Australia’s bushfires are still burning, with an estimated one billion animals killed, more than six million hectares of land turned to ash, 2,000 homes destroyed and at least 27 people killed. The blazes are the worst Australia has ever witnessed and the catastrophe is far from over, with the south-east of the country only just entering what is usually considered the most dangerous time of year for wildfires.
With property, animals, plants and livelihoods destroyed, the process of recovery is likely to be long, slow and expensive. But how can an ecosystem recover from a disaster like this, if it can recover at all?
Forests, in general, are pretty resistant to fire, says Rodney Keenan, chair of forest and ecosystem science at the University of Melbourne. “Even tropical rainforests, which are often considered fragile, can recover after a single fire,” he says.
Just under three-quarters of Australia’s forests are eucalyptus while the rest is made acacia and a mix of others including some rainforest. Not only have the eucalyptus forests in Australia evolved a range of strategies to survive and recover from fire, but many eucalyptus trees require fire to stimulate seeds and regenerate the plants. “If there is no fire for a long time, other species will take over. Indigenous Australians learned this over a long period and developed techniques to manage land and forests using fire,” says Keenan.
These trees recover from fire in two ways. Some regenerate from seed stored in the tree crowns – the top part of the tree including the branches – or the soil. Others have the ability to re-sprout because of epicormic shoots, which lie beneath the bark of the tree.
“The issue with these recent fires is the scale, and the intensity” says Keenan. Very intense fires can kill the whole tree, including the shoots and the seeds in the soil. “We don’t know fully the impacts of these fires yet” he says. “Of the six to seven million hectares burnt, some areas burnt intensely, and will take time to recover, others only moderately and will recover quite quickly.”
The biggest challenge for forests, Keenan says, is intense fire striking the same patches repeatedly. This can destroy the trees, their roots and shoots, and can lead to grass growing instead. In this case, humans would need to re-seed or replant the land to get it back to the forest it was before.
WWF Australia estimates that one billion animals have been killed, directly or indirectly, by the fires. This includes koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, gliders, cockatoos and honeyeaters. However, until the fires subside it’s impossible to know the true extent of the damage. The real number of animals killed could be much higher if invertebrates are included.
Australia’s animals were already under threat from invasive species, loss of habitat and, of course, climate change. This unprecedented scale of fire has destroyed almost the entire area where certain animals live, like the long-footed potoroo, a small marsupial. Even if no animals are made extinct by this series of fires, there will be more fires in future that threaten to push them into extinction.
Australia has been separated from the rest of the world by oceans for 30 million years. This means the wildlife indigenous to the country has evolved completely separately and many species can be found nowhere else on Earth. If species like this are lost from Australia, they will be lost from the planet.
Charities such as the WWF will work to restore habitats for animals like koalas, with an aim of raising a total $30 million AUD (£15.7 million) to support its effort. The money will be used to protect the habitats of the most vulnerable species, with wildlife response and habitat restoration, including preventing deforestation.
Of course, it’s not only animal habitats that have been destroyed. Humans have lost homes in the fires too, and at least 27 people have been killed. A relief fund set up for indigenous Australians had gathered over $1m AUD (£530,000) in donations by January 10. The fund will offer culturally sensitive, specific and direct support to some of the first nations communities with critical costs to cover.
The Australian government has announced a $2 billion AUD (£1.05bn) bushfire recovery fund, on top of $100m (£53m) that has already been spent providing help. The money will be used to restock, rebuild roads and telecoms infrastructure, for mental health support, attracting tourists back to the regions and helping to restore the local environment and impacted wildlife, the Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said.
As of January 10, insurers had received 10,550 claims totalling an estimated $939m AUD (£496m), from New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland from the November-January bushfire catastrophe, which was declared on November, 8 says Lisa Kable from the Insurance Council of Australia. A statement published on January 7 showed 8,985 claims had been received, totalling $700m AUD (£370m). This means there were over 1,500 claims in three days.
The government hopes to usne the Black Saturday fires of 2009 and recovery efforts as a guideline for how to recover and clean damaged property. In the wake of the 2009 bushfires, 3,000 properties were registered to be cleaned up, a task that took five months. If the current figures do not grow at all, the current task is still three times as large as 2009.
The country’s economy will need to recover from the fires, too, says Simon Baptist, chief economist at The Economist Intelligence Unit, but it is difficult to put a number on it. He estimates that in six to 12 months there will be a boost to Australia’s GDP as reconstruction work gets going. “But of course, the country is poorer, as a lot of capital stock, like buildings, equipment, has been destroyed ahead of time” he says. “What will be missed in the years ahead is the reduction in living standards caused by the early destruction of these assets, such as homes.”
“The money that will go into reconstruction could have been used elsewhere if the fires had not happened, but as we will never experience that future, the real losses from the fires will get lost in the focus on quarterly economic data” Baptist says.
In the long-term, the fight against bush fires is a fight against climate change. While these fires were not caused by climate change, they have been made worse by it, through the droughts, high temperatures and wind speed. “In Australia, like in the United States, climate change policy has become a highly partisan issue” says Baptist. “This is a huge barrier to action, as any policy change is viewed through an ideological lens.”
At the moment, Australia is heavily dependent on coal mining and exporting, which is its second-largest generator of income. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously loves coal, having brought a lump of it into Parliament in 2017 saying “don’t be afraid”.
Any future policy shift will have to see a huge change in attitudes from politicians like Morrison. “If that is to happen” says Baptist, “it will need a shift in attitudes by supporters of the country’s centre-right Liberal Party, in order to allow for action with support on both sides of politics.”
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