- Are these bushfires caused by climate change?
- Will Australia’s bushfires get worse?
- Did we know this was coming?
- The Planned Burning Debate
- Were hundreds of bushfires this season lit by arsonists?
- Is cultural burning the same as planned burning?
- Spare a thought for our wildlife
- Additional fact-check sources
- How should we respond?
- What does this mean for the church?
Note: the web version below includes some updates as extra information becomes available, the PDF is static.
Are these bushfires caused by climate change?
There is a direct link between the unprecedented nature of these bushfires and climate change, because climate change exacerbates the conditions in which bushfires happen.
There is a complex but clear relationship between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increased bushfire risk. “Climate change does not create bushfires but it can and does make them worse.”
“A number of factors contribute to bushfire risk, including temperature, fuel load, dryness, wind speed and humidity.”
According to Greg Mullins, Former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner, what we have been seeing includes:
“Unprecedented dryness; reductions in long-term rainfall; low humidity; high temperatures; wind velocities; fire danger indices; fire spread and ferocity; instances of pyro-convective fires (fire storms – making their own weather); early starts and late finishes to bushfire seasons. An established long-term trend driven by a warming, drying climate. The numbers don’t lie, and the science is clear.
If anyone tells you, “This is part of a normal cycle” or “We’ve had fires like this before”, smile politely and walk away, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Record breaking heat across the country made 2019 the hottest year on record for Australia, with the average temperature being 1.52C above the long-term average taken between 1961 and 1990. This is followed by 2013, 2005, 2018 and 2017. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, this increase in temperature, along with record breaking drought, caused this season’s dangerous bushfires, increased dangerous fire conditions and lengthened the fire season. [y] 
Professor David Bowman from the University of Tasmania says, “this increasingly frequent fire activity is completely consistent with what climate modelling was suggesting. The whole system is moving to a world that is hotter, drier, and with more frequent fire activity. It’s what was forecast and it’s what is now happening.
Read the Climate Council’s full briefing paper here: https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/not-normal-climate-change-bushfire-web/
Will Australia’s bushfires get worse?
According to Dr Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfires & Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre: “We will start to see the extreme end of the fire behaviour scale occur more frequently because of the increase of temperatures”.
This will make firefighting extremely difficult, as previous experience will no longer provide accurate guidance for how to deal with future events and conditions.
Yet “although things are bad, they will keep on getting worse if the concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere keep increasing”. Sadly, it is estimated that Australia’s fires have already released between 350 and 400 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. “That’s roughly 1% of the total global carbon emissions from 2019.”[e] It is also more than the total combined annual emissions of the 116 lowest-emitting countries. [f]
“The fires could be part of an ominous feedback loop: The more land burns, the more carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere, and the more trees — which act as natural carbon sinks — disappear. The more CO2 gets released, the warmer our planet gets; that raises the risk of more big and deadly fires.” [e]
To prevent future disasters, we must act on climate change.
“Perhaps more than any other wealthy nation on Earth, Australia is at risk from the dangers of climate change. It has spent most of the 21st century in a historic drought. Its tropical oceans are more endangered than any other biome by climate change. Its people are clustered along the temperate and tropical coasts, where rising seas threaten major cities. Those same bands of livable land are the places either now burning or at heightened risk of bushfire in the future.”
Australia’s extreme vulnerability to the effects of climate change means that we have have more incentive for change than any other developed country. According to economist Dr. Ross Garnaut, we could also “be the biggest economic beneficiary of effective global mitigation because we have the best renewable energy resources and the best opportunities for capturing carbon in our geological and biological landscapes.”
Did we know this was coming?
Scientists have been warning for over 20 years, that climate change “would increase the risk of extreme bushfires in Australia. This warning was accurate. Scientists expect extreme fire weather will continue to become more frequent and severe without substantial and rapid action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The Garnaut Climate Change Review in 2008 predicted that more intense fire seasons should be observable by 2020. According to the report, there could also be a 300 per cent increase in the number of days with extreme fire weather by 2067.
In 2018, the State of the Climate report from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology observed that climate change had led to an increase in extreme heat events and increased the severity of other natural disasters, such as drought.
In April 2019, 23 former fire chiefs and emergency leaders issued a letter, warning the government about “increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events”.
