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Climate Change

Reflection and reckoning one year on from Australia's 'Black Summer' fires

Australian ecologist Mark Graham
Australian ecologist Mark Graham © RFI/Richelle Harrison Plesse

One year ago, Australia was grappling with catastrophic bushfires which caused widespread devastation in the country's southeast. The "Black Summer" blazes ravaged more than 18 million hectares and killed or displaced nearly 3 billion animals. The crisis also fuelled fierce debate over whether the disaster was exacerbated by climate change.

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The lush green grass surrounding Annette Greer's house betrays no evidence of the inferno that came dangerously close to its doorstep one year ago. On closer inspection, the charred tree trunks flanking the property are stark reminders of the battle she and her husband waged to save their hilltop South Coast abode about 3.5 hours' drive south of Sydney.

The couple spent New Year's Eve 2019 fighting fires; with embers raining down on all four sides of the house, it wasn't the festive light show that she had in mind.

"We rang in the new year watching our own kind of fireworks," she says. "It was like a hailstorm of fire, that's the only way I can explain it."

The Greers managed to keep the blaze at bay, and the experience prompted a few crucial changes to ensure they're adequately prepared for future fire seasons.

New water tanks will keep the grass wet all year round, a solar battery will provide power in the event of an outage, while timber fencing and a timber retaining wall (which smouldered for days on end), have been replaced with fire-resistant metal and rock.

More than just fires

Australia needs to do much more than put out fires, according to a public inquiry into the crisis. The Royal Commission's final report, released in October, acknowledged a link between climate change and extreme weather events, and called for a wide range of measures to mitigate the risk of further disaster.

The probe's 80 recommendations covered government coordination, firefighting resources, climate data, but also urged better engagement with the country's First Nations people that leverages Indigenous fire management techniques - traditional methods that have been used to shape and manage the land for tens of thousands of years. 

Aboriginal fire practitioner Elwyn Toby is demonstrating a "cultural burn" to local firefighters in Bellbrook, on New South Wales' Mid North Coast. Small scale, low-intensity burns are believed to help minimise the risk of fire in drier times, while restoring connection to the land and rejuvenating the environment.

 "The way we do it; the fire is not too intense, so we're not going to leave scars behind," he says. "We call it nurturing, 'caring for country'."

Elwyn Toby Indigenous Fire Practitioner
Elwyn Toby Indigenous Fire Practitioner © RFI/Richelle Harrison Plesse

'Utterly beholden to the fossil fuel'

Not enough care is being shown by the Australian government, laments ecologist Mark Graham, as he looks out over the blackened Bellinger Valley, where fires engulfed large swathes of World Heritage Listed rainforest. "Our government is utterly beholden to the fossil fuel industries" he says. "It's undoubtedly making our future much less safe because it's throwing fuel on the fire."

Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal, and according to the latest Climate Transparency Report, is one of the worst polluters on the planet, with the nation's per capita carbon emissions three times the G20 average.

Fire scarred forest Bellinger Valley NSW, Australia.
Fire scarred forest Bellinger Valley NSW, Australia. © RFI/RFI/Richelle Harrison Plesse

Widely seen as lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to tackling global warming, Canberra has so far refused to commit to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Based on current trends, researchers say it would take the country more than 300 years to get there.

For environmentalists like Mark, Australia is hurtling towards a cliff edge. "If this is what one degree Celsius warming does," he says, gesturing to the sprawling expanse of charred forest, "I can imagine just how worse it may become. This is a window into the future and it's not pretty."

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