Australia’s Wildfires Foreshadow What the World Faces in Catastrophic Climate Change

Interview with Michael Kodas, former firefighter and author of "Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame," conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The bushfires in Australia destroyed 21 percent of that continent’s forests, according to research in the journal Nature Climate Change. It was the nation’s worst summer fire season in recorded history that were only extinguished in recent days by torrential rains. But the toll to ecosystems, the decimation of iconic wildlife found nowhere else in the world and to humans’ safety and way of life, will have consequences for years to come.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Michael Kodas, author of the book, “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame,” who is the former deputy director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Kodas, who spent a summer as a wildland firefighter in Colorado and Wyoming, says U.S. fire scientists consider the fires in Australia something of a proxy for what’s in store for the Southwest United States. Here, he talks about the aftermath of the Australian bushfires and their continuing consequences.

MICHAEL KODAS: Well, it’s going to bring the climate politics to a head in Australia. Australia is a very fire-prone country, and always has been, and it’s had bushfire disasters for decades. However, the ones that just occurred were unusual for any number of reasons. One is that rather than a Black Saturday or an Ash Wednesday – as many previous fires have been referred to, basically indicating that it was a one- or two-day explosion of wildfire, and it still may have been a bad fire season, but things calmed down – they pretty much had a Black Summer, where the fires started months earlier than they usually do and burned intensely for months until basically the end of their fire season, which is really the end of January. And they just had one bad day after another from September until the end of the fire season.

The amount of land that burned is unprecedented in developed times in Australia. Most of the world is very concerned about the impacts on wildlife there and it really presents somewhat of an extinction crisis, that more than a billion animals have been killed by these fires, either through direct contact with the flames or through severe damage to the habitats they’re dependent on.

The water issues – the fact that these drenching rains came and put out the fires – is certainly good as helping the firefighters get the fires out, but there are all kinds of problems with that kind of volatility with the weather they’ve had during this time. They had baseball-size hail that came down; they had all kinds of fire whirls (“tornadoes”), including one that flipped a fire truck and killed a firefighter. And then you have problems, in any landscape like that that’s rugged, with mudslides and debris flows from heavy rains after wildfires and bush fires like that. And so they’ve seen a lot of flooding and increasing damage to habitats. The fire may be out, but a huge flood can come through and do just about as much damage as the fire did.

MELINDA TUHUS: Michael Kodas, decades ago when there were wildfires, very few human structures were destroyed, but in recent years that’s changed dramatically, as people move in to what’s called the wildland/urban interface. Do you think it’s time to consider where humans live and maybe not live in all these places that are so vulnerable?

MICHAEL KODAS: Well, yeah, development is a huge part of the wildfire crisis in most developed countries, and it’s a big issue here in the U.S. A report four or five years ago from the U.S. Forest Service estimated that more than a third of U.S. housing stock is now in the wildland-urban interface, where it could burn in a wildfire. That’s well over 44 million homes.

MELINDA TUHUS: Wait! How could that be? Isn’t it an issue just in the mountain West and coastal California?

MICHAEL KODAS: Oh, that’s where people are mistaken. Huge parts of the Midwest and the East are in areas that can be affected by wildfires. And if you look, for example, at Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which three or four years ago had a horrible wildfire that burned into the town between Thanksgiving and Christmas, killed 12 people and destroyed numerous homes. There are areas in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, all those areas have the vegetation that can bring a fire to a house. Grassfires in the Midwest – Kansas had its worst fire season in history a couple of years ago. That’s where I’m from. And it destroyed not only lots and lots of homes, but these fires in the Midwest kill thousands of livestock.

So, no, it’s going to be a problem that the entire country is going to face. Most people in the East see wildfires as an exotic Western problem, but they’re increasingly realizing that the East is going to face the same problems. The mistake that people make is thinking that it’s the houses that are kind of intermingled with the woods that are the only ones that are at risk. But if you look at the fire, the Tubbs fire for instance, that burned into Santa Rosa, California and destroyed thousands of homes, the vast majority of people who lost their homes in those fires had no idea they were in the wildland-urban interface. They were in the city. They had city services. They were on paved roads. But if you see what they call ember attacks from these fires that can launch firebrands miles ahead of the firefront, those can easily land in a city center.

For more information on Michael Kodas, visit his website at www.michaelkodas.com.

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