Task: Give a detailed review of the current bushfire crisis going on in Australia. Describe the factors contributing towards its upsurge, and the steps being taken to mitigate it.
This Australian Bushfire Case Study describes that bushfires have been a common occurrence throughout Australia for many decades, and have continued to wreak havoc on the continent. But previously this issue was easily brought under control by the authorities who are in charge. The current scenario of bushfires however, have caused widespread discomfort and claimed the lives for many humans and animals. That is why the main aim of this Australian Bushfire case study is to understand the causes and effects of this seemingly natural calamity. This Australian bushfire case study presents and in depth review of the ongoing disaster along with measures to fight the current cases of bushfires all across Australia and explain the future implication of the fires which have taken over the whole continent.
What are Bushfires?
The ecological environment of the Australian continent is such that it naturally serves as a ground for the birth of wild fires. There are mainly two types of wild fires which the country is prone to. These are: Grassfires and Bushfires.
Grassfires are typically fast moving and take about 5 to 10 seconds to catch on. These types of wild fires occur in dry regions and can grow to smouldering levels within minutes. The main areas of damage from grassfires are crops, livestock, and agricultural lands and its infrastructure. Since grassfires are fast moving they can climb up to alarming levels if left uncontrolled. These fires range from small to medium levels and can easily be mitigated.
Bushfires are an integrated part of the Australian ecosystem. They are slow moving in nature and hence can spread to large areas. These fires take anywhere between 5 to 10 minutes to pass but given the required conditions; they can go on for day and months without an end. These fires can occur in rural as well as sub urban regions. These fires get their name from the starting fuel which they use to come into existence, which is small bushes, shrubs and dried up debris from plants and trees.
How do Bushfires start?
Bushfires are a naturally occurring phenomenon, which are traditionally caused due to ignition from lightning and high friction between leaves and bushes due to winds blowing at tremendous speeds. Although winds are only the cause of ignition process, for it to turn in to a fire the other major requirement is of adequate fuel conditions which facilitate the process.
Apart from the friction and lightning there are other man made factors which serve as the potential sources of ignition to the bushfires which are highlighted in this Australian bushfire case study. These factors turn out to be possible ignition sources for the fires such as:
Though ignition is only the starting step of the process, the main reasons, in this Australian bushfire case study, which allow the wildfires to span out of control are mentioned below:
Nature of Fuel
The primary fuel for bushfires are the fallen organic debris from trees in the form of dried up barks, leaves, twigs, branches and fallen trees. Fuels which are loose and light in weight catch fire more furiously and easily such as dry leaves, twigs, small grasses etc. whereas, the fuel which is dense and tightly compacted catch fire slowly and burn for a longer duration, such as thick branches and tree trunks.
Concentration of Fuel
Debris which is spread out over a large distance will constitute to a small fire which can be easily put out, on the other hand, debris which is concentrated in a small area will give rise to a fire which is more destructive in nature due to the presence of large amounts of combustible fuel.
Moisture content in the fuel
Since dry fuels catch fire more easily and provide for a larger fire, fuel which is wet, such as green leaves, grass, twigs and trees have a substantially lesser pace of catching fire. Thus, the amount of precipitation received over a catchment area in the season plays an important role. The rainfall along with the porosity of soil and the runoff can provide a definitive measure of calculating the combustive nature of the organic matter present.
Speed of Winds
This is one of the most important factors which determine the scale of bushfires. As the speed of wind directly affects the spread of wildfires by providing it extra oxygen to burn more frantically and carrying the burning debris to far off places up to 30kms and causing ignition, consequently spreading the fire.
Winds above 12 to 15 km/h facilitate tremendously in spreading the wildfire. The fire itself increases the wind speed and forming vortices which are swirling winds flowing at high speeds in a circular motion carrying large amount of burning debris into the air to far off places.
The temperature of the region also plays a role in the ignition process of the bushfires, as a higher temperature will heat up the fuel and bring it closer to its ignition temperature. Thus, increasing the chances and the pace of ignition process of bushfires. High temperature also facilitates fires by making the fuel drier and more susceptible to fires.
