Land of drought and rain floods

Australians are doing all they can to fight the devastating fires. But there have been worse bushfires. Nor is the drought primarily attributable to climate change, writes Australia’s former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. He has recently been part of the fire fighting mission as deputy captain of the Davidson Rural Fire Brigade.

Reporters from France and Norway - as well as numerous local ones - were present in the small Australian hamlet of Adaminaby when my fire crew pulled in last week. The bushfires - that had been raging for more than four months and had devastated big chunks of our eastern states - hadn’t just mesmerized Australians. They’d begun to fascinate much of the world through footage of kangaroos fleeing past blazing buildings. Was this just another instance of the perils of living in a “wide brown land” or did it presage the future for many countries in the era of global warming?

To the former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins, more fires are our fate if mankind (and especially Australia) doesn’t act faster to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Like me, Greg is also a volunteer with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. I’ve served on the fire ground with him, and he’s an exemplary fire fighter and inspires great confidence as a leader. But while these fires are probably the worst ever experienced in some parts of the country, in my judgment, it’s a mistake to attribute them mainly to climate change.


So far, about 8 million hectares with 2000 homes have been destroyed in these fires and 26 people have died. But 5 million hectares were burnt out in just a few days in the Black Thursday bushfires in Victoria way back in 1851. More than a hundred million hectares were burnt out in the 1974 fire season. And 2000 homes were lost and 173 people died in the Black Saturday bushfire horror of 2009. Australia has always been a land of “drought and flooding rain” and will doubtless remain so regardless of the extent to which human intervention might be changing the climate.


Unusually for an Australian natural disaster, the focus hasn’t mainly been on the efforts of emergency personnel and the government’s work to prevent, to mitigate or to recover from these tragedies. From the start, the role of climate change has been front and centre of public discussion, even though shortly before these fires really got going, one of Australia’s leading climate scientists, Professor Andy Pitman, said that it was impossible to attribute the current drought largely to climate change and that the incidence of drought hadn’t increased over the last century.


Australia is actually on track to meet its Paris emissions reduction targets, unlike many of the countries that most righteously proclaim that climate change is the biggest issue facing the planet. Despite this, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was actually snubbed by some bushfire victims, although it’s lightning strikes and arson - not climate change - that had ignited these fires.


Meanwhile, far from media conferences and opinion page contention, tens of thousands of largely volunteer fire fighters have been doing what they can to protect communities. I had always said to my brigade that when I ceased being a full time politician I’d be a full time fireman, little realizing how much fire fighting there’d be this summer.


Since early September, volunteers have put their lives on hold to fight fires. Three five-day deployments to fires in the north of the state and, more recently, three five day deployments to the south; plus, in between, nine single day deployments for fires around Sydney that I’ve been on, would be typical for many of the RFS’ 50,000 plus volunteers.


Employers have made sacrifices to release staff and self-employed people have forgone their income to serve the community in a time of trouble. As well as the fire fighters, there’s been a small army of volunteers from community organizations providing meals; with vast numbers of police, road gangs, and power workers to keep fire impacted roads closed and to clear fallen trees and to get the power back on after fire fronts have passed. More recently, thanks to the PM, there’s been an unprecedented deployment of the army to help with a domestic disaster. Soon, there will be rebuilding on a massive scale in the small towns that have suffered most.


For all the firefighters, there are moments of apprehension when confronting 15 metre high walls of flame. But there’s also deep satisfaction at being able to help in a desperate situation when lives and property are under severe threat. And it’s not just people. On the north coast, for instance, my crew was able to keep fire from a tree where a koala was sheltering.


A week or so back, when crews from the Northern Beaches of Sydney had stopped to refill our trucks in the small south coast town of Milton, the publican invited us in for coffee and something to eat. On our way out all the patrons stood to applaud. To me, that’s the spirit of Australia: people doing what they can to help, whether it’s doing the actual job, helping others to do the job, or just encouraging everyone else as they get on with it. Sure, we have our arguments over politics but overcoming the immediate threat always comes first.



Tony Abbott was Australia’s 28th Prime Minister and has served in the Davidson Rural Fire Brigade where he’s a deputy captain since 2000



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