The Planned Burning Debate
Definition of terms:
“Hazard-reduction burning is the deliberate, authorised lighting of fire to reduce the threats to people and property from wildfires.
“Prescribed burning” is an equivalent term favoured by researchers, while “controlled” or “planned” burning are alternatives.”
The term should not be confused with “backburns”. These are lit during an emergency with the aim of creating a scorched buffer to inhibit the advancement of an active bushfire.
A lack of Hazard-reduction burning this season has been pointed to by some as the cause of these bushfires.
Professor Ross Bradstock is the director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, who has been researching bushfires for 40 years.
He said, “as firefighters try and beat back the bushfires, a familiar blame game began with critics pointing fingers at “greenies”, claiming they get in the way of hazard reduction efforts that might have reduced the size and scale of the disaster.
“These are very tired and very old conspiracy theories that get a run after most major fires,”
“They’ve been extensively dealt with in many inquiries.”
“It’s simply conspiracy stuff. It’s an obvious attempt to deflect the conversation away from climate change.”
According to Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, “Hazard reduction burning is really challenging and the single biggest impediment to completing hazard reduction burning is the weather.”
The Fire and Rescue NSW Station 428 Queanbeyan Facebook page posted:
“The main reason Hazard Reduction burns are cancelled or delayed is due to the predicted intensity of the burn exceeding the limits that would make it safe for firefighters, native flora and fauna and obviously you wonderful people.”
According to QFES Superintendent James Haig “The most common reason for a permit not being granted would be because the local conditions were too dry; that it was difficult to conduct safely and with the appropriate outcome.” “In other areas, it was too wet too early on and dried out rapidly, leaving a short window of opportunity to safely conduct mitigation activities.” Nevertheless, 108 of 175 planned hazard-reduction burns in QLD were completed in 2019.
Experts, including Professor Bradstock, say that Australia is in fact carrying out more planned burning that in previous decades, but such burns are ineffective against extreme fires like those seen this summer, and their effectiveness will continue to diminish as the climate changes. 
Professor Trent Penman has emphasised that “in extreme and catastrophic fire conditions, the surface fuel available for burning makes next to no difference to the level of a fire’s intensity.”
“when you exceed an FFDI [Forest Fire Danger Index] of about 50, you switch from fuel-dominated to a weather-dominated fire.
“At this point, while fuel has a small effect, it is overwhelmed by the weather.”
Associate Professor Philip Zylstra, from Wollongong University’s Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions, said fuel loads in forests were not responsible for the catastrophic fire season.
“The reality is we are at a peak of prescribed burning by state agencies. More has been done in the past decade than in many, many decades.”
Professor Zylstra said a vast increase to the current hazard reduction effort would blanket cities and towns with smoke over winter* and create “huge risks” of accidental property damage and even death.
*Increased planned burning contributes to heavy smoke affecting communities during winter, which leads to fatalities from air pollution and smoke inhalation. 
Does Planned Burning help prevent bushfires?
The effectiveness of planned burning is “highly debatable, not least because ecosystems may be irreversibly changed with limited benefit.”
A study in Tasmania has found that planned burn-offs have little impact on reducing the extent and intensity of bushfires. 
Meanwhile anecdotal evidence suggests that prior burning has not saved many properties this fire season.
Longtime resident of Wytaliba, Badja Sparks, described the experience of his home being badly damaged in the current fires after a previous fire in September (just two months earlier) burned to the perimeter of the property.
“There was no fuel on the ground, it was already burned.” He said.
“Everything that should be done, was done and lots more.
The fire that came last Friday was of another order of magnitude altogether. A crown fire roaring in from the west on a hot afternoon with an 80km per hour wind, it wasn’t on the ground, it was a firestorm in the air, raining fire.”
A 2010 study from Wollongong University found there was only a 10% chance of a fire being stopped by a planned burn. More effective were road barriers, or cleared buffer zones around houses. Yet Professor Philip Gibbons from the Australian National University emphasised that no one technique was a solution.
“If there was a silver bullet on bushfires we’d have found it by now, after the 51 inquiries since 1939.” He said.
Where used as part of a suite of fire preparations, planned burning is most effective close to the buildings or houses to be protected. But planned burning in these areas is also difficult and expensive, and accompanied by the danger of fires escaping. [a]
Associate Professor Trent Penman, from the University of Melbourne bushfire behaviour and management group, said “broader thinking” was needed and “blindly putting money into prescribed burning won’t stop the problem”.
