Reporting on the Australian bushfires: on the front lines of a ‘perfect storm’

Many participants in the IFAJ Congress will have met Leigh Radford from Australia. He has more than 30 years’ experience in reporting on Australian agriculture with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and was the national head of rural broadcasting from 2005-2017. Even in retirement, while the disastrous 2020 bushfires rage in the neighborhoods he often frequents, he has been called in for emergency broadcasting. Here is a report from Leigh.

Bushfires are a ‘normal’ part of life in Australia. However, what has been happening in Australia so far this summer is far from ‘normal’. Last year was the hottest and driest year ever recorded across the continent. In the past 15 years, Australia has experienced eight of its 10 warmest years on record. This has produced a ‘perfect storm’ with fires now raging with unprecedented ferocity in most states of the country, and on a scale never previously seen. Since the start of the bushfire season in September 2019, more than 63,000 square kilometres have burnt, and at least 25 people have died. An estimated 2,000 homes have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate, or have been stranded in fire affected areas.

The main highway between Western Australia and the eastern states was closed because of fire for over two weeks, creating chaos for travellers and freight. Most Australian freight is moved by road, so this closure caused major problems for food supplies and for people travelling between states. This has never previously occurred.

In the states of New South Wales and Victoria, a number of major blazes have combined across vast areas to become ‘mega fires’ – something Australians have not previously experienced. In my home state, at least 50% (200,000 hectares) of Kangaroo Island – Australia’s largest offshore island – has been destroyed in a fire event lasting over three weeks. These are incredibly destructive fires which are destroying massive areas of the country. These fires dwarf any other fires on the planet and their impact has been catastrophic.

Closer to home, I live in the cool climate wine region of the Adelaide hills. A massive fire a few weeks ago destroyed 30% of the region’s vineyards, as well as fruit orchards, farms and killed many livestock. We could see the flames from our home, but luckily the fire was heading away from us.

So, while it’s an economic and farming disaster, it’s also an environmental and ecological disaster. Many areas have been burnt so severely that they will never be the same again. The scale of it is hard to comprehend. Entire populations and ranges of some native species have been destroyed. It’s an extinction event.

Australians are by nature very optimistic and resilient, but we are being increasingly challenged by circumstances beyond our control. Our world is changing. More than ever before, most Australians want to be part of a global effort to change things for the better.

Leigh Radford in the ABC broadcast studio in less dramatic days.