Australian wildfires strike home for ex-pat living in Victoria

Blazes a ‘total wake-up call’ on climate

Tony Aston has heard for a long time that climate change could mean the end of the world for humans.

But ever since he learned that his parents had lost their home to the wildfires ravaging Australia, that possibility feels more real.

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“It’s absolutely devastating waking up at two in the morning and just looking at the map and seeing the whole country on fire — it’s just so sad,” said Aston, who moved to Victoria two and a half years ago. “This is huge.”

When a notice went out saying it was too late to evacuate the area where his parents live and he didn’t hear from them for more than a day, the crisis hit home. (The toll of the wildfires was also brought home for Islanders this week when a firefighting air tanker owned by Port Alberni-based Coulson Aviation crashed in New South Wales, killing all three crew members.)

After hours of worrying and refreshing the news for updates, Aston received a message from his parents that they were safe. They’d made it to a neighbour’s house, but didn’t have any power.

Aston’s parents lived on nearly 40 hectares in the Nariel Valley, a rural region in the southeastern state of Victoria, about 350 kilometres southwest of Canberra. They bought the property in part because it was home to significant biodiversity that they wanted to help conserve.

An awareness of climate change and the importance of protecting the environment was big in Aston’s family. His parents met in one of the first environmental courses offered at their university, and his dad was a lead author on a report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body that provides governments with scientific information to guide climate policy. Published in 2000, the report discussed technologies that support coastal adaptation to climate change.

There’s nothing left now of the home that Aston’s father spent the last year building and perfecting after retiring from a career in environmental work. His parents lost irreplaceable belongings to the blaze. They’re safe now, staying with Aston’s brother in Sydney.

“Obviously this is absolutely devastating for my family, but then there’s people who may not have family they can go to and stay at, and their lives may be totally destroyed. My parents can hopefully come back and rebuild, but not everyone is in a position to do that,” he said.

To Aston, his parents’ displacement is a tangible reminder of the consequences of climate change.

“It just becomes so real all of a sudden,” he said. “Just a total wake-up call.”

Aston is disappointed by the Australian government’s reluctance to link the fires to climate change, however.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been criticized for what many perceive as weak climate policies. His response to the wildfires has sparked protests in cities across the country calling for climate action and demanding that he be removed from office.

Aston points out that science has shown for decades that human activity is changing the climate in drastic ways, but it’s only in recent years that governments and individuals have started to act.

Aston hopes people in Victoria realize that Canada and B.C. are not immune to what’s happening in Australia.

“It could happen anywhere,” he said. “So I hope that people are ready and I hope that people are taking it seriously.”

One way that Aston takes action is through his diet. He stopped eating meat and dairy five years ago after researching the environmental impacts of animal agriculture. He urges others to consider changing their diets for the environment.

More than 200 wildfires in Australia have burned an area almost the size of the island of Newfoundland. At least 27 people have been killed and more than 2,000 homes destroyed since September. An estimated 800 million animals have been killed in New South Wales, which borders the state of Victoria to the south.

Johan Feddema, geography department chair and professor at the University of Victoria, said scientists can’t link one specific event, such as the Australian wildfires, to climate change, but the fires fit the pattern of extreme weather scientists expect climate change to bring.

Feddema pointed to intense hurricanes, drought and heat waves as other examples of recent extreme-weather events. “The fact that they’re intensifying matches what we’re expecting.”

While more people are becoming aware of these extreme events, the slow pace of climate change doesn’t encourage action, he said. “People don’t respond well to non-urgent things.”

Feddema compares climate change to the fable about a frog in boiling water, in which the animal boils alive in a pot of tepid water that’s slowly brought to a boil. If the same frog were put directly into a pot of boiling water, it would jump out, but the gradual change is imperceptible until it’s too late.

“Climate change is like the boiling water pot, slowing cooking us,” Feddema said. “We still need to convince half the population.”

He encouraged people to inform themselves by reading the summaries of recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Make up your own mind based on data that’s out there,” he said, adding the next step is to consider how to live using fewer resources.

Feddema agreed with Aston that removing meat from a western diet is one way to significantly reduce an individual’s strain on resources, because meat takes a lot of energy, water and food crops to produce.

Werner Kurz, a senior research scientist with Natural Resources Canada who has more than three decades of experience working on issues related to climate change, says Australia’s recent experience is a cautionary tale for the rest of the world, including B.C.

