Australia’s Climate Apocalypse: Up Close and Personal

fires, New South Wales, Australia
Brush fires turned the sky orange at the beach in Merewether, New South Wales, Australia, on December 6, 2019. Photo credit: Tim J Keegan / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 14 minutes

Even from afar, the fires and resulting devastation in Australia seem incomprehensible. But the pictures and videos we see pale in comparison to what it is like on the ground. 

Some of you may have seen Judith Crispin’s recent article in WhoWhatWhy describing what she saw and felt at the height of the fires. Now that things have, at least for the moment, settled down a bit, she talks to Jeff Schechtman in this WhoWhatWhy podcast about experiences most of us can’t even imagine.  

Some of what she tells us includes:

-What it’s like to watch your kids sleep with gas masks.

-The shock of watching the air itself spontaneously igniting.

-What the death of an estimated billion animals really means.

-Why Australia’s literal holocaust is a fair warning for all of us.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

By now, we’ve seen the pictures and footage of Australia-on- fire. In many ways it’s equivalent to those Rover pictures of Mars. They make us sit up and take notice, but we have no real feel for what it’s like and how life can survive, or even if it can. For that we can only appreciate firsthand accounts of what may very well be the first great climate apocalypse of the 21st century. Some of you may have read Judith Crispin’s harrowing account of the fires in a recent story in WhoWhatWhy. Now amidst the fire and devastation, it is an honor to welcome Judith Crispin here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Judith, thanks so much for taking the time to join us.

