Yesterday, the last Saturday before Christmas, I ventured out into the city to buy my one single Christmas gift. Our family does secret Santa to keep things minimal. I was about to wade into retail madness.
The backdrop of Sydney on shopping overdrive was sobering.
Yesterday had a high probability of being Australia’s hottest day on record. The current hottest day on record was last Wednesday. Before that, the hottest day on record was Tuesday. Yesterday, western Sydney was expected to reach 47 degrees.
Yesterday the bushfire danger level for Sydney was also at ‘Catastrophic’ for just the second time ever. The first time this happened was about two weeks ago.
The latest figures for the area burned by the east coast bushfires are a week old but state that the total area burned this season is 2.7 million hectares. That’s 27,000 square kilometres. You can walk north from Taree towards Grafton for an unbroken 300km across a continuous stretch of burnt and smouldering landscape. That is not even the biggest fire.
Meet ‘the monster’. Gospers Mountain Fire to the north-west of Sydney is the largest single blaze in Australian history. It has destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore (440,000 hectares). It began with a lightning bolt on October 26 which, in its first day, ripped through 521 hectares of bone dry bush that had suffered under 10 years of below-average rainfall. As it spread it enveloped smaller fires in the area and has formed what is officially dubbed a ‘Megafire’.
This Megafire is not behaving normally. In the words of former NSW Fire and Rescue chief commissioner Greg Mullins, “The fires we are battling today started earlier, burn more intensely, have destroyed more homes and covered more ground than anything we’ve seen before in NSW.” This also is a fire that is so vast and powerful it is creating its own weather system. Pyrocumulonimbus storms occur where a smoke column becomes large and violent enough that it acts like a thunderhead. Lightning is formed within the smoke and ignites land ahead of the fire front to distances of 30km. For firefighters, these conditions are highly unpredictable and almost impossible to control. People are told to get out rather than to try to fight these fires. PyroCB fires used to be rarities but there is a clear upward trend in them, tied to extreme climate conditions of intense heat and high wind.
The Gospers Mountain Megafire is currently advancing on the Mount Piper coal-fired power station and Springvale coal mine. The power station is the fourth largest in the state and produces 10% of the electricity in NSW. The stockpiles of coal and the neighbouring mine will burn for months if they go up. What kind of climate feedback loop is that?!
Since the start of the bushfire season, the fires in Australia have emitted 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This amounts to half of our annual national emissions. Much of the area burnt has not seen fire for 50 or 60 years and released all of its stored carbon in a single burst. Areas of old-growth rainforest in the north of the state have not burnt at any time in the historic record, but they burnt this season. Not only have we just lost decades of stored carbon back into active climate circulation, but we have also lost 27,000 square kilometres of climate sinks that would otherwise have been busily mopping up our emissions. By the way, those big fires in the Amazon this year? They covered 1250 square kilometres, putting the land area burned in Australia this past few months at 21.6 times that lost in the Amazon.
This week, two firefighters lost their lives when a burnt tree fell on their truck. They and their crew were exhausted after crazy hours in horrific conditions. Their names were Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer. They both have young families.
This year the NSW government cut $26 million from the NSW rural fire service. This amounts to 75% of their operating budget. If you do that to an agency, people are stretched thin and worked to exhaustion. Equipment and support are unavailable. More risks are taken. More accidents happen. Less effective fire management occurs. Here’s a list of all the things the RFS could have purchased with $26 million.
As of Dec 20, 800 homes have been lost to fires in NSW. I was at a climate protest last week and heard from a young woman who lost her family home. It was the place she grew up. The emotional distress of losing that place, which was so much of her identity, was palpable. This is being felt by thousands of Australians right now. There have never been this many homes lost in a single fire season. Not even close. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Australians living in the path of the fires have had to leave their homes and abandon Christmas plans. While the city shops for gifts today, countless others in rural communities are stuffing their possessions in boxes and fleeing the encroaching firestorms.
In Sydney, the smoke hangs heavy in the air again. A friend on Facebook has just flown in from Melbourne and was commenting on how shockingly normalised the smoke is amongst Sydneysiders. The taste of smoke in our air, in our mouths, in our washing, in our offices, has sort of settled into a background that our brains are growing accustomed to and no longer registering so strongly. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “Sydney residents have breathed through 38 days of ‘very poor’ air quality since the start of November, including 28 days considered to be ‘hazardous’.” On Thursday I was working outside all day in Parramatta. It got to 42 degrees and the AQI was over 900. I didn’t wear my mask because I was speaking and engaging with lots of workers on a construction site. None of them were wearing masks so I just got on with it. It was hellish. I have lots of photos from that day and looking back on them it’s like I had a high sepia filter over all of them.
I wonder how many Christmas presents will be P2 masks. Nice ones mind, because I’ve seen a growing market for high-quality options to replace those cheaper disposable ones from Bunnings. Everyone knows what a P2 mask is now. The idea of wearing one is normal. A month ago it felt like a strange overreaction. My wife and I just got some nice ones with good ventilation valves, a tight seal, velcro straps and funky colours. If we’re going to walk around in these things we might as well look stylish right?! I think I’ll take mine on my Christmas shopping trip. I’m not really sure if it makes much difference but at least it’s something.