Kurz, who also leads the Forest Carbon Management project for the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at UVic, was in Australia over Christmas on a trip he had booked a year earlier.

On his way to Sydney on his second-to-last day in the country, he drove through more than 600 kilometres of thick smoke that was 10 to 20 times the permissible level for health. It was something Kurz said he’s never experienced before and helped him understand the extent of the fires.

Like Feddema, Kurz cautioned against attributing one event to climate change, but said scientific models indicate extreme-weather events such as wildfires will become more common if global temperatures continue to rise.

A recent UVic study has shown that the area burned in 2017 B.C. wildfires was seven to 11 times greater because of human-caused climate warming.

“If we do not get this global warming issue under control — and we’re certainly not doing a good job on that right now — then we will see more of these fires around the world in the future,” Kurz said. “What we experienced in B.C. in 2017 and 2018 will be repeated in the coming decades, likely with even greater area burned.”

Kurz called the wildfires in Australia and elsewhere a warning about the consequences of continued droughts and extreme weather due to climate warming, and a reminder of the urgency to achieve significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.

“We need to recognize that the longer we wait, and the more we make climate change worse, the more difficult it will be to reduce greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere, because natural ecosystems are already emitting carbon at an accelerating rate,” he said.

Kurz noted that extreme wildfires release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which contributes to rising temperatures globally. “In other words, the warming is feeding the warming,” he said.

During B.C.’s 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons, which set records for the area burned, the fires released three times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than all other sectors in B.C. combined per year, Kurz said.

Although the amount of emissions released by the fires burning in Australia is not yet known, Kurz said they’re significant and will further contribute to global warming.

Individuals need to become more aware of their carbon footprint, Kurz said, and explore how to reduce their impact by making different choices in areas such as transportation, home heating, frequency of flying and diet.

A sixth contingent of Canadian wildfire personnel travelled to Australia last week, including 23 from B.C., bringing the total deployed from this province to 42. The first deployment of Canadians, which included seven from B.C., returned home in early January.

Until last week, the Canadians were involved only on the firefighting-management side, but the latest deployment includes 20 B.C. firefighters who will be battling the blazes on the ground alongside Australians, many of whom are volunteer firefighters.

Kevin Cochrane, a wildfire technician and aviation specialist based out of the Coastal Fire Centre in Errington, was part of the first wave of Canadians to head Down Under to help.

He was deployed to Glen Innis in New South Wales, about an eight-hour drive north of Sydney, where he worked in a command centre as an air-operations manager. He was responsible for aviation staff and managing aircraft that are used mainly for dumping buckets of water on the fires.

Cochrane, who has 29 years of wildfire-fighting experience, said there are a few differences between the fires in Australia and those that occur in B.C. that help to explain why the Australian wildfires have become “mega fires,” with some covering more than one million hectares.

He said the fires have spread in part because of the composition of Australian forests, where eucalyptus trees, gum trees and tea trees grow in abundance. Those fuel types — which are different from those in B.C. — create embers that can travel up to 20 kilometres from a main fire, sparking new fires over a wide area.

“Once you have fires starting to spot with that great a distance, it really becomes next to impossible to try to put any control lines in that are going to stop the fire,” Cochrane said.

Another significant factor is the drought conditions that set the stage for fires to start and spread easily, and dried up water reserves that could be used to extinguish flames.

Locals told Cochrane that they hadn’t seen rain for nearly two years. Cochrane saw rivers and creeks that were “bone dry,” with no evidence that water had been running for a long time.

When the region was hit with dry lightning in September, “it didn’t take long under those conditions for the crews to be overwhelmed by the volume of fires,” Cochrane said. “As long as it stays dry down there, it’s just going to continue. The fires are just so large, you just can’t physically get enough resources out on to them.

“They really need more rain and they need more widespread rain.”

B.C. had busy fire seasons in 2015, 2017 and 2018, which Cochrane said might indicate a trend, but the province isn’t seeing the same drought conditions as Australia.

“We would really need to be concerned if we start recognizing and hearing from our experts that we’re in drought conditions and leading into that type of a season,” Cochrane said.

It’s too early now to predict what the conditions will look heading into the next fire season, but Cochrane said the fire service will need to be ready.

“We will need to wait and see.”

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

— With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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