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Amid Catastrophic Destruction, Lessons From The Wildfires In Australia

This picture taken on December 31, 2019 shows a firefighter hosing down trees and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales. (SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)
This picture taken on December 31, 2019 shows a firefighter hosing down trees and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales. (SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)
This article is more than 3 years old.

A continent in flames. Bushfires so hot, they’re creating their own thunderstorms. We take a close look at Australia’s catastrophic fires, and the lessons for the world.


Isabella Kwai, covers news for The New York Times' Australian bureau. She's based in Sydney. (@BellaKwai)

Peter Kanowski, professor of forestry in the Fenner School of Environment & Society at Australian National University. Member of the 2004 National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management. (@ANUFennerSchool)

Alistair Melzer, research program leader for koala research at Central Queensland University.

David Folkenflik, NPR media correspondent, and host and editor of On Point. Author of "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires." (@davidfolkenflik)

From The Reading List

The New York Times: "What to Read on Australia’s Bushfire Crisis" — "Australians have started the new year anxious and alarmed with unprecedented bushfires engulfing parts of the country, causing thousands to flee the southeastern coast under blood-red skies.

"But the fires have been blazing around Australia since September, killing at least 24 people and gutting an area larger than Denmark. Over 2,000 homes have been destroyed and conditions are expected to worsen this weekend, with months left to go in a fire season that seems to get longer every year.

"Our reporters have been on the ground capturing the crisis as it unfolded, whether speaking with evacuees or analyzing why it happened — and telling readers how to help."

The New York Times: "‘Armageddon Is Here’: Australian Readers Share Their Wildfire Experiences" — "Residents and tourists in Australia have been left reeling as wildfires engulf parts of the country, killing at least 24 people and destroying an area larger than Denmark. We asked readers to describe how they have grappled with one of the worst fire seasons on record.

"We heard from people who said they fled to the beach, where they dug trenches and prepared to jump into the water at a moment’s notice. Some said they sought refuge in camps where people brought dogs, chickens, goats and other animals. Others said they stayed behind, hosing down their homes in the hopes of saving their property from destruction.

"We received more than a hundred responses from around the country. Many described struggling to breathe amid the choking smoke and being overcome with sadness and anger as they watched their communities and forests burn and pondered the toll it had on the country’s renowned wildlife."

BBC News: "Australia fires: A visual guide to the bushfire crisis" — "Rain has brought some respite to the thousands of firefighters and volunteers tackling the blazes, which have been burning since September. The fires intensified over the past week, with a number towns evacuated.

"At least 24 people have so far been killed - including three volunteer firefighters - and more than 6.3 million hectares (63,000 sq km or 15.6 million acres) of bush, forest and parks have been burned.

"In the worst-hit state, New South Wales (NSW), fire has affected almost five million hectares, destroying more than 1,300 houses and forcing thousands to seek shelter elsewhere."

ABC Australia: "Why wasn't there more prescribed burning, and would it have helped?" — "It happened in 2018, when the Queensland farm lobby claimed the new and more restrictive land clearing laws had worsened the state's bush fires. And it's happening now, with Coalition MPs regularly claiming there's a Greens conspiracy to stop bushfire hazard reduction.

"Late last month, the Morrison Government announced an inquiry into the effect of past and current vegetation and land management practices on bushfires. In response, many environmentalists have argued the inquiry is an opportunistic attempt to use the tragedy of the fires to weaken land clearing laws.

"They also argue that blaming greenies is a distraction from the bigger issue: the national policy on climate change. On Saturday, the Prime Minister pointed the finger, saying people 'who say they are seeking those actions on climate change' could also be the same people who 'don't share the same urgency of dealing with hazard reduction.'"

The Atlantic: "How Long Will Australia Be Livable?" — "When tiny flakes of white ash started falling like warm snow from a sky sullen with smoke, we left. We had lived for weeks with the threat of two huge bushfires hanging over our small Australian town, advancing inexorably toward us from the north and the south. My hometown of Blackheath, perched at the top of the Blue Mountains, surrounded by stunning but drought-parched Australian wilderness, was in the center of this flaming pincer.

"The kids had just come home from their final day of school in December when our neighbor messaged to say there were concerns the northern fire, which had already burned through nearly 2,000 square miles of national park, would hit Blackheath that night. Fire authorities had warned of dire conditions in the following few days: high temperatures, low humidity, and wind.

"So we fled east down the mountains, heading for the coast and the relative safety of Sydney, nearly 60 miles away. We returned five days later to our scorched land, the house untouched thanks to the courageous actions of neighbors and firefighters."

This article was originally published on January 08, 2020.

This program aired on January 13, 2020.


Wes Martin Freelance Producer
Wes Martin is a freelance producer for On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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