Most of us here in the mid-Willamette Valley have never set foot in Australia, nor will we ever. We know the continent best due to its fascinating critters, as well as contributions to pop culture such as INXS, “Crocodile Dundee” and tales of the outlaw Ned Kelly.
But we’re paying plenty of attention to the land Down Under lately due to wildfires that have ravaged Australia, killing about 30 people and destroying 2,000 homes – and the responses generated by the blazes. Unfortunately, there are parallels to perils we might face here in Oregon.
Some are blaming the fires on arson and arguing against any role played by climate change in the disaster. In many cases, we fear, this myopic stance is due to a mix of online misinformation campaigns and the outright denial of accepted science. As if there wasn’t enough dangerous smoke covering this continent.
Let us be forthright and clear about one of our constant editorial positions as we move forward: Climate change is real. Regardless of whether you think humans are a major contributor (nearly all scientists believe we are) or that humans can curb its impacts, climate change is a fact.
Oft-frozen Scandinavia is now a burgeoning wine region. Greenland has an emerging real estate market thanks to land that’s emerging from shrinking glaciers. These ideas would have been inconceivable decades ago. But here we are.
According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2010-2019 was the hottest decade ever measured on Earth. NASA data indicates that 2019 was the second-hottest year in 140 years on record. The decade had eight of the 10 hottest years on record, with the others coming in 1998 and 2005, according to the two scientific agencies.
Before last decade, the hottest 10-year span recorded on the planet was, you guessed it, 2000-2009. And that decade was hotter than the 1990s, which were hotter than the 1980s. This isn’t a coincidence. This is a pattern called reality.
And we can see the impacts locally. Residents are dealing with more 90-degree days per summer in recent years than ever before. (Also, a bit of a preemptive strike against Facebook trolls here… Yes, we had school closures and delays due to wintry weather on Wednesday. One day doesn’t disprove a trend that’s decades long.)
Our summers, in general, are getting hotter and drier in Oregon and the rest of the West. And that puts us at risk for wildfires of increasing size and intensity. We pray that we don’t experience another summer where, for days on end, going for a scenic jog along the Willamette would be the equivalent of chain-smoking a pack of Marlboros.
This summer (yes, it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere), Australia has suffered a major drought and heat wave — conditions which ironically made it difficult to do preventative burns.
According to The Guardian, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and other agencies and experts have said that the major cause of the fires has been lightning. The Associated Press reported that state authorities have said a minority of fires were deliberately lit.
But troll farms and bot armies are part of a coordinated effort to spread false stories about the role of arson in creating the fires, including claims that environmentalists are to blame for the blazes. The reason, according to experts, appears to be that social media miscreants want to move the conversation away from climate change.
Climate change has surely worsened the scope of Australia’s wildfires, just as the increased risk of drought and heat waves, combined with population growth and record forest fuels, pose a growing fire threat in Oregon and the West.
The wildland fire season in Oregon in 2019 was mild, but, as we’ve stated before, it’s a good bet that was atypical. Thankfully, in the Beaver State, there’s a move toward more active forest management that’s supported by the general populace. There are still disagreements about best practices, however, and questions about funding — Gov. Kate Brown’s Council on Wildfire Response estimated that it will take $4 billion over 20 years to improve the state’s ability to respond to wildfires, and that’s an awful lot of cash.
But Oregonians seem to agree that something must be done to prevent wildfires. After all, just look at Australia burn.
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