Greetings from Canberra, Australia’s capital city. Nestled in a picturesque valley and surrounded by native bushland, we are normally a picture of health and vitality, of serenity and purity. But during the past month, Mother Nature has presented us with toxic smoke, hailstones like machine-gun fire and almighty dust storms. And on Jan. 28, the southern fringes of our city began to burn with the threat of a massing new bush fire that residents feared might endanger suburban homes and lives.
The fire started on the Australia Day holiday on Jan. 27 in the Orroral Valley in the rugged Namadgi National Park. Ironically, the likely cause of the fire was a Department of Defence helicopter after one of its landing lights created enough heat to accidentally set the grass on fire, which quickly spread out of control. The military chopper was conducting routine aerial reconnaissance and ground clearance work in support of local firefighters and authorities, with its lights being used to land in the smoky conditions.
Following a bone-dry summer of extreme heat, the national park was cocked and ready to explode. Within a day, the fire quadrupled in size, growing at a rate of more than 1,000 acres an hour. When the fire crested the ridgeline, some of my friends messaged me to say they had enacted their bush fire plans and were evacuating their homes.
As parts of the Canberra sky turned dark gray and then black, the similarities to the city’s deadly January 2003 bush fires, which killed four people and destroyed hundreds of homes, were uncanny. The color of the sky and appearance of a vast pyrocumulonimbus cloud, in particular, stirred traumatic memories in many locals. With high winds and a heat wave forecast that will bring day temperatures in excess of 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the city remains on edge with fire authorities expecting the fire may burn for weeks. That would be a best-case scenario. A worst-case would be a repeat of the 2003 tragedy, which featured the world’s first documented “fire tornado.”
But the Orroral Valley fire is merely the fourth in a quartet of extreme-weather events to have unleashed upon Canberra during the past month. The first were the cataclysmic bush fires in southeastern New South Wales and Victoria, which encircled and smothered the capital city in choking smoke for weeks, with air quality 25 times worse than what is considered to be medically hazardous.
The second was a massive hailstorm that battered Canberra on Jan. 20, which brought strong wind gusts and hailstones the size of golf balls. The end result was tens of thousands of smashed windows, dented cars beyond repair, torn tree branches, flooding, homes without power and a record total insurance bill.
And third, an enormous dust storm blew in from the west that blanketed the city in thick red dust particles. The dust storm contained predominantly PM10 particulate matter (10 micrometers or less in diameter), while the bush fire smoke was mainly PM2.5 particulate matter (2.5 micrometers or less in diameter). It was the latter that is of most concern to public health authorities, since PM2.5 particles are small enough to be drawn deep into the lungs.
Fire, wind and rain. This is climate change before our very eyes and in a way that Australia has not experienced in the past. The bush fires have been freakish in their ferocity and quantity, and erratic in their behavior, with more likely to flare as the extreme heat and unending drought conspire against the Great Southern Land.
All the while, our government sleepwalks into the future, remaining under the spell of coal as the nation’s primary source of energy production. It’s a position that is out of step with global movements and flies in the face of catastrophic climate change, by which Australia is at the forefront of being impacted. As Sydney poet Dorothea Mackellar famously wrote in her 1908 poem “My Country,” ours is a sunburnt country “of droughts and flooding rains.” The Australian environment is tenuous at the best of times, let alone after 112 years of global temperatures rising.
But it’s not just the fragile Australian environment at stake. Climate change is a global issue that will touch every person on Earth. America faced a similar fire emergency in 2019 as California burned; similarly in Brazil, with unprecedented Amazon rainforest fires the same year. Australia now faces a period of increased food prices as a result of the bush fires. Billions of animals have perished, diminishing ecosystems. Record insurance claims will slow the economy. The health impacts from airborne pollution could take years to fully manifest. Rising temperatures, prolonged drought, and an increase in deforestation are all linked to a reliance on fossil fuels, which together create conditions for supercharged wildfire. The only solution is a radical rethink of our energy production, which requires both political and social leadership.
The timing of such extreme weather events could not be any more coincidental with the Australian Parliament due to have its first day of work this year on Feb. 4 in Canberra. Will the nation’s leaders finally begin to act on climate change now that their doorstep is charred, windows are broken and air is unbreathable?