The bush fires and the impact on Australia

The sixth mass extinction began some time ago and has accelerated rapidly with the large scale destruction of habitat around the world. But in Australia, as a potential consequence of the bush fires that are ravaging the country, a mini-extinction might be in progress as hundreds of species that have been decimated by the bush fires face a struggle to survive.

The koala, a species classified as vulnerable, has suffered massive population loss in the Australian bush fires. As many as 30,000 may have been wiped out on Kangaroo Island alone. And this is just one of Australia’s many famous exotic animals that are likely to have suffered huge population losses in the bush fires thus far. Echidna’s, Wombat’s, all manner of reptiles – snakes, geckos, lizards, possibly some crocodiles, have suffered significant losses. The total toll is already thought to be about 1 billion – not a typo – and likely to rise further as fire ravaged areas are checked.

But also at the height of the bush fires at the start of January, it was feared that not only was the flora and fauna in grave danger, but it might also threaten the water supply for Sydney whose population is about 5 million people. The risk is complicated further by the fact that should significant rain suddenly fall, the ashes of burnt out vegetation and man made materials and goods will get washed into the rivers and reservoirs and lakes, contaminating the water and causing an ecological catastrophe among aquatic species.

Most summer festivals and regular sporting events are going ahead. The Boxing Day and New Years cricket tests in Melbourne and Sydney both went ahead on the understanding play might be stopped if atmospheric pollution levels get too high. The Australian Tennis Open is still going ahead, though the organizers have taken similar precautions to those in the case of the cricket.

1,400 houses have been lost thus far. 27 people have been killed by the bush fires. The economic toll, and an area bigger than the Netherlands has been burnt out. In a New Zealand context the area burnt out is almost as big as Canterbury.

But the biggest non-environmental impact might be political. Australia, a generally conservative nation, seems to have run out of patience with its climate change denying politicians. Protests in the streets have happened. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, despite his continuing defence of fossil fuels, has seen a massive slump in support for his Liberal Party government. His handling of the crisis has been ridiculed for his lack of compassion, disconnect with suffering communities and stubborn defence of the very fuel sources many believe are causing the climate change that is making the fires possible. Mr Morrison has been coldly received in many bush fire affected towns and even told to leave in others.

With the bush fires still burning in many places and some merging with others to create what are being called mega fires, this is far from finished, with the hottest month not yet here, the worst might actually be still to come…

Australian bush fires raise questions about bush fire safety in New Zealand

As we continue to watch the bush fire crisis in Australia and marvel at the work being done to save the various animals, it is important we check on our own preparedness in New Zealand for bush fires. As climate change takes hold some provinces are going to get drier and become more prone to them, and the Australian bush fires have mos probably shown that if anything, we are not ready.

Whilst arson has contributed some fires to the tally of active events around Australia, they do not account for the biggest or the most damaging. They would not have necessarily gotten established without the help prolonged drought conditions that have afflicted much of the east or the prolonged high temperatures – Australia has been increasingly afflicted by heatwaves that have pushed temperatures frequently into the mid-high 40 degree celsius range.

Once established, bush fires can take on a life of their own. They can create their own weather, which some of the current ones are doing. Pyrocumulus is cumulus cloud created by up drafts from the fires dragging particulate high enough that water vapour starts condensing around it. Pyrocumulonimbus are cumulonimbus clouds that are created by the same phenomena, and like any cumulonimbus they can create lightning. This is happening right now. The pyronado is a tornadic feature spawned by a localised rapidly rotating up drafts caused by the fires. Short lived and unpredictable they can move rapidly.

Bush fires do not affect just their immediate area. Fanned by strong winds the real front is actually not the fire/s, but an area several hundred metres in front in of them where burning embers are landing. If you are in that area, it is time to leave, and leave quickly. If you have another plan, that is the time it needs to be actioned.

A number of other man made factors have hindered the Australian response to their bush fire emergency. They include but are not limited to:

  • Specialist planes that can pick up water and dump it on fires were considered by the Australian government and then the idea was scratched
  • The Rural Fire Service went through a period of having an alleged bad culture among its members and management that caused significant numbers of firefighters to walk away
  • Some brigades are using heavily out dated equipment, including trucks that are not up to the modern requirements of firefighting
  • Federal Government has been slow to acknowledge the need for monetary compensation for firefighters who gave up their regular jobs to help with the fire fighting

The bush fires in Australia invariably raise questions about protecting New Zealanders from scrub fires, which are a regular occurrence during summer. In provinces like Canterbury, Otago, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough these can start and spread rapidly. In inland areas sometimes only helicopter access is available to those fighting the fires. Whilst we probably do not need water bombing aircraft, helicopters with the capacity to do that would be useful.

