It has been hard to escape the heartbreaking scenes from Australia in recent weeks. The outback was, and is, burning with a ferocity not witnessed in living memory. With twenty-seven people and an estimated half a billion individuals of livestock and wildlife perishing in the fires that are currently spread across the continent. As I write this on the 31st Jan, 170 fires are still burning despite the arrival of rain and hail in recent days.
What’s clear and apparent is that this is a major wildlife disaster that has been propagated and exacerbated by the man. The climate emergency has created a super-dry summer with record temperatures, coupled with resources being taken away from the very organisations that would reduce the impact; it has created the perfect storm.
Much of the media’s focus has been on the devastating impact that the fires have had on wildlife, but little attention has focused on the effect the fires have had on the flora of the bush. Like many habitats, fires are not unusual and there are normally bushfires during the Burning Season. In the past, Aborigines would burn small fires which would clear detritus and leaf material that could be fuel for natural fires.
Forests regrow and fire is a natural part of the process. Speaking to Abigail Beall for Wired Magazine, Rodney Keenan, chair of the forest and ecosystem science at the University of Melbourne says “Even tropical rainforests, which are often considered fragile, can recover after a single fire”
But, Keenan continues, “the problem is the intensity of the fires. Some species of tree store seeds in the crown of the tree, but the intensity of the fires can mean that the seeds are destroyed too, even in the ground..” Where there are no trees, then grassland would encroach and human intervention is therefore needed to replant trees in affected areas. “We don’t know fully the impacts of these fires yet…of the six to seven million hectares burnt, some areas burnt intensely, and will take time to recover, others only moderately and will recover quite quickly.”
The climate crisis could make recovery from severe fires much harder, especially if the drier weather creates intense heat that vaporises all in its path. The Guardian has reported that “scientists reckon that nearly fifty threatened animal and plant species are believed to have had at least eighty percent of the area in which they live, affected by bushfire”
The worst affected mammal in this tragedy is believed to be the Kangaroo Island Dunnart which has had its habitat decimated by the fires. Native to a South Australian island, it is found nowhere else in the world. The Metro reported that 1,000 Koalas have been killed in the fires, making them ‘functionally extinct’ according to wildlife experts.
What we do know is that, due to the climate emergency, this might not be the last time a fire of this intensity scorches itself across the Australian Bush and it is hard to say how this will affect the survival of critically endangered species like the Dunnart, but one thing is sure, the worsening climate emergency will make natural disasters like this a much more regular occurrence.
Illustration by Tori Dee (www.toridee.co.uk)