Bushfires that started in September last year continue to wipe out and ravage Australia, particularly its south east region. Photograph by AAP Image/News Corp Pool, Jason Edwards/via REUTERS
Culture Spotlight

Is the reality of Australia’s forest fires closer to the Philippines than we think?

Land continues to blaze down under, and horrifying images coming out from the country continue to haunt everyone's feeds. Is there still something that can be done, and how far off is the Philippines from such a disaster?
Jovan Cerda | Jan 08 2020

In December 2016, I was sitting on a tour bus making its way to the Great Ocean Road, a 243-kilometer road on the southeastern coast of Australia. We were about two and a half hours away from Melbourne, and headed to the Twelve Apostles, a scenic collection of eroded limestone stacks in the Southern Ocean. Some Filipino friends—fellow graduate students from Sydney and Perth—came to visit us during school break, and we decided to bring them to a tourist spot commonly featured on Melbourne postcards.

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On the long drive, I couldn’t help but to, loudly, notice the stretches of apparently dead trees along the coast. Our tour guide was quick to assure us that the trees were just fine. “Those trees aren’t dead yet,” he said, explaining that some Australian trees have somehow evolved to quite literally rise from the ashes after a bushfire, taking some time to shed their charred barks until a new one appears.

Eucalyptus trees—the shelter of choice for koalas—are even considered by some experts as “fire-loving” plants; their flammable oils make it easier to eliminate competition than other plant species less resistant to fire. They have somehow adapted to it, our tour guide said, giving us some measure of comfort. He added that Australians who live near fire-prone areas have also been trained to know what to do in case the fires start encroaching their properties, including dousing their homes with water and running to the nearest evacuation spot.

 

Fire down under

Yes, bushfires have been a part of Australian life for thousands of years. When I joined a tour group in Western Australia that taught the Aboriginal way of life, I learned that Aborigines have long mastered the use of controlled burning to rid the forest floor of dried leaves and other fuel, which, if left accumulating on their own, might start an even bigger, uncontrollable inferno. To control the composition of flora and fauna in certain areas, they have harnessed the power of fire. Nomadic groups in need of food also burned forest floors for hunting purposes.

Some bushfires are started by natural causes such as lighting strikes, but there have been incidents caused by careless camping and other human activities. Notably, there have been documented cases of Australian raptors starting bushfires to flush out prey.

It’s been two years since I left Australia, but reading about the sheer scale of ongoing bushfires that started late last year makes me wonder if the trees, along with the wildlife and affected Australians, will make it through.

Workers and volunteers continue to try everything to contain the fires, including felling trees to prevent more damage. Photograph by Tracey Nearmy, Reuters

Since September 2019, fires have been razing areas in almost all the states and territories in the country. With some parts of Sydney reaching record-breaking temperatures as high as 48.9 degrees Celsius, it doesn’t take much to turn a sprawling area of trees and shrubs into a crawling hellfire. A typical 30-degree weather is enough to cause dehydration-induced headaches. You can just imagine what 48.9 degrees can do.

With about 200 bushfires happening all over the country, more than 20 people are dead and almost half a billion animals have been killed. The displaced have started seeking refuge in relatively safer cities. What is particularly frightening about what’s going on in Australia is that it’s currently summer in the southern hemisphere. With temperatures reaching their hottest in different areas across the country, the fires are expected to last for a few more months.

News agencies attempt their hardest to conjure analogies of the catastrophe, comparing the size of areas burned to that of Manhattan and even Belgium. Almost every day, my feed is filled with images of burnt koalas, dead kangaroos, and people fleeing from their homes amid an atmosphere of general despair. Some of my friends who live in Australia have been complaining about the poor air quality, which a scientist from Sydney has described as akin to smoking 32 cigarettes a day.

An Australian friend who lives in Melbourne told me that the general mood in the country is unlike anything he felt before. He said emergency services have admitted that the scale of the fires is nothing they’ve experienced previously, and they simply cannot respond to the unfolding disaster like they normally do. “There is a collective acceptance that these fires cannot be fought,” he says.

Back home, wildfires happen every now and then, but don’t garner much attention compared to incidents that happen elsewhere in the world. Just last year, Philippine news agencies reported that about 140,000 hectares of forest in the Cordilleras burned during the first quarter, and the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) in the region recorded about 90 forest fires in the same period last year. These incidents, mostly caused by human activities like kaingin (slash-and-burn) farming, were aggravated by dry spells caused by the El Niño phenomenon.

According to the BFP, about 290 towns in the Philippines lack their own fire trucks, relying instead on assistance from nearby cities and municipalities. This prompted the Department of the Interior and Local Government to support a PHP 10 billion House Bill for the modernization of the country’s fire protection capabilities.

 

Climate catastrophes

As early as the 1950s, experts have sounded the alarm on the implications of the link between a warmer climate and the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In June 1988, a scientist from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration told the US Senate that global warming has already begun. Despite overwhelming consensus from the international scientific community, there are still governments that justify polluting the environment in the name of economic growth. The responses to concrete changes in the earth’s climate have yet to catch up with a rate that would reverse or even arrest the speed by which the world burns. 

In the Philippines, typhoons are becoming more destructive and irregular, ravaging even typically unaffected regions in Mindanao like typhoon Pablo did in 2012. As of this writing, monsoon floods are killing people in Indonesia. The global rise in temperature is creating conditions that magnify the effects of drought, forest fires, typhoons and flash floods.

The scientists of the world are warning us that we only have a decade to implement unprecedented measures to prevent climate change catastrophe. But the fires in California, the Amazon, Siberia, Australia and everywhere else in the world remind us that we already live in the era of climate change. So what are we to do as the world burns?