City, District and Regional Councils may or may not have factored bush fires into their hazard planning strategies. If not these will now need to be revisited under comparative urgency, lest they experience the problems Christchurch has had following its 2017 Port Hills fire, where a sudden change in wind direction and flammable material meant that fire fighters lost control of a fire they thought was contained. 11 houses were lost.

This also raises questions about the types of vegetation we should be planting. Clearly around urban areas and in hilly terrain where firefighting might be difficult, eucalyptus and other highly flammable vegetation potentially becomes dangerous.

Dear Australia

Dear Australia

We, you and New Zealand, are two old friends much like family. Two countries with over 100 years of knowing each other in ways not many countries get to know their neighbours. Through two world wars, where we stood side by side in the grimmest of conditions – the baking sun of Gallipoli; the hellish muddy quagmire of Ypres; in North Africa in World War 2. Through peace time we have stood side by side – in your bush fires of 2009 and now; in the aftermath of the Christchurch quakes and the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. There aren’t too many times you will see Aussie police get a standing ovation in a New Zealand airport, but you got that when you arrived to help Christchurch. And maybe in the next few days you will get to see N.Z. Defence Force assets and realise we’ve come to help.

These last couple of months have been rather grim for you haven’t they? Months of watching a bushfire monstrosity form before your very eyes in a country well known for being dry, but also covered in highly flammable vegetation has been pretty horrendous to watch.

You have been ruthlessly challenged by the very worst of firestorm behaviour. You have had to watch fires so big that they created their own weather – the updraughts cause by the heat of the fires has been strong enough to create its own weather including pyrocumulus and pyrocumulonimbus clouds. The latter have, as cumulonimbus’ are prone to doing, generated lightning. Some fires have generated firestorm conditions where they generate their own inflow winds that are strong enough to move vehicles about, similar to the firestorms in Tokyo, Dresden and Hamburg created by military bombing in World War 2.

These conditions, combined with the handiwork of a small band of arseholes, has spawned a monster showing no sign of losing its rapacious appetite for destruction.

For myself and my fellow New Zealanders this has been horrible to watch on television, a topic threading itself through all sorts of other conversations among friends and colleagues, family and strangers. Whereas we have seen bush fires in the past in Australia and felt sympathy for the families affected, the sheer scale of what is happening this time, drags in a whole lot of other emotions such as horror (the suffering of people and animals), pain (mental anguish at the devastation to lives), despair (when will this end), frustration.

We have had our moments when we haven’t seen eye to eye – defence, refugees, climate change and treatment of New Zealanders – but all of this pales into relative insignificance when we look at the headlines, day in day out. And when it becomes one of the big stories overseas, even – if only briefly – interrupting Fox News’ non-stop coverage of impeachment proceedings, Iran and the election, you realise it is one of the stories of the year. A sad indictment that Australia’s most horrible peacetime moment since the Black Saturday bush fires of 2009 is what it takes to focus media attention.

So, not surprisingly it was almost with relief that I heard New Zealand Minister of Defence Ron Mark announce the deployment of New Zealand Army and Royal New Zealand Air Force assets in Australia to assist. In that most Aussie and Kiwi way of being brothers and sisters in arms during war, we are also brothers and sisters in peace fighting the very menace that causes our skies to go all sorts of brilliant orange and red.

Look after yourself Australia. These are painful times. And much as I am disappointed with the cricket, it does not even register when I see what my Australian friends are suffering.

Kia Kaha!

The utopian dream versus the dystopian nightmare: Part 2

Dystopia, the opposite of utopia, describes a society that has strongly undesirable characteristics. It is translated as “not a good place”, and would be possibly similar to what George Orwell describes in his novel “1984” where society is distinctly unwelcoming in all facets.

Whereas a utopian society would not allow a disaster like the Grenfell tower fire in London or the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown to happen, a dystopian society would make a major effort to cover up the disaster, arresting people who asked too many questions, blocking media from finding out what happened. Instead of asking for assistance, the authorities might decide to uniformly evacuate the area around the disaster and turn it into a no go zone. If it involves civilian attempts at showing dissent, the response may be decidedly ugly with a military response like the Chinese employed in Tiananmen Square, with thousands being rounded up.

Agencies relating to social welfare, housing, justice and so forth may be disempowered or completely disbanded. Any remaining functions simple to dispense to those who can afford it. If one cannot afford rental accommodation it is not the problem of the state.

The range of powers and responsibilities that the police have will expand so that a degree of immunity to infractions such as arbitrary detention of those classed as undesirables, denial of legal aid and so forth exists. Rather than being a force for societal good, they start to become the visible enforcement of the state’s will.