Judith: Hi Jeff. Thanks for having me.
Jeff: Give us a quick update of how things are progressing. Certainly the cooler weather, some of the rain recently hopefully has helped. How have things improved from the story that you wrote about in WhoWhatWhy a week or so ago?
Judith: Oh, well what’s happened is a lot of the fires have been contained. We’ve got rainfall now over New South Wales, but of course the ground is baked and so it can’t absorb the rainfall, so we may now be risking flood. The biggest fires, Currowan fire, which is the one behind my place and a number of those that are hitting down the South Coast towards Victoria are still burning. The rain is enough to stop the fronts from advancing too much and it’s stopped the catastrophic fire storms. But we normally don’t even have fire season beginning until the middle of January. So we’re in for another two months probably and it’s just going to take one hot and windy day for everything to kick off again.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about what’s burned and where the real danger points might be in future fires.
Judith: Well, Australia is very big, so we still have quite a lot, but the real issue for us is that essentially we’ve had the whole Great Dividing Range on fire and we’ve lost a huge percentage of that. There’ve been a lot of ideas we’ve had about fire that we’ve had to reevaluate. It used to be thought, for example, that fire wouldn’t go over ground that was already burned. We now know that, that’s not true. So when the fires go through forest land for example, they will burn all the way down the roots of the trees. And so sometimes a very fast fire will burn the surface and it will look as though that whole area is burned. But in fact, there’s still very complex root systems and things left to burn and we’ll see fire propelling itself across those burned grounds. The other misconception that people had in the very beginning of this fire crisis, was that the forests would be the biggest danger to us, that the forests would create catastrophic fire. And then if we got the fire down onto the grasslands, it would be calmer.
Judith: But what we found instead was that the fires were so big that they were creating their own weather. So the smoke would rise up and create these pyrocumulus clouds, which themselves would then create lightning. And sometimes a little bit of rain, which would go through the ash and become black rain. But then we’re also creating these tremendous winds and so the winds from the fire would be going one way and the wind on the grasslands might be going in another. And so it would turn these grass fires into these enormous tornado-like structures and they would become these enormous firestorms, which would then tear over the grasslands and just take out anything in their path.
Jeff: One of the things you talked about in your story was how bad the air was, that people were wearing gas masks all the time, sleeping in them in fact. How is the air now and are you still sleeping with gas masks?
Judith: The air is still very bad. It’s better than it was at the height of the fire, but it’s very difficult to know because a lot of the toxins that come from the smoke, we can feel as smoke. We see the smoke and we smell what smoke smells like, and that can feel very suffocating. But on the days when the sky’s a little clearer and everybody feels relieved, there’s still enormous amounts of toxins in the air, but people are less inclined to wear masks. So we’ve got huge health problems. I mean, it’s now been almost eight weeks that we’ve been under siege from fire.
Judith: That’s eight weeks that Canberra has been under such smoke that we can’t see the stars at night. We can’t see the sky. We can’t see often a building that’s right in front of us. So yeah, people are wearing gas masks still during the day when they’re outside. In the height of the fires, and I’m a little bit closer to the fires than the people in the cities, but it was impossible to sleep without a gas mask. You just wake up, unable to breathe. There was one night here where somebody accidentally left a window open and it was almost a real medical emergency.
Jeff: Tell us a little bit about what, if anything, the government agencies are doing to try and deal with the public health consequences of this?
Judith: Our government has been probably the biggest nightmare of this entire fiasco. I mean, you can get through a natural catastrophe if you know that you’ve got a government that’s standing with you that’s going to provide all the resources and things that are needed. We had a Prime Minister that went on holidays in Hawaii. We had a National Emergencies Minister that went on holidays in Italy. At the time, neither of them took it seriously. This government is run by right wing evangelical zealots who genuinely believe that the rapture is going to come and their God is going to come down and lift them bodily up to heaven, leaving all the heathens to burn and it’s become very clear that the Australian population are the heathens that are going to be left to burn. The only measures that were taken were very, very late in the day after our Prime Minister had been humiliated by the press because of his attitude, because he kept going to the media and saying that this had nothing to do with climate change.
Judith: And in fact everybody who tried to link it to climate change was making light of the catastrophe. He was saying things like that. They were saying the government would make no changes to reflect the fires, in terms of their climate policy. And then he was making these snide comments like, I don’t know why I’m being criticized. It’s not like I could put the fires out by myself. So it was just zero, zero leadership. But after he’d been suitably chastised, he then decided to call in the army without consulting the fire chiefs or any of the regional fire services. And so it was a completely pointless gesture. They couldn’t be properly utilized. He’s refused to compensate firefighters for their lost income because the vast majority of people out fighting the fires are volunteers. We just didn’t have the fire force that we needed to be able to deal with this.
