“Apocalyptic” scenes swept across Australia this week as ferocious bushfires ripped through its eastern coast.
Tens of thousands of residents and tourists were scrambling for safety across the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria in the largest evacuation mission the country has ever seen.
On Tuesday around 4,000 residents and stranded tourists in the Victorian coastal town of Mallacoota were ordered to seek refuges from the fires on the beach. They were then instructed to await a siren signal that would mark the need for them to flee into the ocean.
On Friday around 1,000 of them were taken off by the Navy.
Months into an unprecedented wildfire crisis, at least 20 people have died, with dozens more missing. Around 200 wildfires are raging across NSW and Victoria alone—and other states are fighting fires. Some blazes are joining together to create terrifying infernos.
Steve Warrington, Victoria country fire authority chief officer, said that firefighters were unable to reach many of the worst-affected areas.
“We can’t even get fire trucks into some of these communities. This is not over by a long way,” he warned.
It’s estimated that 6 million hectares of land—an areas nearly three times the size of Wales—have been burnt and at least 1,200 properties destroyed. Some entire small towns have been effectively razed.
The crisis is far from over—weather conditions on Saturday were expected to cause “widespread extreme fire danger”.
A seven-day state of emergency has been declared in NSW from Friday of this week, meaning the fire service has more control and power. Authorities are predicting it could take up to two months to control some fires.
The city of Canberra was suffering air quality over 21 times the hazardous level, and smoke has travelled far enough to cover most of New Zealand’s South Island.
Residents in the highest danger areas are being warned that authorities many not be able to help them if they don’t get out in time.
Rob Rogers, Rural Fire Service (RFS) deputy commissioner said, “If people choose to stay, then that is on them.”
“Do not expect there will be a fire truck if you ring, make sure that you understand that you are likely to be stuck there for some time and the last thing you should do is suddenly change your mind at the last minute,” he said.
Thousands of people are faced with rapidly dwindling food and water supplies while others have been forced to take shelter on beaches or areas already burnt out.
Entire towns have no access to drinking water, and tens of thousands of homes are left without power.
Brendan O’Connor is the RFS captain in Balmoral, a suburb of Sydney. He described a recent fire as, “hell on earth.”
“Everything was burning everywhere. We were so under-resourced. Additional resources couldn’t get to us, we were completely blocked off by fires all around.”
In some places, people were faced with empty supermarket shelves and dry petrol pumps when attempting to make their escape. Their way out is becoming increasingly treacherous as roads are closed and others covered with debris such as split trees and downed power lines.
Almost half a billion animals have been killed with fears entire species may have been wiped out.
And while the wildfires burn, anger at Australia’s ruling right wing Liberal party boils over. Prime minister Scott Morrison ran away from a barrage of abuse when he visited badly-hit Corbargo, a small town in NSW.
“You’re an idiot mate. You really are,” said one Corbargo resident.
“What about the people who are dead now, Mr prime minister? What about the people who have nowhere to live?”
As the fires grew Morrison had chosen to jet off on a holiday to Hawaii, and travelled back to Australia only after widespread public fury.
The response of his government to survivors is deplorable.
Those hit worst by the fires are offered a meagre disaster assistance package—this amounts to a one-off payment of £531 for an adult and £212 per child.
The paltry response from Morrison’s government is another sign of how the capitalism system deals with the climate emergency.
The time is up for Morrison. There is no battle more crucial, and more urgent, than tackling climate crisis and destroying the capitalism system that creates it.
Why are the fires happening now?
The bushfires are a product of rapidly unfolding climate catastrophe. They are more frequent, and more severe than ever before partly because of record-breaking high temperatures and longstanding drought across Australia.
Drought conditions—lasting years in some parts of Australia—are making it easier for the fires to spread.
And Australia does not stand alone. Last year saw huge wildfires swarm across California in the US while fires driven by the drive for profit engulfed sections of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
Climate change is also making fire reduction harder to carry out.
The Rural Fire Service (RFS) conducts “hazard reduction burns” where shrubs and grasses are burnt down in a controlled manner to prevent bushfire spread.
But hotter and drier conditions are meaning the RFS can’t carry out the same programme of controlled burning—meaning when fires do hit, they spread quicker, and closer to people’s homes.
Unusually dry weather for the last three years mean that the time for controlled burning is shorter than ever before.
Extreme weather events and soaring temperatures are caused by the industrial burning of oil and gas.
But instead of cutting back on fossil fuel production, Scott Morrison has given the green light on a huge new coal mine in Queensland.
Adani, which is building the new Carmichael mine, is expecting to extract up to 60 million tonnes of coal annually, with hopes for another six mines to be approved in the area.
Despite huge opposition, Morrison signed off the deal in January 2019.
Actions like this show that politicians and oil and gas firms have no intention of scaling back the fossil fuel capitalism that is careering us towards disaster. It is going to take an insurgent mass movement to stop them.