The economics of a dystopian society are distinctly unfriendly to all but the wealthiest. Power and wealth assist each other in a relationship that becomes addictive: more wealth means more power and vice versa. A distinct few have near complete control of all of the natural resources, the infrastructure and media. The state assets such as the electricity grid, the railways, the telecommunications are all sold off to investors not based in the country. The wealthy few live a clearly disconnected life from the rest, with trappings that 99% of people probably do know about.

A dystopian techno-state where traditional forms of media simply disappear – newspapers die out or are subsumed – might form. Radio is either taken over and digitized or taken off air altogether. So-called undesirables can be electronically blocked on a system so that they are completely cut off from information and news. Pay screens that only open up to paid subscribers becomes the norm. The same state might use electronic algorithms to monitor peoples internet and media worth, building up a profile as China is currently doing that form a profile on a completely unsuspecting target human

Fear is an instrument used to keep the masses in line. It might be expressed in subtle things such as running adverts asking if you trust your neighbour, your family and friends. Are certain types of activity such as social activism, community groups and the like some sort of menace? Cameras are watching your every move in public. You have no say over what they see and what happens to the footage, or who can use it. To give effect to this, enforcement instruments such as curfews where one has to be in their house by a certain time; segregated areas where ethnic or social minorities are banished to with notably poorer infrastructure and amenities may show up.

Dystopian society can creep in, slowly like the shadows moving. It might be confused at times with increasing authoritarianism, as some of the traits are distinctly so. It does not make overt moves unless politicians with authoritarian ideas have managed to take power.

New Zealand has fortunately not shown any overtly dystopian notions but we only have to look across the Tasman Sea to Australia to see flashes of dystopia manifesting. The out pouring of grief following the 15 March 2019 terrorist attacks might not have happened in another western country. In Australia a combination of traditional conservatism mixing with overt hatred of minorities, topped off with a burning paranoia about refugees and asylum seekers, has seen Australian Government ministers show almost callous disregard for minorities.



The election result no one saw coming

Nobody saw it coming: An Australian Liberal Party victory that even stunned its leader, Scott Morrison, who whilst hoping for a miracle, must have been a nervous man throughout Saturday as millions of Australians voted in the Federal Government elections.

I was just as stunned this morning when I read that Australia had returned the Liberal National coalition to office for a third term as I imagine most of the left-wing of Australia’s political spectrum were last night. It reminded me of New Zealand Labour’s slump to their disastrous 2014 defeat against New Zealand National, where Labour barely managed to hold its ground, let alone make inroads into National. In the aftermath of that election Labour leader David Cunliffe found himself walking the gang plank as Labour plunged into another round of blood letting. After a while they settled on giving Andrew Little a go.

It does not look like there will be any of that in this Australian Labor Party. At the same time he was making his concession speech, Labor leader Bill Shorten also announced his resignation as leader of the Party and indicated that he would maintain his seat in Maribyrnong. Already deputy leader Tanya Pilbersek and fellow Labor M.P. Anthony Albanese are lining up as candidates, and with the dust still settling on the election, it is possible that others may yet join.

For Labor and Green party candidates this will have been a horrible night. A night in which, right up to the close of polls Labor had been expected to take office had been snatched from right beneath their feet. Apparently climate change, refugees, Australia’s support of Trump, the Centre Link debacle and the hugely disproportionate spread of wealth across the country are not priorities to Australia. Far better to listen to Peter Dutton rabbiting on about refugees taking Australian jobs and offering nothing but criminal activity appears to be the verdict of Dickson voters.

In some respects though this has actually been a very modest swing to the centre. Shorn of Toxic Tony (Abbott), the Liberals appear to have realized some of their fringe members are a liability. But most of the swing has probably come from the apparent demise of One Nation, a refugee and Aborigine hating, gun loving, climate change denying mob from the Queensland woop woops, led by Pauline Hanson. I guess that is the price paid for having a certain Member of Parliament launch a ferocious and totally uncalled for attack on refugees on the same day 50 were slaughtered at Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. No great loss to see him getting egged by the electorate.

So, in conclusion, much as it pains me to say so, Congratulations must go to Prime Minister-elect Scott Morrison and his Liberal Party who might yet be able to form a government without National assisting. Right through out his time as Prime Minister, even when Labour had opened up a 5-point lead in the two party preferred stakes, Mr Morrison consistently led Mr Shorten in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, sometimes by as much as 9 points. And during the last two months whilst Labor still maintained a lead in the polls, Mr Morrison managed to close the two party preferred to within 2 points of Labor.

Where Mr Morrison goes from here with his Liberal or Liberal/__________ coalition remains to be seen. However, tax cuts are a certainty, as is a deadening lack of progress on Australia’s abomination of a refugee and lack of constructive indigenous policy.