Bushfires are not new experiences for the country of Australia, as the country's climate and flora are accustomed to heat waves and intermediate burning. In fact, many hunters start bushfires to clear grassland for an open shot, and just as many people light bushfires to clear the vegetation to make tracks or expand their towns. In the last four months, over 15 million acres of land in Australia have been destroyed, and at least 24 Australians have been arrested for purposefully lighting bushfires, and 47 people are facing consequences for just disposing of a lit cigarette on the ground. If bushfires are so common in Australia, what makes this experience of bushfires different from the past?
Bushfires occur year round in Australia, but in different seasons in different parts of the country. It is primarily the southeast of Australia that is currently burning, which is typical in December through March as this is Australia's summertime. However, the bushfires began uncharacteristically early this year, as they began in August rather than December. The southeast area of Australia is most prone to bushfires, due to the dry and hot conditions that exist on the shoreline of the Pacific ocean and the Tasman sea. The most major and severe bushfires documented in Australia have occurred mostly in the states of Victoria and New South Wales, which both happen to be southern states. The 2019 bushfires that began in August have been tearing across southern states, killing at least 25 people and taking down almost 2,000 homes. The question is, if bushfires occur so often all across Australia, how is the country prepared for these bushfires, and why are the 2019 and 2020 bushfires so severe?
Across the entire continent of Australia is a tree called the Australian gum tree, in the family of eucalyptus. Many Australians associate bushfires with the eucalyptus tree, because of the highly flammable oils that the tree produces. This tree's flammability is significant because of it's ability to reproduce and spread seed when it is engulfed in a bush fire--in fact, the eucalyptus tree depends upon bushfires for its ability to reproduce. The gum tree's seeds are sealed inside resin-coated cones which, only when melted, release the seed. Several plants in the eucalyptus family also have the ability to resprout when they are burnt down. These special trees have buds that are hidden inside of their trunks, so when the outside of the tree dies, the buds can take it's place by growing new leaves and branches. Although most trees do not require fire to reproduce, many plants that are native or endemic to Australia have adapted to survive bushfires. The Australian grass tree is one of these plants, and is unique because it prepares for bushfires as it grows. The grass tree grows leaves around its stem and, as it gets taller, allows the leaves around its stem to die to act as built-in insulation from bushfires. The Australian grass tree is also fire-stimulated, meaning that it blooms more after it has been burnt. In fact, some people who grow the Australian grass tree indoors will burn their plant to see its blooms! Another way in which trees endemic to Australia are prepared for fire is that they will oftentimes rid themselves of their dead branches, and carry their leaves taller than usual to gain height above the flames. One tree that is endemic to Australia is the boab tree. This tree does not have fire-preventative aspects, but is useful to many other surrounding plants when bushfires begin. The unique structure of this tree allows it to store up to 100,000 liters of water in its trunk, which provides much-needed humidity and moisture to the soil and plants surrounding the tree.
Despite the adaptive qualities of Australian's native and endemic plant-life, these typically fire-friendly trees are not prepared for the level of intensity that the 2019 and 2020 bushfires are bringing. Record highs in temperatures across Australia are amplifying the bushfires, as temperatures have reached an average of 107°F across the country, with a record high of 121°F in the southeastern states. While Australia burns, it is not just the misfortune of human lives and homes lost, but wildlife as well. The wildlife in the rural areas are hit hard with bushfires, as the trees and plant-life that serve as their homes are burned down. The University of Sydney has estimated that around 480 million wild animals have been lost to the bushfires, as more than 15 million acres of land have been destroyed. As the plant-life burns, the effect is so much greater than the absence of beautiful forests. Researches estimate that the bushfires have caused 350 million tons of carbon to be emitted in the last four months, which is two-thirds of the entire country's annual man-made carbon emissions. This amount of carbon emissions is escalating the fuel for the bushfires as well as the poor air quality that is suffocating the states all across the southeast of Australia. Coupled with the fact that Australia has recently reached the standing of world's top exporter of liquefied natural gas, as coal and oil are their top exports, the carbon emissions from Australia are at historically high rates. However, their Prime Minister refuses to believe that the bushfires are related to climate change. The bushfires are not just adding to the already large amount of carbon emissions coming from Australia, but they are also taking away the plant-life that acts as a carbon sink for the country, and one that will take decades to regrow. These dangerous carbon emissions are beginning to affect more than just the people and wildlife of Australia. Carbon emissions are worsening the state of the already-dying Great Barrier Reef, a multi-billion dollar asset for Australia that has lost 50% of its coral since 2016 due to rising ocean temperatures. The record high temperatures in Australia, as well as the massive bushfires raging on the coast, only worsen the conditions for the Reef. In addition to this, the dense smoke emitted from the bushfires is beginning to cloud the skies of New Zealand, which is over 1,000 miles away from Australia's southeast coast.
It is undeniable that the large amounts of carbon that makes up the yearly emissions for the country of Australia is one cause of the extremity of these bushfires. However, there are numerous causes of the level of intensity of the 2019 and 2020 bushfires. These include lighting bushfires during wildfire season and allowing them to spread without caution, for which 24 people have already been arrested. Dry lightening storms caused many of the bushfires in Victoria, which are only exacerbated by the current dry and hot conditions in the southeastern states. The discussion of whether the bushfires are directly related to climate change or irresponsible carbon emission rates needs to be placed on the back burner for now; the important matter is the thousands of people who have been displaced from their homes, as well as the thousands of volunteer firefighters who are risking their lives for their communities. Consider donating to local firefighting services such as the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, donating to the Australian Red Cross or Salvation Army, or donating household items to the nonprofit GIVIT. The organization "One Tree Planted" allows you to donate one dollar to have one tree planted in Australia after the wildfires have ended, so as to begin the reforestation of Australia's rural bush.
A beautiful and unique biodiversity is at risk due to harsh bushfires spreading across Australia. The carbon sink that holds millions of tons of carbon dioxide is being destroyed, adding fuel to the fire. Climbing temperatures and heat waves have left the country in conditions that are hazardous and borderline unlivable. Millions of acres of rural land have been burned, with no end in sight, as officials say they could burn for months. When the fires are done, Australia's one hope is to consider re-instating climate politics, and begin reforestation efforts to recreate their carbon sink of endemic plants and trees.