A Skype conversation to discuss the current status of the Australian wildfires with firefighter and Australian farm owner Tim Wimborne, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne Dr. Kate Giljohann, and Manager of National Parks and Protected Lands for South Australia Jason Irving, was held on Tuesday, Feb. 18 in PAC 001. Professor of Environmental Studies Helen Poulos was also a panelist at the event, attending in person. Donations to the Australian Red Cross and Native Animal Rescue Group were accepted at the event.
Cormac Chester ’20 began the event with an overview of the Australian wildfires since June 2019, asking the audience to recognize that the crisis is related to issues being faced around the world and even at Wesleyan.
“Right now in Australia, basically, shit’s pretty fucked up,” Chester said. “That’s why I’ve decided to call the event ‘Contemporary Apocalypse: Australia’s Inferno’ which is unfortunately an understatement. I also want you to…really consider that what’s going on in Australia right now is related to what’s going on in America and at Wesleyan and all over the world. For instance, these Australia fires that we are going to talk about have a direct connection to people in Indonesia who are having to flee their homes because of rising sea levels. Or even more specifically, why someone like Michael Roth won’t hire five more workers. They’re all related. And the thing is the people who are doing these things, or allowing these things to happen, want to make sure that you think they’re not related at all.”
Chester emphasized the scale and impact of the fires.
“The fires going on here are unprecedented,” Chester said. “I’m not sure how many acres, millions of acres I think have been burnt, a half million animals have been killed. There are a whole bunch of different species that are much closer to extinction than they were before these fires.”
Giljohann and Wimborne spoke first in the Skype discussion. Emmy Hughes ’20 asked them why Australia has seen particularly devastating wildfires this year.
“Since you both study the science behind fire ecology, can you go into a little bit as to what led to this level of destruction this year?” Hughes asked. “What was it about this particular year that made it so difficult for Australia, if you know?”
Giljohann commented that it was difficult to answer completely, but for certain areas like New South Wales (NSW), a combination of drought, heat waves, and a vast amount of area affected contributed to the onslaught of fire.
“Apart from just the very dry conditions, [there] was also a heat wave and so that led to more intense fires going up because fires are driven by a few factors, one is weather change but then another one is the actual weather conditions at the time,” Giljohann said.
Wimborne, speaking for his town in NSW, voiced similar reasons for the intensity of the fires.
“The drought has been so bad for a year beforehand,” Wimborne said. “There were large amounts of vegetation in the forest that were dying or dead already, and the soil moisture [level] was way down. All sorts of factors which just created the conditions which made the fires as bad as they were.”
Another student asked Wimborne and Giljohann about solutions for future bushfires.
“What can you do in order to prevent something like this from happening again such as fuels management, fuel production,” he asked. “Or because the ecosystem is just so dry and dealing with droughts regularly, are you just sitting and waiting for the next big fire to happen again?”
Wimborne stated that Australia’s ecosystem will certainly get drier, and combating climate change is the real necessity to address other potential fires.
“[The ecosystem] will get drier,” Wimborne said. “And if it’s getting drier, then fire danger will increase. We’re waiting to see what the future brings, we don’t know…. The main thing we can do is counter climate change…. That’s the simple answer. And it is a simple answer.”
Giljohann noted that scientists and government officials discuss the usefulness of prescribed burning, the intentional and controlled application of a fire to a specific area, as a tool to combat future fires.
“I think that one of the things that the science has been finding is that through quite a lot, there were these assumptions that if you burn recently…you will be able to minimize the future impact of fire in an area because your fire will be constrained by the fuel load,” Giljohann said. “That assumption doesn’t hold. You’ll be able to burn through.”
She also said that this is a common practice that requires more research in order to judge its effectiveness.
“Prescribed burning is currently done by government organizations or under government prescription,” Giljohann said. “And so if that was implemented across very large areas of the landscape, how would that impact on the species…biodiversity, and also on future fires. So that’s an area that we’ve been looking into I think.”
Wimborne works as a paid firefighter for Fire and Rescue NSW, and the severity of the fires have required him to work during bushfires even though that is usually beyond his agency’s purview.
“In a normal year, the agency I work for [Fire and Rescue NSW] will have very little input into dealing with the bushfires unless they reach an urban…interface,” Wimborne said. “This year, every single day of the fire season, we had all of our assets out helping out our friends at the Rural Fire Service because there was such a large amount of fire and it impacted so many places at once. We were all working every day. That’s the first time that’s ever happened.”
Irving then joined the Skype call as the discussion continued. Jewelia Ferguson ’20 asked about the social climate in Australia regarding the fires.
“What is the social climate right now?” Ferguson asked. “Because in the U.S., we got a lot of information about the fires really fast in late December, early January. I know personally, I have family in Australia and I was trying to keep up with the news and we’re not getting a lot for the social changes and what’s happening there.”
Giljohann said that she has seen people mobilize to help impacted communities and that the public is generally concerned about the destruction that has resulted from the fires.
“As an ecologist, I’ll speak to that,” Giljohann said. “What kind of happened is on the social front people are very concerned about what’s happening to the landscape they feel, even if they weren’t in the fires themselves, really quite devastated by the large-scale loss…. The government has been doing a really good job of trying to let people know that they’re going out there doing rescues, missions for all of the animals and plants…. And they have these ongoing plans and they are investing a lot of money and thought into how to recover the environment. But also, how to support communities who have been impacted by these fires and support them into the future. One thing you do see in Melbourne, there’s fundraisers all over the place. People are very concerned for the people who lost their livelihoods and their homes and their jobs. And there’s also a lot of concern for the environment as well.”
Irving explained that the outpour of support has led to a contradiction between people’s perception of government inefficiency and their willingness to aid the government in managing funds to stop the fires.
“It’s really interesting, what you normally see play out in a fire-affected community is by solidarity and also looking for blame, which is totally understandable,” Irving said. “But then it’s a huge amount of people wanting to help and part of managing that is sometimes you have too much help…what people actually need is money to gather resources.”
The talk ended with final thoughts from the panelists and messages that they have for Americans. Wimborne emphasized that people should not forget about the Australian wildfires and that he hopes the impact motivates world governments to tackle climate change. Irving also mentioned that social media plays a role in continuing awareness, and the question that remains is how will society deal with climate change. Giljohann commented that reframing our relationship with natural resources can help us take environmental issues like the Australian wildfires more seriously.
“You don’t see these things [processes that result in clean water, clean air, etc.] but you take them for granted and we need to know that they’re there so we really work to protect them,” Giljohann said.
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