Judith: So all of the volunteer firefighters that went out through organizations like the rural fire service he has refused to compensate. Then he made this announcement that he would compensate some fire volunteers but only if they ran their own businesses. So this is this kind of weird thing that he was doing and, and he still overlooked the fact that probably half the people out there fighting these fires and people who are just in their daily jobs, they might work in a bank or whatever and just the circumstances being so extreme, they’ve had to go out and spend thousands and thousands of dollars on fire hoses and pumps and trucks and things so that they can defend their land. We really feel we’ve been abandoned actually by this government.
Jeff: Talk about the actual amount of damage to both life and property. We get reports here in the States and not all of it is consistent and I suspect not all of it is accurate.
Judith: Well, I mean in New South Wales, the state I’m in, we’ve lost 28 firefighters since Christmas and some of them to circumstances that nobody could have imagined possible like a fire tornado that picked up a fire truck that weighed 10 ton and threw it. So there’s been things like that. Human beings have done pretty well out of this. We’ve lost property and there’ll be a lot of people that have got very serious PTSD, mental health conditions and probably ongoing respiratory conditions, people have been burned. So there’ve been enormous amounts of suffering, but comparatively few deaths. But we’ve lost a billion animals and birds. We can’t even really know the extent of it. It’s about a billion now. It will go up. We probably lost, I guess, 20% of the surviving koala population and koala was already endangered. So the loss to animals and birds is extreme.
Judith: The loss of property, I guess in New South Wales, we’ve lost about two and a half thousand houses. But that doesn’t take into account other structures like sheds or people who live in caravans or those kinds of things. So a lot of people have been made homeless or they’ve lost their businesses. And then there are these follow-on effects too. I mean, this is the summer, and in summer every Australian who possibly can goes to the South Coast, and the South Coast business period is right now.
Judith: But the South Coast, everybody was forced onto the beaches by the fire, force you to the sea you by the fire, rescued by the Navy. And so all of those businesses are going under because nobody is there to buy anything. And then we look at the longer terms effects to I mean, our farms have burned and what that’s going to do in terms of our food security over the next year while it regenerates, nobody knows. And I guess most terrifying for me is we know what trees contribute to the management of the climate in terms of absorbing carbon and all of that. And to lose the Great Dividing Range, which is probably where the bulk of our trees are, we just don’t know what that’s going to mean for us in the long run.
Jeff: What is anticipated to be the long-term impact of losing a billion animals?
Judith: Nobody knows. We just don’t know. We know that some animals are very resilient and come back. Like kangaroos here would survive a nuclear blast probably. And the wombats, everybody’s been expressing a lot of love for the wombats because they’ve got wombat holes and they’ve been allowing other animals into their wombat holes, which is just this amazing thing. And we had a lovely good news story too the other day that the rural fire service, so volunteers, again, not our government, took it upon themselves secretly to go into the national park in around Sydney and to protect the Wollemi Pines, who are our dinosaur pine trees, the oldest pine trees we have and they are standing because of those individuals.
Judith: So there are a lot of good news stories, but the animals, I mean there are thousands and thousands of volunteers now walking through the fire fields, trying to pull out injured animals, trying to save those that can be saved, try to bury those that aren’t. And the livestock we lost a lot of as well. There were at least, two or three herds of cattle near me that died from smoke inhalation and in fact my friend and I lost a calf from smoke inhalation we had inside the hallway of the house, but just its little lungs couldn’t cope. So there’ll be more deaths. Before the end of this fire season, there’ll be many, many more deaths.
Jeff: Is there something that the international community could do that it’s not doing that would be helpful to the country at this point?
Judith: Yes. Everybody needs to watch what is happening here because we are the canary in the coal mine. And Australia was always going to be the first place where you could see the tangible evidence of the climate changing. We stupidly allowed a right-wing zealot climate denialist to become our Prime Minister and we’re all guilty of that. The people who voted for that guy, and I just want to say I’m not one of them, but the people who voted for that guy, they already know now what they’re responsible for. There’s very few people in this country that would be confused about that. But the rest of us are just as complicit because if he had threatened to detonate a nuclear warhead over Sydney, we would have overthrown him.
Judith: And basically, the damage that he will have caused by his inaction on climate change, not just the inaction, his belligerent opposition of any action on climate change has caused a similar amount of destruction. This is going to come to you, particularly you in America, because you’ve got in many parts of America, you’ve got a landscape that’s not dissimilar to us. You’ve got a President whose views are controlled by the evangelical masses who believes that he will be exempt from anything that occurs on your landscape.
Judith: If it is here now, it will be there soon. And I think what, what everybody really wants is for what has happened here to matter. We can’t do very much now except for sort of try to put measures in place to save what’s left. To try to help people rebuild. There’d been enormous efforts worldwide to raise money to help us and we’re incredibly grateful for that. But I think what really needs to happen is people have got to see that this is going to happen to them personally unless they get out there and they get rid of those crazy zealots that have had the loudest voice for the longest time.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the climate and how different it is there now than it might have been 10 years ago. What have you seen change?
