Bushfires to firestorms, what is happening in Australia? Gordon Hewitt speaks with a firefighter.
The firestorms which raged throughout Australia over the last few months provided a warning sign if any was needed, that refusal to acknowledge the impact of climate change and to take measures to reverse the causes will have life-threatening consequences.
Jim Casey, professional firefighter and member of The Green Party, based in Sydney, Australia, speaks to Counterfire, reflecting on the causes of the worst ever bushfire season, the impact on Fire-Fighters and what needs to be done to build the movement to stop climate change.
How long have you been a firefighter?
I have been a professional firefighter for over 20 years and for 7 of those years I was the State Secretary of the Fire Brigades Employees Union (FBEU). During that time I was part of the first general stoppage of the Firefighters in 56 years. We pulled every truck in Sydney into town, surrounded Parliament House and hosed down the roof. That was over a workers compensation dispute and we won that dispute.
What created the conditions for the extreme bushfire crisis late last year and early this year?
The short answer is global warming.
The longer answer is that we had a very severe fire season because it was very dry, there was a substantial amount of fuel on the ground and it was very hot.
Fire needs three things to thrive – fuel, air, and temperature. It’s called the fire triangle. Over the past four months, all of these three things have been exacerbated by the changing climate.
The amount of dead vegetation that was available to burn was far higher than anyone wanted it to be.
Because Australia’s winters have become much warmer, the window for hazard reduction burns through winter has shrunk and so the work that used to be done to reduce the fuel load in vulnerable areas couldn’t be done. The conditions weren’t right for it.
The additional CO2 in the atmosphere has an impact in that it acts as a fertiliser and supercharges plant growth. And on top of that, we are in a drought.
Now we have always had droughts in Australia, it is a part of life on this continent but the intensity and severity of the drought is again related to global warming. This is particularly obvious if you look at the evaporation of water. Rainfall is one thing, but groundwater evaporation is a key factor. This really contributes to dryness, and the higher temperatures and increase in wind activity has increased evaporation.
Finally the increase in the temperature; the increase by 1 to 1.5 degrees in average temperature here increases thermal energy into the atmosphere and that creates the conditions for extreme weather behaviour. We had temperature spikes where for days on end we had extreme heat, record temperatures, each day hotter than the previous day. Those are the conditions which turns a bushfire into a firestorm.
Our bushfires were so severe, all along the entire east coast of Australia, and I have been fighting fires for many years, I have seen plenty of bad situations, but we had never seen anything like this. Fires so severe we could not put them out, they could not be brought under control. Rain was needed and will be needed to bring the fires to an end.
This is unprecedented?
It is unprecedented, although it isn’t as if the environmental movement and climate scientists haven’t been warning about this for many years, and we now have a situation where thousands of hectares have been burned, millions of animals lost, lives lost, thousands of homes lost, by any measure, a real crisis. The pollution levels have risen so much that there have been runs of days where Australian cities have had some of the highest pollution rates in the world.
Every fire season won’t be as severe as this one, but the new normal for a bad year is conditions like we’ve just seen. And all of that is at 1.5% of temperature increase. What will happen at 2 degrees?
What was the government’s role in reacting to the crisis?
Australia’s Conservative party, the Liberals, are both in government and in the pocket of the mining industry. They’re a particularly nasty bunch, and it’s not just limited to climate issues.
So while they deny climate change, they walked away from Paris, they foster new mines, encourage growth of the fossil fuel industries, and this goes along with attacks on LGBTQ rights, trade union rights, the demonization of refugees – all the usual culture warrior plays.
They start with the idea that nothing was happening out of the ordinary, there was no crisis, so the Prime Minister could go on holiday right in the middle of the worst bushfires we had ever seen.
That was the point at which people turned against the government very sharply. The Prime Minister had to return early with his tail between his legs and start to at least look like he was dealing with the situation, and even then he had to be pushed to react at the level that was required.
Now, in the wash-up, when the fires come to an end, the government will probably throw some money at us, the firefighters, for new trucks, new fire planes, possibly more firefighters but they will not shift on the climate question. They cannot, and will not, do that.
What was the impact on the firefighters?
For professional firefighters, there were a lot of very difficult moments, but that is part of the job. There has been a lot of additional work and I can say there were some very scary moments.
For the volunteers though that is something that will have to be looked at. The bushfire season now could stretch for months, 3-4 months, with a much higher degree of intensity than we have seen previously. So the volunteers, many of those people were put in a situation where they lost money, lost all their holidays, took unpaid leave, lost businesses, all sorts of things including putting their lives in danger, that means it is probably unsustainable.
So I think there will need to be changes to the methods and the organisation of firefighters in order to deal effectively with the new situation that climate change has brought about.
Do you think that will happen?
There is a lot of resistance to change because the management of the volunteer service has 25,000 people in their workforce who work for nothing, so you can imagine that some people would not want to see that change.
What are the challenges for the movement to stop climate change?
There was a big rally in Sydney, maybe 50,000, a few weeks ago and that is a very big rally especially for the time of year. That was indicative that people are I think up for doing something. The real issue is that we have to win the unions, particularly those unions that cover workers in the fossil fuel industry, in concert with the environmental movement to fight for a green new deal, for fossil fuel reduction, and we need to include in that discussion clear plans for the transition to jobs that don’t destroy the environment.
Before the bushfire crisis, we had mobilised hundreds of thousands of people, the school students strikes were huge, Extinction Rebellion, just as they are in the UK, were very active, and ordinary people were really starting to take notice, to start getting involved in a serious way.
What is the situation now?
I think the bushfire crisis has supercharged that situation. There is a long way to go, and there are many difficult arguments to win. But conditions feel better right now to build the kind of movement we need than they’ve felt for many years.
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