We are told to stay indoors to avoid the worst of it. I work with air quality sensors and I know that in my office at least, the indoor particulate levels spike into ‘unhealthy’ as the air conditioning fires up in the morning. Our buildings still treat outside air as ‘fresh’. Some do have decent filters that trap a lot of the smoke particles. Most don’t. So I spent much of the past month sat at my desk with stinging eyes and a sinus headache, trying but failing to really concentrate on my work. Our homes are also generally old and porous. So it turns out that staying indoors is no protection at all. Best case scenario is that we’re less active indoors so we don’t feel smoke exposure so acutely. It’s still there of course. We breathe it all night. We have taken to running an air purifier at night. It probably helps a little. I haven’t dared check our energy bill!
The current situation with smoke and extremely poor air quality is the most severe and longest on record. So what does that fact mean for our health? Turns out, it’s really really bad. We tend to think only of the acute immediate symptoms that we feel in our lungs, throat, eyes and sinuses. These are unpleasant for everyone and for some, such as the elderly, young babies and chronically ill people, these conditions can be acutely dangerous. However, there is a more sinister process at work. Very fine particles are passing through the lining of our lungs and into our bloodstreams. These particles are coated in toxic and carcinogenic substances in the same way as cigarette smoke. They are transported to every part of our bodies where they lodge in tissues. We have them and their toxic payloads in every organ, from our brains to our hearts. For the most part, our bodies cannot remove them. There is also strong evidence that these particles cross the placental boundary and enter the bodies of gestating foetuses. What does that even mean? We don’t really know because there hasn’t been enough research.
The backdrop to all of the fires and the smoke is the drought. It is like a vast beast slowly strangling the land. Yes, Australia has periodic droughts and that is part of the normal natural cycle of things. But this is different. This is the second driest spring on record, following the driest summer on record. The past 10 years have seen lower than average rainfall. The current drought is thought to be the worst in 800 years.
It’s not only drought impacting farmers. There is a corporate feeding frenzy for water rights, supported by dodgy deals from our state government. The Murray Darling is drying up while vast cotton farms flourish and suck the river dry. They are exporting their wealth overseas while local farmers go under. Earlier this year, three million fish died on the Murray, rotting and poisoning the water, filling the air with a putrid stench. The politics of water rights and the Murray Darling Basin Plan continue to be fraught. No good outcomes are in sight.
The drought is impacting our cities. Sydneysiders are now faced with water restrictions for the first time in years. Dam levels have steadily declined for six years straight and are now below 50% for the first time in 12 years. The desalination plant is now at full tilt but is only managing 15% of the city’s supply needs. Construction work has just begun to double capacity.
If rain does miraculously arrive it could actually be bad news for Sydney. The vast fire that still burns in the Blue Mountains flanks the shores of the city’s largest reservoir. Heavy rain will wash vast amounts of ash into the water, flooding the system with nutrients. This is likely to trigger a toxic algae bloom. Worst case scenario is that the entire water supply becomes undrinkable. We’d better hope for very gentle rain I guess.
Where are our leaders in all of this? Gladys Berejiklian has muttered a few platitudes and opened a zoo, as millions of native creatures perish in savage firestorms that escape control from a shockingly underfunded fire service. Cuts by her hand. No mention of climate change.
Scott Morrison, of course, is in Hawaii. Or is it New York? I lose track, but I’m not sure anyone even cares at this point. The man is a joke. A man who famously brandished a lump of coal in parliament is a sock puppet for the coal industry. A man who denies any link between all of this apocalyptic madness and climate change. A man who follows a particular brand of evangelical Christianity and quite probably thinks that if climate change is actually real then it is all part of God’s plan for a fire and brimstone ending where he and his buddies win.
So, that’s where we stand in 2019. Where I stand as I head out into the mundanity of the ‘Christmas rush’ this baking hot Saturday. The world is on fire. The sun is a demonic orb. The air is killing us. The land is desiccated. Animals are dying. Homes are burning. People are evacuating. Fish are rotting. The ocean is awash with ash. And everyone is out looking for a bargain.
You might not think it but I’m actually an optimist. I’m sorry to have written all of this down in one place but it’s real and it’s happening right now and it’s important to stare reality in the face. It’s overwhelming. People are despairing or descending into grief. But we have to breathe through it. There is a pathway back to sanity here. I see it in young leaders like Greta and the many many other school strikers. I see it in my good friends building a vast new solar farm in the NT to power Singapore. I see it in the community and council engagement with distributed urban heat and air quality monitoring (my own work) which promises to put data and power about urban liveability back into the hands of everyday Australians. I do believe that change is coming, however dark things are now. There’s a great deal more I could say on that. On the nature of hope and why I think we are probably going to pull through this. That’s a different story. Today, I’m just feeling the weight of things. And that’s ok too.