Ferocious blazes ripped through Australia’s eastern coast. Authorities predict it could take up to two months to control some fires.
Brendan O’Connor is the Rural Fire Service (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.”
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.
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 also 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 area nearly three times the size of Wales—have been burnt and at least 1,200 properties destroyed. Some entire small towns have been razed. 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, 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. There is bitter anger at prime minister Scott Morrison for his lack of action over climate change, his cuts to fire services—and the abandonment of those whose lives have been devastated by the fire.
In Jakarta at least 66 people died in widespread flooding across the capital.
Extreme monsoon rains on New Year’s Eve caused rivers to break their banks leading to landslides on the outskirts of the capital.
A week later, thousands of people were still in overcrowded and dirty emergency shelters.
Soldiers and health workers are spraying disinfectant on the flood waters in an attempt to stop the spread of waterborne diseases.
In the worst-hit areas, residents could be seen wading through chest-high water or attempting to traverse dangerous rivers in inflatable dinghies.
At the height of the flood, water reached up to six metres and nearly 400,000 people were forced to flee and seek shelter in 270 emergency centres.
Yuyun Yuniarti is forced to stay at an emergency shelter at a sports centre. “My baby is not sleeping as the rain comes in, the wind comes in,” she said.
“It is disgusting here, but we are stuck.”
On Monday of this week, at least 35,500 people were unable to return home, with more extreme rainfall expected soon.
Why the crisis is getting worse now
The bushfires and flooding are a product of rapidly unfolding climate catastrophe.
Fires are more frequent, and more severe than ever before partly because of record-breaking high temperatures and long-standing drought across Australia.
Drought conditions—lasting years in some parts of Australia—are making it easier for the fires to spread.
Climate change is also making preventative measures more difficult to carry out.
Hotter and drier conditions mean fire authorities struggle to use controlled burning techniques that create a barrier between woodland and people’s homes and create breaks that can stop fires spreading.
Environmental damage is also the reason why Jakarta—a city and suburbs home to some 30 million people—is particularly prone to flooding.
Piped water reaches just 60 percent of the population, and the rivers are too polluted for domestic use.
So businesses and residents drill bore holes for water wells.
This has literally lowered the city’s foundations. Now, some parts of Jakarta are sinking by up to 20 centimetres a year.
The city, which sits on Indonesia’s largest island of Java, is also facing rising sea tides, choking pollution and unpredictable storms.
The horrors of Australia and Jakarta are caused by the same worldwide climate catastrophe—one caused by the industrial burning of coal, gas and oil.
But instead of cutting back on fossil fuel production, the Australian government has given the green light to a huge new coal mine in Queensland.
And the Indonesian government plans to relocate the capital to Borneo—leaving behind millions of people in a flooded city.
It can no longer be “business as usual” in a system that is careering us toward disaster.
New year, new strikes
School strikers are getting ready to make 2020 a year of climate resistance, and are planning to strike on 14 February and 13 March.
Coordinators the UK Schools Climate Network (UKSCN), said, “We need to make them as big as possible to send our message to the world and to the people in power that it’s been a year and we’ve not seen anywhere near enough action.”
And climate activists are already preparing for the United Nations Cop26 climate talks, due to take place in Glasgow this November.
The UKSCN called it “an opportunity to shed a light on the UK’s lack of climate ambition”.
The group is planning to help run a Conference of the Youth during Cop which will bring together school strikers and other young climate activists from across the globe.
“As a country responsible for a huge share of historical emissions and colonial atrocities, we must also show international solidarity with those who will be travelling from all over the globe to demand action from world leaders,” it said.
Friday 14 February and Friday 13 March. Organise actions in your workplace or school. See ukscn.org/events for a strike near you