Gippsland News & Views

More on the East Gippsland Bushfires

My blog of last Wednesday on our bushfires was criticised by someone on facebook for being an “overdramatic article”. The blog made a number of points that could be summarised as follows – that the fires were already big, that they were in rugged country, that the total perimeter of all the fires was already well over 100k and they could creep slowly through the bush for weeks and then when conditions became adverse quickly come to life again. The critic was not specific and perhaps he or she did not read the blog. Or perhaps they objected to my directly connecting the fires to climate change.

One suspects that the objection was the linking to climate change when I said “With hindsight the 2003 fires appear to be the dawning of the ‘pyrocene’ – the new age of fire brought on by global warming.” These ‘climate change deniers’ are a very small but active minority of our population egged on by the dinosaurs in the Murdoch press. It is perhaps unfortunate that the ‘peoples paper’ is the broadsheet of choice in the bush and populist rantings of climate change denier Andrew Bolt appeal to those who like his ‘bucking the system’ pieces. But anyone on the fire line now, or who has experienced any of the major fires this century, knows that these fires are ‘unprecedented’.

As one who has experienced two of these events at close hand – 2003 and 2006/7 – I was still shocked by the rapid advance of the Marthavale fire over the last 24 hours. On Friday evening the fire was heading north towards Brookville with emergency warnings. Mark Flynn from an Ensay family tweeted “Yeah Peter, Dad seemed more worried by the Marthavale… fire than Ensay fire, if it gets north of them into the Swifts Creek area it’s going to be a really big problem, perhaps bigger than anything seen before.”

But by Saturday morning the Marthavale fire had advanced rapidly in a south-east direction, crossed the Great Alpine Road and joined with the Bruthen fire. Mark messaged again “Yeah unfortunately looks like the three fires may become one, didn’t get too far North but that doesn’t make a difference, the [family] are safe for the moment, power and mobile services are out, roads obviously closed, BOM recording wind ESE at 22km/h gusting to 37 at Ensay.” At the time of writing (4.30pm 21.12) the Vic Emergency maps indicated that the Marthavale-Bruthen fire had not joined the Ensay fire but it soon will if it has not done so already.

Failing heavy rain there can be little doubt that the fires will keep burning for some time (all summer?), that the resources of the CFA and DELWP will stretched to the limit and, as in the other big fires, be deployed protecting homes and assets. I note the massive camp of about 300 tents the CFA have constructed at Swan Reach. At least the bureaucrats understand the seriousness of the matter and are planning (as they should) for a worst case scenario. I know at least one climate hero who will be in this camp at Xmas or out on the fire front somewhere.

Notes on the East Gippsland Bushfires

Bairnsdale is in the smoke again. The East Gippsland bushfires* have mostly passed ‘under the (news) radar’ due to the emergency fires in NSW, Queensland and WA. But the East Gippsland fires – Upper Nicholson (8,000ha?), Ensay East (16,673 ha), W Tree (25,000ha?) and Bruthen (10,000ha?) – are all quite large. At the time of writing (17.12) none are “under control” as the jargon for still burning goes.

I have been in the smoke before, especially in 2003 when being downwind of the fires our house was in the smoke for a month. With hindsight the 2003 fires appear to be the dawning of the ‘pyrocene’ – the new age of fire brought on by global warming. One wishes for a wind to blow the smoke away but is aware that this will probably only stoke the fires in another direction with the smoke later returning from a much bigger fire.

For someone sensitive to these conditions the smoke warnings from Vic Emergency go as follows “If you can smell smoke, please note: Smoke can affect people’s health. People with heart or lung conditions (including asthma), children, pregnant women and older people are more sensitive to the effects of breathing in smoke. People with existing heart or lung conditions (including asthma) should follow the treatment plan advised by the doctor.” 

