Many parts of India share the same ecosystem and conditions that have set Australia ablaze. We need to learn lessons to avoid similar catastrophes.
Deep orange hues enveloping the sky, fire tornadoes, terrified people being evacuated from the beaches, a charred joey (baby kangaroo) hanging on a fence wire, a scorched koala on fire, and cities engulfed in thick smoke. These are the poignant images of the devastating forest fires raging in Australia since September 2019. While mainstream media is calling it ‘bushfire’, I believe this term undervalues the scale and the nature of the devastation. The terms ‘inferno’ or ‘firestorm’ seem more appropriate to describe the catastrophe.
The scale of the devastation that forest fires have inflicted on Australia is unheard-of. About 11.5 million hectares of forests have gone up in smoke so far. This is an area bigger than the whole of Punjab and Haryana put together. Though the loss of life and property is relatively low—about 30 people are dead, and around 2,500 homes have been destroyed or damaged—the destruction of wildlife has been colossal. More than a billion animals—mammals, birds, and reptiles—have lost their lives in the inferno. In New South Wales, a third of all koalas are believed to have perished, and one-third of koalas’ habitat has been wiped out. What implications it will have on the future of this species, listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, only time will tell.
Air pollution has become another disaster. On January 1, Canberra, Australia’s capital, recorded the worst pollution it has ever seen, with the air quality index 23 times higher than “hazardous level.” As I write this column, Melbourne is still blanketed by hazardous smoke. The smoke has reached New Zealand, 1,000 miles away, and has drifted across the South Pacific Ocean, reaching Buenos Aires. The fact is, the continent has been burning continuously for the past five months, and Australians have not been able to defeat the blaze even with all their resources and technological might. They are now praying for the rain gods to come to their rescue.
Forest fires are part of Australia’s ecology. Eucalyptus forests in Australia have a unique relationship to fire; the trees actually depend on fire to release their seeds. Every year, some part of the forests catches fire and is quelled naturally, or by firefighters. This year’s fires, however, are unprecedented. They started much earlier, got very big very quickly, and have continued uninterrupted till now. The weather conditions feeding the fires are also historic. 2019 was the continent’s hottest and driest year on record. The annual mean temperature was 1.5°C above the long-run average—the highest since records began in 1910. The amount of rainfall, meanwhile, was 40% below the long-term average, the lowest since 1900. The extreme heat and drought created more tinder to fuel fires.
There is a definite tell-tale sign of climate change in Australia’s forest fires. Higher temperatures, extreme dryness, lengthening fire seasons, and the rapid spread of forest fires fall precisely in the scenarios that climate models have predicted for decades. But, these predictions are not only for Australia; they hold true for a large number of countries, including India.
Many regions of the world share similar conditions to those that have set Australia ablaze. The west coast of the United States, the Mediterranean, South Africa, parts of Central Asia, and parts of South and Central India have predispositions for the similar firestorm. These parts of the world are already experiencing increasing forest fires. In 2018, California had its deadliest forest fires in history, and over 100 people died in wildfires in Greece. India, too, has experienced some of its worst forest fires in 2018 and 2019. In fact, the forest fire incidents in India have almost doubled since 2015—from 15,937 incidences in 2015 to 29,547 in 2019. There is a clear signal of increasing forest fires in central and southern states.
India is not likely to see such large-scale contiguous forest fires as Australia, as we have fragmented our forests significantly. Still, intense forest fires, like we saw in Tehri and Bandipur in 2019, could become widespread. So, what do we do to avoid the tragedy that has befallen Australia? The first and foremost thing to do is to learn lessons, and there are many important ones to learn.
The first one is that the climate crisis is not something that will happen in the future; it is happening now, in front of our eyes. We are witnessing the worst impacts of climate change at a much lower temperature increase than what has been predicted by IPCC. So, let us prepare for the worst scenario.
Two, as the world gets warmer and drier, and forest fires becomes more frequent and severe, we will have to learn to live with forest fires. This means we will have to zone our forests based on their propensity for fire, and design management systems accordingly. For instance, about one-third of India’s forests is fire-prone. We should quickly assess these areas carefully for fire management systems, and assess the risks habitation and infrastructure.
Three, the older ways of containing forest fires will become obsolete. Australia’s forest fire management rules are considered the best in the world; yet, they failed to control the fires. For example, in Australia, the fire lines or fire breaks didn’t work because the fire was of the ‘Crown Fire’ type. Crown fires burns the top of trees, and spread rapidly via wind. So, we need to develop new methods for firefighting.
Four, our forestry practices will have to change drastically. For instance, we have been promoting eucalyptus plantations across the country. We will have to seriously look into this practice as eucalyptus plantations have been singled-out for crown fires. Similarly, knowing how to deal with invasive alien species like Lantana has become more critical than ever. In some parts of Australia, Lantana is being linked with the severity of the forest fires.
Lastly, the firestorm in Australia is a clear reminder of our inability to deal with large-scale extreme events. Even with all our technological might, we will not be able to save lives, properties, and ecosystems. It is, therefore, essential that we do everything possible to contain global warming within 1.5°C. This is the only chance to avoid large-scale death and destruction.
The author is CEO, iFOREST