Australia on Fire

Parvez Mahmood offers a perspective from the communities most affected by the bush fires

Australia on Fire
Visiting Australia this southern summer, this scribe has experienced the ravages of climate change and its horrific effects on the lives of people. This continent-sized country has always been beset with summer bush fires. High temperatures and strong winds coupled with dry weather create conditions for easy ignition and rapid spread of fires across its grasslands and jungles. However, the fires this season have been extremely alarming and the year will go down as one of the worst ever in many aspects. The statics reveal the terrible extent of damage. As of mid January 2020, fires this season have burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometers; 72,000 square miles). That is more land area than Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg combined – and half the size of Germany. Fires have destroyed over 5,900 buildings, of which 3,000 are homes, and killed about 40 people including many firefighters. And the fire season is still not over. It is estimated by Prof Chris Dickman of University of Sydney, an authority on Australian biodiversity, that half a billion animals have been killed by the fires this season. There is an apprehension that the fires may have put the much adored Koala population on the road of extinction due to their large scale deaths and loss of their habitat. That would indeed be a terrible loss to life on this planet.

Since my arrival here, I have found it painful to see TV reports of 100 to 200 active fires at any given time, with some reported as out of control. The Guardian carried a report on the 24th of January that more than half the population of this vast country has been affected, directly or indirectly, by the fires. The fire departments frequently issue warnings for people of a certain area to leave immediately or, alarmingly, advising residents to take shelter as it was now too late to leave. One wonders, with wood-frame houses, where people can take shelter. The first light rain during the fires brought brown water pouring down. For a few days, tap water in Melbourne smelled of burnt wood. Smoke from the fires brought air quality of Sydney and Canberra, which is normally excellent, to being the worst in the entire world. Some government offices were closed in Canberra for a few days due to fear of lung ailments. Some matches in Australian Open in Melbourne had to be rescheduled due to poor air quality.

East Gippsland, a region in the far northeastern corner of Victoria, was projected to be the hardest hit by blazes. The area is home to about 80,000 residents and is a popular area for outdoor tourism. 4,000 of its residents and tourists were trapped and cut off at the coastal town of Mallacoota and had to be evacuated by naval ships.

Muslims and Christians pray together for relief from the bush fires

On Thursday, the 23rd of January, as I was trapped indoors in the persistent light rain and cool environment of Melbourne’s Lysterfield South neighbourhood, the news continued to be grim. A US C-130 aircraft, deployed on water bombing effort with a crew of three, went down over Cooma, about a hundred kilometers south of Canberra. Fires were reported out of control in Beard, Oaks Estate and West Queanbeyan; all in the vicinity of Canberra forcing closure of its airport. Even with widespread rain over the weekend in south eastern Australia, with golf-ball-sized hail in Melbourne and Canberra, there were still 70 fires burning across NSW, including 44 that were out of control and three at emergency level. The rain had nearly put out the fires in Victoria but 9news TV reported that the emergency services were preparing for some more bad times with forecast of temperatures rising above 30 degrees Celsius and wind speeds in excess of 80 km/hr. Meteorologist Kevin Parker reportedly grimly “We have gone from fires, storms, floods and giant hail stones the size of limes in Glen Iris producing widespread damage, to fire danger escalating on our doorstep.” The Australian newspaper of the 24th of January reported that after a scorching night, Sydney residents were bracing for some more violent stormy weather of rains, hails and winds. Fires impacted the tourist attractive sites on the eastern coast and in the mountains resulting in losses of about $5 billion. Australia’s tourism industry is worth $47 billion, contributes 3 percent to the economy and employs 5 percent of its people.

Australia is a vast continent and has different kinds of weather in its various areas. Its agricultural heartland is the plains on the west side of the Great Dividing Range that run north to south along its eastern coastline from Queensland in the north through NSW in the center to Victoria in the south. This area is drained by the Murray-Darling river system with its numerous tributaries. It produces 40% of the nation’s food and its agricultural income. It used to sustain large flocks of livestock for export and grow copious amounts of cotton, wheat, rice, almonds, oranges and grapes.

The area goes through periods of lean rainfall but the current drought is running into fourth year. Average yearly water flow in the Murray River is 9,000 giga-liters but that was reduced to 2,700 GL only in 2018. That is a drop of 66%. It is forecast that the water levels will reduce by a further 25%. This has resulted in damage to 50 to 80% of wetlands and a third of fresh water fish species are threatened with extinction. The Murray meets 40% of the water requirements of the city of Adelaide, and the quality and quantity of water has been severely affected, mainly due to high levels of salinity.

In Griffith NSW, in the heart of the agricultural region, I have numerous farmer friends who often take me to their farms for seed sowing or crop picking. Drought has adversely affected the agriculture here. When I visited a rice husking mill on a visit four years ago, I was informed by the officials there that the highest production of rice in Australia had been over a million tons. This year, it was about 50,000 tons and I found Pakistani and Indian rice in the supermarkets. A friend had taken me three years ago for cotton picking. It was an unforgettable experience riding the million-dollar combined harvester that sucked in cotton balls off the stalks, rolled them into  thousand-kilo bails, wrapped them around with waterproof plastic sheets and offloaded them in a line on both sides of the 1,000-hectare fields. The crop earned him around a million dollars per year. This year, he told me that he had not been able to get any crop in; not even one seed due the shortage of water. Australia used to export $2 billion worth of cotton that has been severely curtailed. I went around the agricultural town of Coleamblly – that I found green during my last visit but absolutely dry this time. The livestock are dwindling. My front-door neighbour is a wheat farmer who is totally dependent on rainwater. He has gone without any crop for the last two years. It broke my heart to see the agony of the people here. Every person here has mortgages and insurances to pay.

Muslims here have offered collective prayers for rains and protection against fires. The Imams have given sermons in support of firefighters and the affected. This Friday at the mosque that I attended, the sermon was totally devoted to the fire victims. That was very encouraging as this positive attitude will go a long way in creating harmony in the multicultural society here.

Climate change is a reality. Australian politicians are still trying to avoid facing the truth primarily because the country is amongst the largest exporters of coal and LNG in the world. It earned 67 billion dollars for coal and 31 billion dollars for LNG last year, which is the basis of high standards of living in Australia. However, the tide is turning in the industrialised world against use of fossil fuel and Australians will be forced to meet the climate change goals.

Australia is burning and that is sad. It is a good country to live and I have found its inhabitants extremely friendly, equitable and law-abiding. I hope they continue to do well and keep up their high standards of living.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: