My planned idyllic 2009 trip to the Southern Hemisphere seems to be turning into a wake-up call about the immediacy of climate change.

‘Black Saturday’ in Australia

First, we landed in Fiji in the middle of floods, tropical storms and the aftermath of Cyclone Charlotte, now we’re in the middle of Victoria, Australia while it burns. Until Saturday, Feb. 7, we were completely naïve about the fire dangers here. On Black Saturday (as it’s now called) our friend had lent us her car and so we decided to take a trip down to the Great Ocean Road, one of Victoria’s beautiful coastlines.

Unaware of the radio warnings that tomorrow would be the worst fire day ever in Victoria with temps reaching 43 degrees in Melbourne, we arrived on the Great Ocean Coast surrounded by coolish air (in the 30s, not the 40s) and waves crashing onto the beautiful beach below us, with no inkling that danger lurked around the corner. In fact, early on that tragic Saturday morning, we set out for a long coastal trip feeling smug about having avoided the heat of Melbourne.

It wasn’t until we arrived at Apollo Bay at lunchtime that we suddenly felt a fast wind change and a hot 40-plus degree wind accompanied by clouds of dust encircle us. Then we realized that this was for real. We learned that the last big fires in 1983 had swept through the region of the Otways (where we were) and that, among others, our B&B owner’s place had been burnt to the ground. We turned on the radio in the car. The reports about fires were coming in thick and fast and by three in the afternoon, the temperature in Melbourne had reached 46.4 degrees – the hottest ever recorded.

From then on, fire activity just got worse and worse. Thankfully, the area where we were escaped immediate fires, but by the time we got back to Melbourne on Sunday, we realized what an immense tragedy had occurred and how even for us, it could have been a different story. Now the death toll stands at 200 (and rising) and whole communities have been reduced to ashes (quite literally). Over 2,000 houses/buildings have been destroyed. And meanwhile, the Northern States/Territory are under floodwaters sucked in by the ugly cyclone activity that we witnessed in Fiji.

Australia feels the impacts of climate change

The connection to climate change is so clear here. It’s one of the few industrialized countries that is already experiencing the impact of climate change. Australia has always been subject to drought – when we’ve stayed with friends here in the past, they make sure that we don’t run the water unnecessarily; they have bowls in the kitchen sink and shower to catch the extra water to put on their gardens because they’re not allowed to water – and this year, every household has been limited to about 100 litres of water a day and the government has issued egg-timers to install in their showers to ensure a maximum four minute shower.

While climate scientists are still stressing that despite these amazing temperatures, one extreme weather event cannot be taken as evidence of climate change, it is undeniable that Australia has experienced a general warming trend over the past 50 years and that the whole of south-east Australia is experiencing serious drought conditions. The prolonged period of high temperatures and drought conditions, combined with low humidity and high wind speeds points in the direction of an increase in the frequency of extreme fire days.

Compared to 1990, by 2013, Australians will probably be facing between five to twenty-five more extreme fire danger days each year. Unless global greenhouse gas emissions are curbed, these trends will certainly worsen over the next few decades. Only a slight increase in temperatures and lack of rain has resulted in these drastic effects. Victoria hasn’t had rain for over 40 days and everything is tinder-dry, hence the enormous fire threat. The kind of fires experienced last weekend is not only expected to get worse (as it has in parts of the States, Spain, Greece, etc.), but because there has been no rain this week and temperatures are expected to rise this weekend and next week, the fire threat resumes again.

Lives lost defending property from the fires

We may think that in Canada the pioneer spirit of struggling against the elements is a strong "Canadian" characteristic. In Australia, it’s even more extreme. Many people decided to stay and "protect their property" rather than evacuate. The radio announcers kept reminding everyone that if they were staying – making it clear that this was a real choice – they should have their "fire plans" in place or if they were leaving, they should leave early.

Apparently, people have successfully defended their properties against fire in the past (except for the two previous tragedies in 1939 and 1983) and the assumption was that they could do it again. But no one had counted on the ferociousness of these fires based on the very high temperatures, the 100 km winds and the dryness of the bush. Instead, people were faced with fires 50 to 100 metres high racing towards them faster than 100 kms per hour. Another thing I hadn’t realized was that the bush itself is so volatile because all the eucalyptus trees are full of oil, whipping fire 100 metres up the trees in minutes. So what we watched (luckily only on TV) were walls of fire racing across the land like nothing we’d ever seen.

Australians pull together in recovery

Now we’re mesmerized with the tragedy of people’s destroyed lives. It’s estimated that 7,000 Victorians have been left homeless, having lost relatives, friends, neighbours, pets and livestock. It’s unbelievably emotional to see the reports, the interviews and the raw footage. But another Australian characteristic has come to the forefront. Just as the definition of being Canadian is often described as "attachment to our health care," the Australian self-definition rests heavily on "mateship" – helping out your mates even if they’re total strangers. In a tsunami-scale response, $100 million has been raised for bushfire victims in less than a week.

Reports abound of incredible generosity: the family that was given outright a fully-equipped caravan with all the bells and whistles; the radio phone-in caller offering a pony to any little girl that had lost hers; and the guy that jumped out of his car beside a ragged, shoeless bushfire victim, compared foot sizes, took off his shoes and handed them over.

In an atmosphere of resolve and bravado, Australians are now focused on rebuilding and moving on from this freaky event. The magnitude of the future threat is reserved for the fine print at the bottom of the occasional newspaper article. The Government has appointed a Royal Commission – with everything on the table for discussion – and it does seem as if politicians (now that the Labour Commonwealth Govt. is in place) are fast waking up to the fact that serious action has to be taken in Australia to combat climate change.

I wonder how many more tragedies will have to occur, before the world takes these threats seriously.


Sue Colley is an intrepid traveler who calls Toronto home.