For more info see: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479712001752
Were hundreds of bushfires this season lit by arsonists?
Police have spoken up to contradict claims online that exaggerate the role of arson in this bushfire season [c]. Only about 1 per cent of the land burnt in NSW this bushfire season can be officially attributed to arson, and even less in Victoria. [d]
Specifically, “the Gospers Mountain “mega-blaze” and the Green Wattle Creek fire, which are both near Sydney, were ignited by lightning.
All the major blazes in the Snowy Mountains and South Coast which have taken hold since New Year’s Eve were also started by lightning.” [d]
While arson is a problem in Australia, a Rural Fire Services spokesperson has highlighted that “exaggerated claims about arson during the current crisis have also been used to undermine the link between climate change and the longer, more severe bushfire seasons currently being experienced in Australia.” [c]
For more information see: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-15/is-arson-mostly-to-blame-for-the-bushfire-crisis/11865724
Is cultural burning the same as planned burning?
Planned burning and cultural burning differ in several important ways:
“While I applaud the interest in cultural burning there are some important things to remember:
* Cultural burning works on small scale burns and was used as part of a long term practice to create appropriate spaces for grazing and safety over time.
* It was not a broad scale practice in such as wilderness areas, i.e. wild bush, mountain areas etc.
* It is labour intensive and to burn on a large scale requires vast numbers of people.
* It was carried on in native or indigenous vegetation and not on the very different landscape we now have with introduced species being the prominent vegetation.
* It was carried on in a culture that did not prioritise property. The bush wasn’t dotted with buildings and stock and fences which would burn if a burn escaped. And they did.
* Devastating Bushfires did still occur in those areas where people did not deem it appropriate to burn, mountainous bush for example, but they were allowed to burn out because there was no property to protect. People just moved.” [z]
Shaun Hooper is a Wiradjuri man, a Fire Behaviour Analyst, volunteer fire fighter, and a cultural burning practitioner currently doing his post grad studies on cultural burning. He says:
“Non-Aboriginal People sometimes struggle with understanding the basis of how Aboriginal Cultural Fire Practitioners implement an Aboriginal Cultural Burn; it does not generally look like a hazard reduction. This is because it is not.
An Aboriginal Cultural Burn is not guided by a prescription, it is guided by the close relationship that the Aboriginal Cultural Fire Practitioner has with Country and everything in it.
This relationship based approach allows for the involvement of other than human beings such as bettongs, bandicoots, lyrebirds, wombats and brush turkeys who all assist with Cultural burning by turning over and reducing the leaf litter.
Cultural Burning is a landscape wide approach unlike the more strategic hazard reduction approach. It provides for emergent outcomes for a range of species who contribute in various ways to the implementation, Cultural Burning in its true sense is not just people driven, this is important as it respects the relational requirements of Aboriginal Cultural Practice.”
Spare a thought for our wildlife
Scientists are expressing considerable concern about the ability of animals to recover from this bushfire season. It is estimated, conservatively, that 1.25 billion animals have already died in the fires [x]. This comes on top of the already serious impacts of land clearing, deforestation and climate altered habitats.
While Australian animals are adapted to fire, they have not dealt with fires of this size and intensity before, and with over 1,000 species already threatened in Australia, these fires may push some species into extinction.
For example, hopes are low for the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, after its entire known range was burned in the last week. Corroboree frog habitats have also burned, with the impacts on the frogs unknown as the area is still unsafe to enter. The Alpine Bog Skink is also of concern, as are other species with populations small enough to be wiped out by a single fire event. This includes the Guthega skink in the Bogong High Plains, Martin’s toadlet in east Gippsland, the alpine she-oak skink, the Blue Mountains water skink, the broad-headed snake in NSW, and the hip-pocket frog in NSW and Queensland.
Whole ecosystems will also be affected. Camille Stevens-Rumann, an ecologist at Colorado State University, described the impact on ecosystems like a cold, “We’re all adapted to a certain amount of disturbance. I can get a certain number of colds per year and be OK, but if I’m sick for eight months in a row, that’s really going to wear on me. That’s the same thing with an ecosystem.”