The bush is still very dry following three years of rainfall deficiency in the east. (See blogs on the Gippsland drought here and here). The conditions quickly become favourable for the serious to catastrophic bushfire days when heatwaves and windy weather conditions are added. The fires that have been trickling slowly through the bush can then increase rapidly. Some back burning may have helped although this tool seems dependent on benign weather conditions for success. What is needed is heavy rain. None is predicted in the short term and the long term forecast for the summer is not looking promising.

One aspect of these fires not clearly understood is that their perimeters are enormous. The perimeter of a perfectly square 10,000 ha block for example is 40k. Of course the fires are not symmetrical and their real perimeters must be much larger. Adding the four main fires together gives a minimum total fire front of well over 100k. Most of this is currently in hilly to mountainous country with relatively difficult access. Fire bombers, satellite imagery and infra-red hot-spot detection are no doubt of great advantage but only in benign to moderate conditions.

But when the adverse weather conditions arrive, when heat and wind are added to the bone dry bush our next severe to catastrophic bushfire day will have arrived. Then the fires somewhere along those hundreds of kilometres of fire perimeters will take off once again. Most likely in many places at once. The local economy, heavily dependent on the holiday tourist trade, will suffer. Who wants to holiday in the smoke or with bushfires hovering in the hills? When someone complains answer “climate emergency” or “global warming” and ask them who they voted for.

*I have written on these fires here and here.

10 climate emergency actions for the East Gippsland Shire

Nearly 5 years ago (Jan 15) I made a ‘sustainability’ submission to the East Gippsland Shire specifically on global warming listing 22 possible actions with high, medium and low priorities. In some of these areas the shire has done well such as in their solar panel program and the adoption of various energy efficiencies. They continue to do so. But they are not leading. Leadership implies doing or adopting something before others – that is being first. In the case of the ‘climate emergency’ Bass Coast Shire has lead the way in Gippsland and other shires, such as Baw Baw, are considering making the declaration.

Some suggestions for the East Gippsland Shire include the following:

1. Declare a climate Emergency. There is currently a petition circulating amongst residents and tourists requesting this.

2. Appoint a full-time Climate Emergency Officer to oversee, advise and co-ordinate shire climate actions.

3. Amongst other activities the Officer would examine closely and identify climate implications in all Shire motions, actions, regulations etc.

4. A substantial increase in public education on the climate emergency and global warming’s implications to our region – starting from a very low base.

5. Plan for rapid change in employment in the ‘old industries’ – oil and gas and timber – and request State government funds in assisting a ‘just transition’ in the affected areas of our local economy.

6. Work to make all shire activities carbon neutral as soon as possible. This can be done in conjunction with a carbon audit of all shire activities.

7. Fast track and assist where possible the new industries including renewable energy, electric transport, reforestation, recycling.

8. Boost planning and organisation for climate induced extreme weather emergencies – catastrophic bushfires, drought, floods – for resilience and adaption where necessary.

9. Adopt a wide range of practical applications within current shire operations. Examples include boosting suitable tree cover in towns for shade, experimenting with reflective paint on roofs and roads, changing council building regulations on eaves, reflective white roofs and road surfaces etc. etc. 

10. Co-ordinate shire bank and super fund investments so that they are not investing in the old economy or fossil fuel industries.

This list by no means exhaustive. Some of these actions can be implemented immediately, others will be in the planning stage for some time to come. But ‘emergency’ implies urgent action across the board. As some commentators have noted ‘this is bigger than World War II’. Leadership, involving substantial political courage, is essential in all climate emergency activities.

Extinction Rebellion Die-in in Sale by Dawn Stubbs

A group of local people, under the name of Extinction Rebellion, staged a mock death event in Sale [on Saturday 23 November]. The ‘die in’ [protesters] demonstrated their support for immediate action on the climate crisis we, as a world, are facing. The act of playing dead illustrates the extinction humans and animals inevitably face if we continue to ignore the warnings of expert climate scientists. Members of the public could also join in drawing and painting animals that are facing extinction, such as the Black-throated Finch (that is under threat from the Adani Carmichael Mine) and the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum.

A spokesperson from the event said, “It is ridiculous that against the backdrop of the recent catastrophic fire events in NSW, the federal Lib/Nat government continue to deny the science. We are here to send a message that if the government do not take these issues seriously, then the citizens will rise up like the oceans and cause mass disruption.”

The protesters held placards that read phrases such as “Extinction is Forever”, “There is no Planet B” and “This is a Climate Emergency” among others. Extinction Rebellion is a worldwide movement that started in London, UK. There are groups around Australia and recently one has formed in Sale. Using acts of civil disobedience, they promote three demands to the Government: Tell the Truth about climate change, Act on the Truth to achieve net zero emissions by 2025 and form a Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the transition. 

*Dawn’s media release was published in an article in the Gippsland Times on 25.11.19 under the headline “A ‘die in’ and ‘paint in’ were held in the Sale Mall to protest a lack of action on climate change”. As well as Concerned Artists Resisting Extinction and Extinction Rebellion Dawn is also an active member of East Gippsland Climate Action Network.

Dry thunderstorms, Bushfires and Climate Change

The Wikipedia entry for dry thunderstorms refers mainly to North America. They note that in “areas where trees or other vegetation are present, there is little to no rain [in the dry storm] that can prevent the lightning from causing them to catch fire. Storm winds also fan the fire and firestorm, causing it to spread more quickly” and “dry thunderstorms generally occur in deserts or places where the lower layers of the atmosphere usually contain little water vapor…They are common during the summer months across much of western North America…” The entry makes no connection between this phenomenon and climate change.

But humidity was identified as a critical factor in Australian bushfires by Tom Beer et al in a 1987 paper which examined the relationship between the enhanced the Greenhouse effect and our bushfires. As predicted this century has seen a strong rise in the frequency and size of damaging bushfires in the east and south-east. In particular the fires of 2003, 2006/7, 2009 and 2019 have all been ‘unprecedented’ in some way. Of these fires 2006/7 was an, early then, December start and this year a November start – earlier still and indicative of a lengthening fire season.

On 8 January 2003 eighty-seven fires in the mountains were started by lightning in dry thunderstorms. Something similar, though not as large, has just occurred across east Gippsland and the north east. As in 2003 conditions were favourable for the rapid spread of fires with severe rainfall deficiencies over a number of years and a warm to hot November. The numerous blazes started by the lightning strikes created a logistical nightmare for fire-fighting authorities. The obvious response has been to fight those parts of the fire that threaten property. The downside of this is that those fires that are in remote, rugged country receive little or no attention and are allowed to grow in size and these can massively expand rapidly with the arrival of hot windy conditions.

Climate predictions have long been for warmer dryer conditions to increase. Studies of thunderstorms in relation to climate change have mostly been about their increasing frequency, severity, winds and hail size. An Australian study in 2013(Allen et al ) noted “significant increases to the frequency of severe thunderstorm environments will likely occur for northern and eastern Australia in a warmed climate”. From this we may draw the tentative conclusion that ‘dry thunderstorms’ will also increase.

A more recent study on ‘climate event attribution’ observed “overall bushfire risk depends on fuel type, fuel amount, fuel dryness, weather conditions and ignition sources including lightning and humans”. Beyond this I have been unable to find any evidence supporting links between dry thunderstorms, climate change and bushfire ignition.*

But we may ask were the current fires, and those of 2003, at least partially started by climate change, via these dry storms?  In 2003 the black humour went something along the lines of “the good news is there are less fires today, the bad news is they have joined together”. Fortunately for Gippsland, the conditions now (end of November) and weather predictions are benign for the immediate future, but a number of the fires are already large and may continue burning for some time.

*An article on Tasmanian bushfires earlier this year that confirms this link has been brought to my attention post publication. See here.

Recruiting for EGCAN and XR by Angela Crunden

Angela at Safeway

The East Gippsland Climate Action Network (EGCAN) recruitment and information drive have been pretty well received over the Friday’s that I’d been sitting outside Woolworths. I’ve had regular interactions with wonderfully supportive people who wanted to join EGCAN but there were the not so positive encounters too. It was invariably men who wanted to tell me a joke about Greta Thunberg; who wanted to tell me that Greta Thunberg was a selfish little bitch who didn’t care about starving children; who wanted to say that I was a victim of fraud; who told me to fuck off; who just muttered and shook their heads in disgust. Thankfully they were all manageable and in fact non-existent when my 50 something year old niece joined me one Friday. There was safety in numbers. But finally the council ranger put an end to my recruitment endeavour. I was told I needed a council permit and $10 million public liability insurance to hand out EGCAN climate change information.

In the last couple of months I’ve become involved with Extinction Rebellion (XR) a movement that has lifted my spirits and directed flagging creativity. It has given me hope. I closely identify with XR principles particularly that of nonviolence. The one issue that I struggle with is the issue of civil disobedience that causes inconvenience to people. Whilst sitting outside Woolworths, causes no inconvenience, it can certainly seem to ruffle some people’s day.

Inconvenience on the other hand, for people going about their work and their daily activities is more than a dent in the day. I know what inconvenience feels like, it’s rotten. It’s the train running late when you have an important meeting, it’s being forced to run late at the school pick up. It’s all those things that get in the way of your day and I’m really sorry. But I’ve run out of ideas. I listened to Nicki Hutley of Deloitte Access Economics on The Drum recently. She confidently assured viewers that there were many actions that could be taken that wouldn’t cause inconvenience for people going about their everyday lives. I’m inclined to write to Nikki Hutley to ask her just what actions she has in mind. Does she think that the closure of 600 schools in New South Wales constitutes inconvenience? And how does that inconvenience compare with the blockage of a few intersections in metropolitan Melbourne?

The problem as I see it is that nothing that I’ve done so far has had any impact or created a change at a government level sufficient to deal with the climate crisis. I lived off the grid, grown vegetables, have been an avid recycler, written letters, protested and chanted. Nothing has worked.* I’ve run out of ideas. Then along came extinction rebellion. A movement that had clear principles and for me the most compelling principle was one of non-violence.

*It is most difficult to ascertain the results of any our actions. But to paraphrase Gandhi “if we do nothing there will be no result” (ed).

Bushfires and the CSIRO Warnings of 1987

On 14 November the Age published a short letter from Tom Beer, retired CSIRO scientist, on the bushfire emergency of our northern neighbours. Beer looked up an article he had lead authored in 1987 the conclusion of which was that with climate change “the fire danger every year on average would be larger than the fire danger during the year (1983) in which Ash Wednesday occurred.” This was followed up immediately by Graham Readfearn in a great article that expanded on Beer’s work in the CSIRO department of atmospheric physics and looked at the effort of others including Graeme Pearman and Barrie Pittock. Readfearn noted that the science had not changed since 1987 – referring to the Monash Conference when over 50 papers including Beer’s were presented.

He continued: “What Pearman is seeing play out now, in the bushfire crisis and the drought, “is what we were talking about at the Greenhouse 87 meeting. That was about the changes that we anticipated, based on basic physics of the climate system.” Despite the fact that Pearman gave more than 500 presentations on climate change between 2000 and 2010, he still asks himself if he could have done more. “What could I have done? What did I do wrong?”

Interestingly one set of data used by Beer et al* was from East Sale Air Base from 1945-1986. The abstract of the paper noted the importance of humidity and that “estimating the likely changes in relative humidity for any future climate scenario is vital for examination of future bushfire incidence” with relative humidity being a function of a number of factors including temperature rainfall and wind.

