Asia Pacific / Science & Health | FOCUS

Australian way of life going up in smoke in new normal of bush fires

by Angus Whitley

Bloomberg

The fabric of Australian life — the sun-licked, outdoor way of healthy living that has drawn people to the continent for decades — is under assault.

The unprecedented wildfires that have killed at least 28 people, incinerated an area almost the size of England and blanketed cities with toxic smoke have also dealt a psychological blow to the nation. Many Australians dread that more of these extreme weather-driven catastrophes could threaten the fresh-air lifestyle for which the nation is famous.

“This is going to change the whole way we organize our lives,” said Angela Rintoul, a 39-year-old health policy researcher from Melbourne who was stranded in the beach-side resort of Mallacoota on the southeast coast with her 17-month-old son, Rex, partner and parents when fire swept into town in the final days of 2019.

They sheltered in a cinema with about 650 others as flames raced through the main street. Rintoul and her family were eventually evacuated on an Australian Navy transport ship. She fears it may become too risky to spend summer vacations at the beach or in the wilderness.

Rintoul said the crisis — which has burned more than 10 million hectares (25 million acres) across all six Australian states, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and killed an estimated 1 billion animals — is making her think about bigger things than vacation plans: “our future in general, what we are leaving our children, and the world we are creating for them.”

Coordinating a nationwide response, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sent in 3,000 army reservists to help the largely volunteer rural fire services and committed 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.4 billion) for the recovery. Still, he has refused to step up efforts to curb carbon emissions at the expense of jobs and growth, instead focusing on practical steps Australia can take to become more resilient to climate-driven threats: building dams, clearing land and being more discriminating about where homes can be built.

But it is beyond any government to control the climate. Australia’s crisis is a wake-up call for individuals to shake off the lethargy that has long blighted efforts to slow global warming and take personal responsibility for the impact it is having on their lives.

Australian kids, reared on outdoor play and sunscreen, have been shuttered inside this fire season to escape what at times has been the most dangerous air on the planet. Cherished beaches have been turned into refuges of last resort for thousands of vacationers escaping massive fires tearing through forested coastal communities. Dozens of national parks — home to remote walks and camping grounds, eucalyptus trees, wallabies and koalas — have closed even if they haven’t burned out.

This trajectory has parallels in wildfire-ravaged California, perhaps Australia’s most obvious equivalent in the Northern Hemisphere. Both Australia and the Golden State have hot and dry summers, beaches, forests and vineyards, and both appear to be on a collision course with a changing climate.

The warnings about the frequency and severity of Australia’s bush fires have been sounded by government scientists and the United Nations since at least 2007. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, dangerous bush-fire conditions are becoming more common, with the season starting earlier in southern and eastern parts of Australia.

It is difficult to overstate Australians’ affinity with the ocean, the beach and the “bush” — a catch-all reference to rural life. During the summer vacation season, which peaks in January, Australia’s urban populations drain into coastal bays and the green hinterlands. Towns swell with visitors, and campgrounds are suddenly thronged. This is where the fires have hit the hardest.

For those left in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne, summer is typically a period of barbecues, outdoor festivals and cooling swims in open-air pools. Bush fires are normally a distant distraction.

That changed on Nov. 11, when authorities said Sydney faced a “catastrophic” fire-danger rating for the first time. Since then, winds have sporadically blown in thick smoke from outlying blazes.

The rhythm is now different in the city, where grassy parks and famous sandy strips such as Bondi Beach usually bustle with runners, exercise classes and families.

Nicholas Chapman, who runs outdoor training sessions about 3 km from the Sydney Opera House at Rushcutters Bay, says the smoke on the worst days last month made his clients light-headed, dehydrated and short of breath, and his eyes started weeping. He has started moving classes indoors.

“It’s a big shift in how you think, how you live,” said Chapman. “I’ve got a little girl, and there’s been days when I haven’t taken her to the park to run around. When has an Australian had to think about that as a thing? That’s really sad.”

Kids are among those most at risk from the harmful particles in wood smoke, doctors say. The tiny matter can embed itself deep in the lungs, heightening the risks of cardiovascular and respiratory disease and cancer.

This fallout particularly worries Kathy Patrick, the general manager of Kidz Child Care, which has five centers for preschoolers in eastern New South Wales. This season’s smoke has kept children indoors more than ever, and Patrick said she had to temporarily close the southernmost site after fires reached Batemans Bay just before New Year’s.

“I feel it might be part of the new normal,” said Patrick, who has worked in the child care industry for more than two decades. “It’s going to be very sad for our children that they don’t have that outdoor play.”

Patrick, an asthmatic, said she has had to increase her medication and fears the children will develop more health issues. That enviable life she loved? “It’s kind of disappeared,” she said.

Even Australians who haven’t been directly affected by the fires have been saturated with images of the disaster: charred livestock, dying koalas, blow-torched properties and midmorning rural skies that have turned midnight black with smoke.

The pictures have been so distressing that it may deter people from visiting, said Simon Westaway, executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council, which represents more than 8,000 tourism businesses. “Our worry is this is really going to infringe on people’s minds,” said Westaway.

A new Tourism Australia ad fronted by singer Kylie Minogue, designed to target potential visitors from the U.K., instead highlights what has been lost in the bush fires. The three-minute video features golden beaches, koalas under blue Sydney skies and haze-free cricket matches.

Rob Vickers, owner of the Aussie Boatshed hire business in Forster, a coastal town over a three-hour drive north of Sydney, says the fires are already putting people off.

Bush fires north of Forster blanketed the town with smoke in October and deposited a scum of ash onto surrounding beaches. Vickers says kayak rentals dried up and demand hasn’t yet recovered.

“I think everyone was a bit too scared to leave their houses,” said Vickers, who was evacuated from his home twice last year because of the fire risk. “If we get this every summer, it would be devastating.”

Critics of those who link the crisis to climate change argue that Australia, the driest inhabited continent, is no stranger to fire and drought. But this is no ordinary cycle. Last year was the hottest since 1910 and the driest in data going back to 1900, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.

“This isn’t a flash in a pan,” said David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania who has studied bush fires in Australia for 40 years. “We’re going to have to change.”

Coronavirus banner