Australia is burning - but why are the bushfires so bad and is climate change to blame?

Sarah Newey

Australia is no stranger to wildfires, but this season has been unprecedented in scale and intensity - and the summer is far from over. 

So far at least 28 people have died in blazes that have swept the country, more than 3,000 homes have been destroyed and roughly 7.3 million hectares (17.9 million acres) of land has been burnt. 

So what has caused the blazes which have devastated such huge swathes of the country? 

Why are the fires so bad?

Australia’s deadly fires have been fuelled by a combination of extreme heat, prolonged drought and strong winds. 

The country is in the grip of a heatwave, with record-breaking temperatures over the last three months. In mid-December the nation saw the hottest day in history - the average temperature was 41.9 degrees Celsius. 

These conditions, which show few signs of abating in the next few weeks, have been accompanied by brisk winds which fan the flames and push the smoke across Australia’s major cities. Authorities say that wind speeds have been recorded at 60 miles per hour.

All this follows the country’s driest spring since records began 120 years ago, with much of New South Wales and Queensland experiencing rainfall shortfalls since early 2017. Trees, shrubs and grasslands have turned into the perfect tinder for flames. 

Has climate change caused the fires? 

Bushfires are a regular feature in Australia’s calendar - often triggered by natural causes such as lightning strikes - and cannot be blamed on climate change or rising greenhouse gas emissions alone.

But experts say that the changing climate is key to understanding the ferocity of this years blazes - hotter, drier conditions are making the country’s fire season longer and much more dangerous. 

And Australia’s climate is definitely changing. According to the country’s Bureau of Meteorology, temperatures have already risen by more than one degrees Celsius since 1920 - with much of the increase taking place since 1950.

What is being done to stop the fires? 

So far the response has been largely reactive - aimed at evacuating residents to safety and stopping the blazes from spreading. 

Australia relies on hundreds of thousands of volunteer firefighters, who have been working around the clock to try and bring the fires under control for months.

The armed forces have now also been deployed to fight the fires and evacuate residents and the United States, Canada and New Zealand have also sent resources including firefighters to help stem the blazes. 

But in the long term, experts have said that there should be a review of building standards in bushfire zones to create resilient homes and larger buffer zones between the bush and properties. 

There have also been calls for emphasis on traditional fire management techniques used by Indigenous communities and a paid fire service less reliant on volunteers. 

Why has Australia’s government been criticised for its response?

The country’s government and conservative Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, have been widely denounced for their response to the crisis - particularly the insistence that fires are nothing new and climate change is irrelevant. 

At the end of last year the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, said “raving inner-city lefties” were stoking concerns about the climate and that fires had existed in the country “since time began.” And Mr Morrison decided to take a family holiday to Hawaii in December despite the infernos. 

Domestically, the government also has a poor record tackling climate - for instance the administration repealed a successful carbon tax in 2014, which had contributed to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.4 per cent over two years. 

And on the international stage, Mr Morrison’s delegation to the recent UN summit on climate change were accused of thwarting negotiations to agree on plans to cut carbon emissions globally. 

What about the government’s relationship with coal?

Australia is also the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas and the coal lobby holds significant sway over national politics. 

But Mr Morrison has denounced calls to downsize Australia’s profitable coal industry. 

And despite calls from fire chiefs for an “emergency summit” on the rising threat of bushfires amid the changing climate, the prime minister has also has rejected the need to change his government's approach to climate change.