Prof John Woinarski, of Charles Darwin University said, “This is a harbinger of a bleak future for our wildlife. They have set back conservation in Australia for a very long period, but [the fires] are a sign of an even more bleak future ahead. Because of climate change, they will become more frequent and more severe. It’s a sad time for conservation in Australia.”
He said it was “quite likely” the fires would have caused some extinctions but “we won’t know until after this summer ends”.
Additional fact-check sources
How should we respond?
- Donate to the Moderator’s Bushfire Appeal: https://nswact.uca.org.au/about-us/giving/moderators-appeal/
- Donate to WIRES and wildlife rescue charities: https://www.wires.org.au/donate/emergency-fund
- Help slow the spread of fire misinformation, and spread reliable information sources instead.
- If you are in a burned area, please provide fresh water and food for local wildlife (if safe). Here are some ideas: https://perfectpets.com.au/best-pet-blog/post/what-you-should-feed-wildlife-during-drought-and-bushfires http://www.birdsinbackyards.net/content/article/How-you-can-help-birds-after-fires
Beyond the Fires –
- With unprecedented climate action
Kallan Benson, 15 and a national coordinator for the youth climate organization Fridays for Future, says the 2010s were a “decade of disappointment,” and “If the world is to stave off further disasters, the next decade must be one of unprecedented climate action”.
If you’re not sure where to start:
- Check out this guide: I’m worried about the climate — what can I do?
- Sign up for our Uniting Earth e-news, or follow us on FB for our campaign information and updates.
- Sign Up to one of our Climate Action Task Groups.
- By preparing for climate disasters
Further climate disasters will come.
“Global warming is already lengthening the fire season and making heatwaves more intense, more frequent, and longer. It is also increasing the likelihood of heavy rains, and making droughts worse.
We must keep adapting to these changing threats, and further improve our ability to forecast them. And the community must stay aware of the many weather and climate extremes that threaten lives and property.” (Monash University’s Neville Nicholls) 
We must be prepared for them.
This will be expensive, but:
“If we think about earthquakes you don’t hear people complaining, certainly in New Zealand, about the cost of a house that’s going to survive an earthquake,” Bowman said. “Yet in the fire space we have some building regulations but surely having fire-safe communities is a good investment.”
And it will be cheaper than the alternative.
As it is, natural disasters are estimated to cost Australia around $13 billion each year.
The Australia Institute has proposed a National Climate Disaster Fund to help meet the growing costs of climate-fuelled disasters, through actions such as assisting businesses to recover, providing more firefighting equipment including water bombing planes, and paid leave for volunteer firefighters. Grants could also be made to at-risk households and businesses to assist with fire-prevention measures, or to help communities recover and rebuild.
We can begin by implementing the National Disaster Risk Reductions Framework.
- With adaptation
University of Tasmania’s Professor David Bowman says,
“The old idea was that we can head off the crisis by reducing our emissions through decarbonisation. We had an opportunity to do that and we didn’t take it. We still have to decarbonise but now we also have to adapt.
And the sort of adaptation needed is not just about infrastructure, it’s also about the way we shape our lifestyle, our culture and traditions.
Climate change adaptation will nearly always be met with political, social and cultural resistance. It is not easy…
There’s going to need to be a systematic change in behaviour and lifestyle as we adapt…We need to put some serious thought into what future life will be like under climate change.”
Lifestyle change that may need to be made is rescheduling our peak holiday period to March or April, instead of December and January.
Bowman says, “As we contemplate a future where catastrophes like the one currently engulfing Australia become increasingly frequent, there’s an idea to which I keep returning: maybe it’s time to say goodbye to the typical summer Australian holiday…
It’s easy to dismiss this idea as stupid but that’s the nature of adaptation. Things that once seemed absurd will now need serious consideration.
What’s truly absurd is the business-as-usual approach that sees thousands of holidaymakers heading directly into forests and national parks right in the middle of peak bushfire season.”
- Campaigning against logging of native forests
Logging has been linked to increased bushfire risks in affected regions. Because this is somewhat counterintuitive, some will suggest greater logging as a way to reduce fuel loads in our forests. This approach is not supported by the science.
In a recent warning, “Australian National University landscape ecology expert Professor David Lindenmayer said multiple academic and forest industry studies showed forest thinning in Australia “makes forests more fire prone”.