Lower Humidity levels greatly increase the chances of a fire with higher intensity, as opposed to conditions with higher humidity levels. As humidity is a measure of moisture levels in the air, lower humidity constitutes of drier winds which facilitates the ignition process of fuels.
As the nature of fire is such that it increases the temperature of the air around it. This phenomenon comes into play when the fire is occurring at an inclined plane, as the hot air rises upwards it heats up the nearby fuel matter through convection and makes it easier for it to catch on fire, thus spreading the area under fire. It is observed from this Australian bushfire case study analysis, that the spread of fire will be double as the inclination of the ground increase to 10 degrees. Therefore the fires in an inclined plane of even 20 degrees will spread at a rate which is 4 times that of the speed on a flat surface. Furthermore, as hilly areas are more vegetated with dense forests and trees, the potential fuel load is much larger and the accessibility of fire trucks decreases. Thus, fires in hilly areas spread at a much faster rate as compared to the fire in a flat plane.
Impacts and Implications of the Bushfires
In Australia, the months of April to September have been declared as the bushfire season for the Northern Australian region, whereas the southern Australian regions also experience a large threat of bushfires in the dry summer season. This is because of the high temperature and the low humidity in the hot summer season.
As mentioned above in this Australian bushfire case study, the current on-going bushfire season of 2019-20 all across Australia has proven to be the most catastrophic in the recorded history. Although, the fires are spread throughout the country, the south-east regions of the country have been the most affected with large raging fires, as illustrated in the figure below.
The above image helps us answering various questions that have been asked by concerned citizens very frequently regarding this Australian bushfire case study, such as:
According to a statement from NASA, the current bushfires in Australia can be identified from the international space station, pointing out towards the massive scale of this threat.
Damage caused due to Bushfires
This Australian bushfire case study states that being the biggest bushfires in the history of the continent, the damages caused by it has been appalling, including damage to property, land, livestock, flora and fauna. In addition to that the damages from the future implications of these fires will only increase the loss caused thus far.
Over 2000 homes have been destroyed by the fires, this season, removing thousands of families from their houses. An approximate 18 million acres of land has been burnt after getting engulfed in flames, out of which about 12 million acres of land is from the region of New south wales, which is among the most affected areas of the country. To put things into perspective for this Australian bushfire case study, the total area of land that has been burnt this season (18 million acres), is larger than the combined area of Belgium and Denmark. The wildfires in the Amazon rainforest in the year 2019 covered 17.5 million areas, whereas the fire in California burnt across 247,000 acres. The overall amount of damages caused due to the bushfires so far is estimated to be over $4.4 billion.
The current bushfires under analysis in the Australian bushfire case study have claimed the lives of 27 people so far, including the lives of several firefighting volunteers, and almost a billion animals have died in the most dreadful bushfires in the history of the country. The above figure of affected animals, include birds, reptiles and mammals, it excludes insect and other small animals such as bats and frogs, which would increase this number substantially.
Australia being a hotspot of biodiversity has many indigenous species of flora and fauna. A large of number of animal species which are indigenous to Australia have suffer a loss due to the bushfires, thus giving more importance to this Australian bushfire case study. Animal species such as kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, quokkas, cockatoos, honeyeaters and kookaburras among others have been severely burnt and killed in the fires. This has resulted in driving many species towards endangerment and extinction. (Narayan & Vanderneut, 2019)
Out of all of the above animal species, Koalas, which are indigenous to Australia, have been affected the most. In the region of New South Wales alone, around 8400 koalas have succumbed to the fires. This is mainly because of the fact that, koalas are slow moving animals, which have the ability to climb tall trees. In the event of fires, koalas are unable to outrun the fire, and hence climb up the tall eucalyptus trees, which are in dense population all across the country. This only worsens their situation, as not only eucalyptus trees are a primary food and water source for the koalas, these trees are also very tall and slow burning, due to the high amounts of oils present in them, thus trapping the koalas seeking refuge from the fires, with nowhere to go (Lucas, Hennessy, Mills, & Bathols, 2007).
