It’s a familiar feeling for many growing up in large parts of Australia; hot summers and the smell of burning gum trees as bushfires send their black and grey smoke high into the air. It’s true that this is nothing new, fires have burned here for the 200-odd years since colonisation and thousands of years before that.
However, those summer events have been slowly creeping into autumn and spring, and now more recently into our winters. As snow falls in some areas, bushfires now burn in others. It is not just the odd fire either – we’re seeing lives and property threatened yearly now in traditionally colder months.
Only this week, as fire authorities predicted unprecedented catastrophic fire levels, not a single drop of rain fell anywhere in Australia for perhaps the first time in recorded history. In New South Wales (NSW) alone this month we’ve lost hundreds of homes and lives have been lost. It’s not even summer yet, and the worst is likely yet to come.
As bushfires ravaged large parts of Australia this week, experienced firefighters were speaking out about the need for action on climate change, nationally and globally. From “firies” on the ground like me, to an alliance of former fire commissioners and emergency service leaders, they were all highlighting the reality of what we are seeing in our industry: fires occurring more regularly, burning more erratically and more intensely virtually all year round. Fire behaviour now appears to be in line with the credible science predictions.
And yet we all had something else in common too – we were all ignored by the Australian government.
Our political leaders on both sides of the aisle responded by lecturing us that “now is not the time”. They sent their usual “thoughts and prayers” while at the same time denying any link between bushfires and climate change and dictating when those of us on the frontline can speak about what we’re seeing.
On Monday, Michael McCormack, Nationals party leader, attacked "raving inner-city lunatics" for linking climate change to the fires. The Greens then retaliated by labelling the deputy prime minister a "dangerous fool" who was putting lives at risk. Gladys Berejiklian, NSW premier, described it as “inappropriate" to talk about the fires while they were still burning.
Indeed, Australia’s political leaders not linking the effects of climate change to the increased frequency of bushfires is equivalent to Americans not talking about gun control after a high-profile mass shooting. This nonsense position from those elected to protect us should be called out for the insidious ignorant censorship that it is. Whether it be gun control or climate change, these people are firmly pressing a hand over our mouths so the truth cannot be heard. It has to stop.
The denial of credible climate change science also needs to stop. As firefighters, our workplaces are the national parks and urban interfaces, which are difficult enough to defend with inaction on climate change. Already, we can see that small changes in climate and temperatures can have a catastrophic effect on the way fires behave.
Our collective failure has already had an impact, but further negligence may have consequences, both environmental and economic, the likes of which we have never seen. Australian politicians are not doing enough. They, like all politicians around the globe, need to do what is right, not what is convenient.
Darin Sullivan is a professional firefighter in NSW Australia, with over 30 years’ experience in rural and urban fire and rescue services
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