Judith: Oh, there have been phenomenal changes. The interesting thing is, I guess there was always this view that the climate would change gradually and then every year would get sort of a little bit hotter. And I think a lot of people who were nervous about that thought, well we might adapt and evolve. Maybe we will get used to hotter and hotter temperatures. And that has happened to a degree, but the really clear changes were sudden. I’ve seen places in the Tanami Desert for example, where the sand on the ground has been fused to glass by the heat. And mentioning that to people previously and people would say, well it’s obviously, there must’ve been a fire there, but there’s nothing there to burn.
Judith: So there was this idea that the air couldn’t possibly have ignited. So this is impossible. But now in these fires, everybody has a photograph of fire in the air. The air has ignited. So this is not just a case of, we’re concerned that people’s houses are going to burn down or we might lose our trees. What does it mean when the air is catching fire? What does that mean for all of us?
Jeff: Talk a little bit about whether or not there is anything, even if there were a new government in place there tomorrow, is there anything that could be done that could be mitigated to deal with any of this right now?
Judith: Right now we are in crisis mode. We’ve all been in crisis mode for sort of eight weeks and there have been periods where that crisis has been so terrifying that now, that we’ve had this tiny little bit of rain and a little space where we can all go home and shower and sleep, it feels almost like we’re overstating things to say that we’re in crisis mode. But everybody is addicted to their fire apps. We’re watching, every person in this country knows where every fire is and we’re all stockpiling water. Water has been a massive, massive issue. We need to do something about the water fast. The Queensland government in the height of this fire granted a license to a Chinese company to mine 96 million liters of water a year from our underground rivers, 96 million liters a year. The day after they granted that license, they put water restrictions on farmers of 80 liters of water per person per day, which then seriously hampered their ability to defend themselves from fire.
Judith: So we’re dealing with that. Where I live now, everybody in my area has no water left. We’ve got maybe, I guess a tenth of a water tank left. We’ve been told by the regional fire service that we’re on our own because they have to prioritize the towns where more people live. So we’re all trying to fight fires on our own with our own water, but we have no water. The two major rivers have stopped flowing, so there’s no water. The town that’s closest to me, which is Braidwood, has run out of water and they’re now buying water for the town from Canberra. We’re running out of water. Water is going to become like gold for us. So we need to invest very seriously in dealing with our water crisis. Then we need to think very seriously about how we rebuild. There were catastrophic fires, not like the ones we’ve got now obviously, we’ve never seen anything like we’ve had now.
Judith: But in 2003 there were catastrophic fires in Canberra that went through the pine forest and came into the city. And everybody said when we rebuild, we’ll build fireproof houses and we won’t put the pine forest back in. But of course industry dictated that we put the pine forest back in. And the building industry wanted to make prefab cheap houses and so the city is just as vulnerable now as it was in 2003. We need to bring in very, very serious laws about how we reconstruct. And then we need to put measures in place to adhere to these lists and protect as much as possible every single bit of forest, every tree that we actually have left. We’ve got to do that and we need to seriously curb our production of fossil fuels, which by the way, we’re not just depleting our own landscape, we’re disseminating it around the world so that everybody else can contribute as well.
Judith: I’m leading a group of a hundred women on motorcycles in March up to Tennant Creek, which is a little town in the desert, to prevent a company from fracking the waterway, which runs across the central desert and feeds all of the communities across that place. So despite all the rhetoric, all the hopes-and-prayers rhetoric, which we seem to have inherited from your government, and now our prime minister, who’s like Scott mini… he’s Trump mini-me. He’s basically rolling them all out. But in spite of all that rhetoric and all this talk about standing with the people, we are just as committed to supporting the fossil fuel industry as we ever were.
Jeff: Is there any kind of consensus at this point with respect to what needs to be done, even if the election were held tomorrow, would there be any kind of unity about this?
Judith: If the election were tomorrow, this government would sink like a stone. And if you look at a map of where the major fires are and you look at a map of who voted for the liberal government, there’s a lot of fire in those communities. I think it’s one thing to turn a blind eye and say, well, they’re not good on the climate, but at least we won’t get taxed so much. But if you’re standing in front of the ashes of your own home, it’s harder to say that. And there’ve been a lot of letters, open letters written by fervent supporters of this current government who have said, I supported you right up to the moment where I was sheltering my children on a beach with fire at my back and now I don’t stand with you anymore.
Judith: And I guess this comes back to what I was saying before is, we’re all guilty in one way or another of letting our idealism determine our vote. Part of that is like yes, because we think we’re one person and our votes not going to make such a massive difference. But when that fire is at your doorstep, when your children are wearing gas masks to sleep at night. No, it’s different.
Jeff: Judith Crispin, I thank you so much for spending some time with us.
Judith: Thank you so much Jeff.
Jeff: I really appreciate it. Thank you. And be safe.
Judith: Okay, bye.
Jeff: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gary Danvers Collection / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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