Forget a new normal – Experts say Australias worst bushfires still lie ahead

MOGO, Australia: For Rochelle Ethell and her family, finding a spot of pure bushland on the south coast of New South Wales was the culmination of a dream. Their small acreage is close to the beach and a haven for local wildlife.

“The birds, the surroundings and just a different lifestyle. I couldnt bring my kids up anywhere else,” she said.

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But for the past few weeks, the realities of a life surrounded by nature have brought little but danger and displacement. Bushfires have ripped through the area, turning the skies black with ash and leaving indelible marks not only on the landscape, but on the psyche of small rural communities.

READ: From Australian bushfire ashes, a community rises in solidarity

The intensity and scale of Australias bushfire crisis this summer has been unprecedented. Already more than 10 million hectares of land – about 140 times the size of Singapore – have been left scorched, 27 people killed, a billion plus animals suspected dead and some 2,000 houses destroyed. But the worst is still yet to come, according to experts forecasting more extreme fire seasons as the effects of climate change become more apparent on the dry continent.

READ: Hot and dry Australia could join the ranks of 'climate refugees'

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The bushfires have cast a dark shadow over the Australian summer, especially in bush areas. (Photo: Jack Board)

On New Years Eve, Rochelle Ethell was meant to be ushering in 2020 with friends. The celebrations had already been muted by the looming threat and a deep orange sky that hung over Long Beach. They had been forced to evacuate their home earlier that month as the risks intensified. The community had emerged relatively unscathed on that day, and were able to return home.

But what was coming at them now was a beast. Up and down the coast and into the hinterland, different fire fronts were tearing through sections of bush that had not burned for decades. The family was at risk and ordered to leave again. They did so, with Ethelle fleeing with her husband, two children, dog, cat, two birds and three chickens in tow.

“It was a very stressful day not knowing if we were able to go home. Its not something Id ever want to put my children through or experience again myself,” she said.

As they cowered, sweltering in the heat, soon the bad news came flowing in. Ethell was getting condolence messages she did not initially understand. Her business, a small tea salon in the historic town of Mogo, had been destroyed in the flames. “There was nothing left. It was all gone.”

Rochelle Ethell and Lexie Dunn survey the damage to their businesses in Mogo. (Photo: Jack Board)

It took two days for her business neighbour and close friend Lexie Dunn to discover the same fate had befallen her shop, a fashion boutique. “Its just devastating. Ive lost my dream, a place that I used to come every day. Ive been telling people, you know, Ive loved this shop as much as I love my kids,” she said.

“I just presumed it was going to be okay, and didn't think that this could happen to me. But it has.”

The fires intensity and speed on that day and night shocked even one of Australias most experienced fire officials – former New South Wales fire commissioner turned fighting volunteer, Greg Mullins.

“Ive seen lots of fire over nearly 50 years of firefighting. Ive never seen anything quite like this: The heat of the flames, the distance that new fires are starting ahead of the main fires because of sparks that were blown by very strong winds,” he told CNA.

“As firefighters, we had to run for our lives on a number of occasions. There were streets we simply just couldnt go into because of the intensity of the fires. There were many, many homes that caught on fire and there was no way that we could put them out.”

READ: 'Too late to leave': Bushfires out of control across southeast Australia

It is these type of fire events, unparalleled in Australias history, that experts confidently predict will return in the near future. Last year was the countrys driest and hottest in known history. It is not a record expected to stand for long.

A car commuting on a road as the sky turns red from smoke of the Snowy Valley bushfire.(Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan)

A FUTURE YOU REALLY WANT?

The rise in temperature that Australia experienced in 2019 – more than two degrees above the 1960-1990 baseline – was “extraordinary”, according to Professor Mark Howden, the director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University and Vice Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And the science indicates that the only trajectory for heat in the country is up.

“Were likely to see that go up and up and up under the current emission commitments and actions that are taken globally. That will continue to drive things like extreme fires,” Prof Howden said.

READ: Authorities warn Australian bushfires developing their own weather systems

He says there will be no time to get used to this hotter, drier environment. More intense, prolonged and damaging weather systems are on the way. “In a constantly changing environment, there is no new normal. The new normal is continuous change. As soon as we start to think were on top of climate change, new things will happen that were not able to manage,” he said.

Fire authorities have struggled to control the ferocious fires this Australian summer. (Photo: Jack Board)

Historical climatologist Dr Linden Ashcroft researches past weather patterns and events to help better understand our climate future. And it is scary, she says.

“It was the hottest and driest and not by a little bit. We truly knocked it out of the park,” she said. “Scientifically, we know that these events are going to happen more often. But how common, how frequent and how devastating they are comes down to how much more we let the world heat up.

“Its not to say there wont be a future, but is that a future you really want? Where you have to wear a mask every day in the summer to walk your dog because every mountain is on fire. If youre afraid to go out into nature because a fire could start any time, then thats a weird world to be in. I think we can do better than that.”

READ: UN warns more extreme weather ahead after hottest decade on record

READ: Extreme weather events in 2019 – Killer typhoons, Venice floods and the Sydney smoke crisis

The Australian government has been reticent to draw direct comparisons between these bushfires and climate change. In fact, scepticism of the global crisis among influential members of the ruling party has stymied even modest changes to Australias economy, energy use or major industry. The country overwhelmingly relies on mineral extraction, including coal, and exports as a source of national prosperity, as a result making it one of the worst polluters, per capita, in the world.

Trees charred from fierce fires along a ridge in the NSW Snowy Valley. (Photo: Jack Board)

Even throughout this disaster season, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has proven reluctant to answer probing questions about the impacts of climate change and worsening future fire seasons. He has suffered in public opinion polls in recent weeks.

“You cannot link any individual, single emissions reduction policy of any country, whether its Australia or anyone else, to any specific fire event,” Morrison told the ABC during an interview on Jan 10. “I mean, thats just absurd.”

THE TIPPING POINT IS VERY NEAR

The government has committed to reducing its national emissions by 26 per cent to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 under the Paris Agreement, a lowly objective compared to many other developed nations. But it is unclear whether the very limited climate policies currently in place will get the country close to achieving that target.

“The policies currently are flatlining our greenhouse emissions. Theyre not heading them downwards,” Prof Howden said. “There are ways of moving ahead on this issue but it does require a change of mindset and it does require leadership.”

The Australian Greens, a minor but vocal party on the national and state level, has been escalating its calls for “a wholesale shake up of our political, economic, and social systems”.

Firefighters raced to quell massive bushfires in southeastern Australia on January 7. (Photo: Australian Department of Defence)

“Australia has sadly become an embarrassment on the world stage. Not only are we not taking enough action on climate change but we have been trying to wreck climate change action globally as well,” said NSW Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi.

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