For those too young to remember on Ash Wednesday 16 February 1983 over 100 fires burned across Victoria and South Australia causing 75 fatalities and the loss of over 2,500 homes. It was an El Nino year and very dry when many of the rivers in East Gippsland stopped flowing. This century has started to fulfil the forecasts of Tom Beer. Both the 2003 and 2006/7 fires in Gippsland burned huge areas for more than 2 months. The fatalities and damage caused by Black Saturday have eclipsed all previous bushfires. The NSW and Queensland fires look set to burn for some time yet. And summer is yet to come**.

*T.Beer, A.M. Gill and P.H.R.Moore “Australian bushfire danger under changing climatic regimes” p.421 in G.I.Pearman (ed.) Greenhouse: planning for climate change, CSIRO Australia, 1988

**Since this was written a number of ‘unprecedented’ bushfires have been burning in Gippsland at Gelantipy, Ensay, Bruthen and other locations.

On song for the planet

Maddy May

Republished article from Bass Coast Post

LOCAL musician Maddy May headlines the Sound for Climate concert, which features a distinguished line-up of some of Gippsland’s best young musicians. She brings a captivating presence that will make your heart flutter with her sweet voice and beautifully haunting lyrics. Her folk/jazz/alternative sounds are easy to listen to and will leave your ears happy and your heart full. Maddy has found her way to some of Australia’s biggest stages, including Splendour in the Grass, Bluesfest Byron Bay, The Hills Are Alive and the Moto GP.

The concert is run by Bass Coast CAN (Climate Action Network) and Friends of the Earth and will include guest speakers talking about aspects of climate action.

Inverloch songwriter, musician and climate activist Mat Morgan has toured his music all over Australia and New Zealand. His contemporary folk style brings his poetry to the forefront of his music. Having written for and played with many artists, Mat understands how to deliver a message and captivate an audience he’s just met, like he’s known them for years.

Gippsland songwriter and guitarist Olivia Lay has had a guitar in her hands most of her short life, though it sounds like she’s been playing since Woodstock. Olivia takes inspiration from artists such as Newton Faulkner and John Butler. She’ll tell you a detailed story with an instrumental piece, before she even starts singing. She recently supported Ruby Fields and Baker Boy, and is ready to take on the world.

Folk singer-songwriter Matthew Bentley will hit the stage with an acoustic guitar and some tricks. Matthew’s no stranger to a stage, having toured extensively for the last two years, including shows at the Workers Club and St Kilda Festival. His melodies sit upon on his gentle guitar work like the frame of a painting. Swinging by Inverloch for the Festival, on his national tour, it’s a treat to have Matty coming over to put on a show.

Pia Nesvara is a small but powerful Chilean/Australian songstress from the Dandenong Ranges. Always armed with her flamenco guitar and her cheekiness, she takes on elements of folk, roots, jazz, soul and Latin music to create her own truly unique sound. The 20 year old finds power in vulnerability and through her introspective lyrics offers you a new perspective, one of empowerment and honesty. Pia’s powerful voice, her exploration of genres and use of timing and syncopation will captivate you and leave you feeling a little more whole.

Jimmy Harwood plays like he sings, and sings like it’s always his last song. Having played the Melbourne circuit extensively through his teenage years, Jimmy has built a serious following for his hip-hop influenced vocals and smooth guitar vibes. Notching up over 100,000 streams of his EP ‘Choose Your Colour’, and reaching #3 on the triple J unearthed roots charts. Jimmy has hit the road supporting Coast and Ocean on his East Coast tour, and is not slowing down anytime soon.

Event details here

Bushfires Silent Vigil in Bairnsdale Mall

 

The notice for this climate action was short. An email from East Gippsland Climate Action Network (EGCAN) and the local Extinction Rebellion (XR) group* received late Thursday gave notice of a silent vigil to be held for half an hour in the Nicholson St mall. The purpose it stated was as follows: “This will be a respectful symbolic action of support for all the communities facing the incredibly devastating fires in NSW, Queensland and WA. We will stand in solidarity with the bushfire victims, emergency services workers and volunteers.” Participants were invited to ‘wear black for mourning if possible’ and to ‘bring a friend’.