“It [thinning and mechanical fuel reduction] is a misleading argument that is simply wrong,” Prof Lindenmayer said.
Forest and fire expert Professor Philip Zylstra from Curtin University said while thinning trees might sound like a simple way to reduce fuel loads and with it fire risk, it would actually make the forest more flammable.
“Before thinning is used as a hazard reduction tool, there should be evidence to underpin it,” he said. “The mechanisms that drive fire lead us to expect thinning will make fires worse.
“Thinning trees would allow stronger winds access to fires burning beneath the trees. Also the more open a tree canopy is, the more able fire is to spread because the leaf litter will be drier from more light coming through and there will be a more dense shrub layer due to increased light for plants – that will make fires far more intense.”” [b]
In one study, uncut native forest would generally not burn after less than 30 rainless days but selectively logged forest would burn after just six to eight days without rain.
According to Lindenmayer, logging in the moist eucalypt forests of East Gippsland “has shifted the vegetation composition toward one more characteristic of drier forests that tend to be more fire prone”.
Logging also contributes to forest flammability by encouraging dense sapling regrowth, changing the density and pattern of trees and leaving behind logging slash (debris).
- Helping our young people to cope
Research shows that between 7% and 45% of children suffer depression after experiencing a natural disaster. Children more at risk of depression include those who were trapped during the event; experienced injury, fear, or bereavement; witnessed injury or death; and had poor social support. Here is some advice for talking to young people about the bushfires:
Some picture story book recommendations include:
- Birdie’s Tree https://www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/natural-disaster-recovery/?fbclid=IwAR2i4eowi2SlOQzOVvxu9uR4feGGXqZJ5I-Jv35J24JTssczN3T9vcLklps
- The Duck and the Darkling by Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King
- Our House is on Fire: Greta Thunberg’s call to save the planet by Jeanette Winter
- The Red Tree by Shaun Tan
Impacts on children from natural disasters can also be long term, and include reduced academic performance, so it is important to work to reduce these impacts in our communities and monitor them long after the fires are gone. 
Also, here’s some advice for anyone who has lived through the fires:
Or if you need support yourself: https://firefeels.wordpress.com/need-proper-help/
Government Mental Health support available: https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/emergency-health-management/bushfire-information-and-support/australian-government-mental-health-response-to-bushfire-trauma
What does this mean for the church?
In times of disaster, our churches and communities come together to help. Rev John Squires has summarised our UCA response so far here:
Rob McFarlane, Presbytery Ministry Leader in Parramatta Nepean Presbytery, also describes some of the impacts this crisis is having on our congregations:
- “The anxiety of the situation makes people less able to cope with change in all areas of life, thus inhibiting any previously necessary transitions in the life of the congregation.
- The loss of production in rural areas has a direct impact on families’ incomes, and hence giving to the church. Nine percent of the national cattle herd has perished, and 12 percent of sheep.
- The economies in areas dependent on tourism are devastated, also affecting incomes.
- Ministers are stretched to the limit. As I write in mid-January 2020 there are 34 evacuation and relief centres open in NSW alone, when the most at any one time in the past has been two. We provide Disaster Recovery Chaplains to these centres, mostly pastors of congregations being released by their congregations.
- Similarly, volunteers are stretched to the limit.”
In the longer term, the best way we can care for our communities and God’s creation, and reduce future disasters, is to take action on climate change.
The Uniting Church is called to the reconciliation and renewal of all creation. This starts with our individual action, but also calls us into communal and societal action.
Together we need to raise our voices for real climate action. Let your government representatives of all levels know how these fires have affected you and your community, and that you expect a real response including serious reductions of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Then sign up to get involved in our Uniting Earth advocacy campaigns this year.
Also, one opportunity we have is to become a place where people can find comfort and help for their climate related grief, trauma and anxiety. By training our leaders in climate pastoral care, and using tools like this Community Trauma Toolkit, we can be prepared to help in the next disaster, and with the emotional experiences of our community even in “peaceful” times.
Community Trauma Toolkit: https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/toolkits/community-trauma-toolkit/
(If you’re interested in this area, sign up for our Climate Anxiety and Pastoral Care Task Group.)
Compiled by Jessica Morthorpe, Uniting Earth Advocate, 08/01/2020 updated 15/01/2020
 The warming already created by our greenhouse gas emissions.