Reports from various ecologists have suggested that the fires have rendered the species of already endangered koalas, functionally extinct because of a major loss of their natural habitat. More than 30% of the population of koalas in the region of New South Wales have been killed so far in the ongoing fires.
Apart from koalas, many endangered species of frogs and birds face extinction due to falling to extremely small numbers and a great loss to their natural habitat.
Implications of bushfires
Though many animal species have fallen prey to the wild fires of Australia, some fast moving animals have survived it, such as kangaroos and wallabies; many birds have escaped the fires using their ability to fly. Various surface dwelling animals such as wombats and snakes have shielded themselves from the fires by going underground. A species of surface dwelling reptiles called Goannas have benefited from the fires by coming out of their burrows to feed on the injured animals and their dead remains. Some species of flora have adapted to the bushfires through the process of evolution. Various grass trees have evolved to procreate following the events of bushfires by budding flower spikes which grow over burnt lands and help the species to reproduce.
According to the reports assessed for this Australian bushfire case study the trees in the forests under the fires had the ability to reabsorb the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted during bushfires, achieve a net emission value of Zero. But in the recent years because of climate change, the fires have become more furious and larger in scale. An analysis done by NASA scientists revealed that, as of 2nd January 2020, the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted from the Australian bushfires reached to 337 Million tons. In order to reabsorb this vast amount of carbon dioxide by the flora of Australia, it would take many decades to achieve that number. This process would further be slowed down by increasing global warming and climate change which would increase the onset of drought on the suffering areas and hinder the trees to grow to their full capacity (Ruane, 2019).
In 2020, following the various incidents of bushfires discussed in this Australian bushfire case study, the air quality of Canberra had fallen to the bottom of the major cities of the world. Reports have shown that the air quality over the regions of New South Wales have gone to 11 times the hazardous limit. The smoke from the biggest fires in NSW, Canberra and Sydney has travelled up to the north-eastern part of the country leaving people wondering why is it smoky in Brisbane today. Scientists reveal that this will have serious implications on the current generations as well the future generations which will be born during this time. As of 2nd January 2020 the air quality of Canberra was at an all-time low, having an average over 200micrograms of pollutants per cubic meter.
Breathing under this poor air quality can have serious health problems such as asthma and many other respiratory disorders. It can induce an early onset of various heart diseases including cardiac arrest and stroke. (Morgan, et al., 2010) The high levels of PM 2.5 in the air can irreparably harm the immune system of people especially elderly population.
Role of Climate Change in Wildfires
As stated above in this Australian bushfire case study, the bushfires are a natural phenomenon which occur regularly in many parts of the world as an integrated feature of its ecosystem, in recent years the major fires that have broken out and on such vast scale have proven that this natural phenomenon have had a human influence over it. This human influence is in the form of changes in the climatic condition all around the world, which have altered the cycle of various natural phenomena such as bushfires (Crompton, McAneney, Chen, Jr, & Haynes, 2010). The increasing levels of greenhouse gasses have majorly contributed towards increased global warming which has led to a significant rise in the overall temperature of the earth.
This change in climate of the earth can be experienced by the increased number of droughts and floods in all parts of the world. In the present scenario of bushfires and wildfires in this Australian bushfire case study, that have taken over the world is also significantly influenced by the change in climate.
The wildfires in the amazon rainforest in mid 2019 is an appropriate example of this, as the rainforest being a moist region with high humidity had fallen prey to the wildfires spread over a large area and burning for several weeks cause damage to wildlife. Many ecologists had claimed that low humidity and less rainfall had a significant role to play in the existence of it (Gill, Stephens, & Cary, 2013).
Similarly, in case of the current bushfires that have covered Australia, the fires have been greatly influenced by the changes in climate. Naturally the bushfires that used to occur almost every year for the past decades were achieving zero net emission which is not the case in the recent years. The present case of bushfires has been going on for more than its usual period, with no end in sight. Many reports have claimed that with the coming of the summer season in the following months, the bushfires will come at a full circle if they are not anguished by that time (Arriagada, 2020).