I was five minutes late attending and not dressed for mourning. The vision as I rounded the corner from the Safeway carpark into the mall was quite impressive – a row of silent figures dressed in black – like crows on a fence. I joined the dozen or so participants followed by a few others to bring the total to 17 or 18.

The EGCAN facebook page later reported: “A silent vigil was held in Nicholson Mall yesterday in support of people across Australia affected by bushfires. Members of East Gippsland Climate Action Network and Bairnsdale Extinction Rebellion took part in the vigil. Our Federal Government cannot simply observe these events – this unprecedented destruction of people and homes and land – and keep denying the truth of the Climate Emergency. We stand in solidarity with Australians and communities on the frontlines of the Climate Emergency and our emergency services workers and volunteers working round the clock to put out these blazes and support those affected.”

The response from the public was varied. Some stopped and stared, some avoided us completely, and two delightful souls read the sign, clapped and gave us encouragement. By the end of the thirty minutes (or in my case 25) we finished for which I was thankful as sitting rigidly was causing me some discomfort in the lower spine. There can be little doubt that EGCAN (and XR) are making a splash around Bairnsdale and at the very least causing many to stop and think. Meanwhile the bushfires continue in NSW and Queensland and another hot spell will arrive on the east coast by mid-week (20th).

What is shaping up to be a long, hot summer in a dry Gippsland is still to come. The bushfires in Victoria this century have been frequent, large and damaging to life and property. Recently the fire season in Gippsland extended (in August 2018) to winter fires .  A massive injection of funds and human resources for the State firefighting and emergency sectors is urgently required. On the net the Anthropocene has already been superceded by the Pyrocene. Welcome to the climate emergency.

*there is some overlap between the 2 groups

Climate Change Deniers, Stephen Hawking and Quantum Physics

Nothing annoys me more than the persistent denial of climate science by some whilst they freely use the means of communication that science has given us to promote their propaganda. One wonders if these people ever consider the contradictions this involves. Most of modern western society is based on science including medicine. Without the medical advances of the last 200 years many of our lives would have been short and brutal. (see here)

Recently whilst reading a biography Stephen Hawking: a life of science by Michael White and John Gribbin (BCA/Penguin 1992) I was struck by an early passage in the ‘Classical Cosmology’ chapter explaining quantum physics. In particular I noted how important the science of quantum physics was to things in everyday modern life we take for granted. Most of this White and Gribbin stated “we can safely leave the physicists to worry about” but noted that “it is worth realizing that the physics behind how a computer or TV works depends on an understanding of the quantum behaviour of electrons. Laser beams, also, can be understood only in terms of quantum physics, and every compact disk player uses a laser beam to scan the disk and ‘read’ the music. So quantum physics actually does impinge on our everyday lives…” (p.38)

Thus we have a bizarre situation where computers are the main avenue of communication on which climate deniers either deny or dispute the science of climate change but without quantum physics the computer could not exist. There is a certain irony here and it is a clear illustration of how you cannot choose the science. One wonders where would the climate deniers on the social media be without their computers and smartphones? Making the time and effort to pen a ‘letter to the editor’ of the ‘Daily Blurb’? Perhaps.

Sometime ago I blogged on some facetious comments Hawking had made about climate change deniers . Commenting on the runaway global warming that has occurred on planet Venus he said “‘This is what happens when greenhouse gases are out of control’… implying that our own planet could also meet the same fiery fate. He then amusingly quipped, ‘Next time you meet a climate-change denier, tell them to take a trip to Venus; I will pay the fare.’”

Hawking is no longer with us (he died last year) but his work, and the absurdity of being able to select the science you like and denying or even opposing some aspect you don’t like, remains. The lessons are there in history from King Canute to Stephen Hawking. The climate deniers just have to open their eyes or as Greta Thunberg says “listen to the scientists”. But we won’t hold our breath waiting.