australian holidaymakers. Australians traveling within their own country account for about 75% of the more than $100 billion annual spending by tourists.
“Now is the summer peak visitor season, the busiest and most profitable period for a lot of Australian tourism businesses,” said Simon Westaway, executive director of the tourism council.
??SGT Bill Solomou/Royal Australian Air Force Handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
??Rick Rycroft/AP Photo
??Rick Rycroft/AP Photo
??Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
??Brook Mitchell/Getty Images
??Major Cameron Jamieson/Commonwealth Of Australia/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
??Sam Mooy/Getty Images
??Australian Department of Defence Handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
??Rick Rycroft/AP Photo
??Sam Mooy/Getty Images
??Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images
??Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images
??Matt Jelonek/Getty Images
??Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
??Paul's Place Wildlife Sanctuary/Reuters
Slideshow by photo services
Some people, he said, may never return to the popular holiday destinations that have been hit by fires. “This isn’t a simple scenario where the traditional return to normalcy will occur,” he said.
For Mr. Bowman, the fire scientist, the increased severity and frequency of fires also augurs significant changes in Australian life. “After this, I think there is going to a lot of soul searching about where people want to live, how they are going to live,” he said.
He says the country should consider changing its main holiday period so it doesn’t coincide with the fire season. It is also no longer conscionable to put the burden of firefighting on volunteer services, he said. Australia does have professional firefighting units, but much responsibility—especially in rural areas—falls to trained community members.
“Young fathers shouldn’t be dying, people shouldn’t be put through this hell,” he said. “We’ve got to put a stop to this and have a plan for better resourcing and preparation.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a national fire recovery fund worth $1.4 billion would be set up to provide support to families, farmers and business owners. “It’s a long road ahead and we will be with these communities every step of the way as they rebuild,” he said, adding that more money could be available.
Meanwhile, donations of supplies and tens of millions of dollars have been pouring in from around the world for volunteer firefighters and wildlife rescue services. Several property owners offered spare beds to people who have lost their homes or are yet to return to fire-ravaged areas.
The government’s climate policy, which has sought to balance commitments to limit carbon emissions made as part of the Kyoto Protocol with strong support for Australia’s coal industry, has been criticized by political opponents and environmentalists. Mr. Morrison refused to signal any policy shift Monday and said the focus was squarely on the fire response.