Even before the bushfires, Australia had been experiencing its hottest summers and highest temperatures ever recorded in many regions. Several parts of the country including New South Wales were hit by shortage of rainfall and drought, which have played a crucial in the elevation of the bushfire situation.
Steps being taken
The government of Australia had issued a total fire ban and advised caution on discarding lit or partially burning matter such as cigarettes and matches. The authorities had booked 27 people on charges of arson who have been found guilty of deliberately started fires in different parts of the state of New South Wales and charged over 183 other people on accounts of negligence and fire related offences in an attempt to find people responsible for aggravating the bushfires.
Ever since its inception in September 2019, the firefighters have been combating the fires day and night to get in under control. But even after months of continuous efforts the situation hasn’t come under control, that is why in January 2020, the state of New South Wales declared a state of emergency, and the state of state of Victoria declaring a state of disaster.
Firefighters from various parts of the world have rallied to the places where the threat is getting difficult to control. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has allocated 3 billion Australian dollars in order to fight the outbreak of fires and rehabilitation of areas that have been affected.
Currently over 2000 firefighters are deployed on ground for combating the fires, and additional individuals who have volunteered for the cause.
Relief funds have been set up to support the firefighters, health facilities, and rescue operations. In addition to the ground personnel, air support has been provider by the military in the forms of firefighting aircrafts and air force aircrafts for evacuation and search and rescue operations have been employed. Along additional support on the way from allied countries including, US, Canada and New Zealand.
Several government and non-government organisations have started campaigns in efforts to teach people how to prepare for a bushfire and support the firefighters and save those who are injured and need help, including the wild animals trapped in the fires. Some of those organisations are:
Australia has been experiencing the worst case of bushfires in its history, despite continuous measures from the government the fires have been very tough to control due to its enormous scale. With the additional help and measures, the authorities hope to minimize further damage and rebuild the damaged structures.
This Australian bushfire case study explained the various causes to the uprising of bushfires and other forms of wildfires along with its future implications which can have serious effects of mankind and the wildlife of the whole planet. With increasing cases of wildfires all around the world, deteriorating air quality, polluted oceans, melting glaciers, increasing temperatures and many other changes in the planet, all pointing towards to effects of climate change and the need for all mankind to change its ways, adopt more sustainable means of lifestyle in order to save the planet. The information present in this Australian bushfire case study could bring a change in controlling the menace of bushfires in Australia and the ill effects of climate change.
Arriagada, N. B. (2020). Climate Change, Wildfires, Heatwaves and Health Impacts in Australia. Extreme Weather Events and Human Health. Springer, Cham., 99-116.
Crompton, R., McAneney, K., Chen, K., Jr, R. P., & Haynes, K. (2010). Influence of location, population, and climate on building damage and fatalities due to Australian bushfire: 1925–2009. Weather, Climate, and Society, 2(4), 300-310.
Gill, A., Stephens, S., & Cary, G. (2013). The worldwide “wildfire” problem. Ecological applications, 23(2), 438-454.
Lucas, C., Hennessy, K., Mills, G., & Bathols, J. (2007). Bushfire weather in southeast Australia: recent trends and projected climate change impacts. The Climate Institute of Australia.
Morgan, G., Sheppeard, V., Khalaj, B., Ayyar, A., Lincoln, D., Jalaludin, B., . . . Lumley, T. (2010). Effects of bushfire smoke on daily mortality and hospital admissions in Sydney, Australia. Epidemiology, 47-55.
Narayan, E., & Vanderneut, T. (2019). Physiological Stress in Rescued Wild Koalas Are Influenced by Habitat Demographics, Environmental Stressors, and Clinical Intervention. Frontiers in endocrinology, 10.
Ruane, S. (2019). Applying the principles of adaptive governance to bushfire management: a case study from the South West of Australia. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 1-26.
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