Diksha Anand knew that bushfires were closing in on her home in the affluent Sydney suburb of South Turramurra, but she was still surprised how quickly they came.
“I saw smoke and heard crackling — I just ran to the house to grab the kids, passports and some jewellery. By the time we got into the car I could see the flames coming. The authorities didn’t even have time to tell residents to leave.”
Ms Anand’s house was saved when aircraft arrived to douse her neighbourhood in the bright red flame retardant that has become a potent symbol of the unprecedented bushfire emergency sweeping eastern Australia.
Others have not been so fortunate. Four people have been killed, more than 250 homes have been destroyed and 1m hectares of land have been burnt this week as hundreds of fires have swept across the states of New South Wales and Queensland. Fire chiefs have warned it could take months to extinguish all the fires.
Wildfires are an annual event in Australia. But the ferocity and timing of this year’s blazes have ignited a bitter debate about whether climate change is to blame. This has put focus on Australia’s lack of action to tackle the issue and the continuing rise in greenhouse gas emissions in one of the world’s richest countries.
The catastrophic events in Australia follow a global wave of intense wildfires spanning California, Brazil, Alaska, Siberia and elsewhere, which scientists say are linked to climate change and are a portent of the future as global temperatures rise.
“These fires fit a pattern,” said David Bowman, a professor at the University of Tasmania. “The common ingredient is extreme fire weather: drought, low humidity, high winds and high temperatures.”
He said the unprecedented scale of the fires and the fact that they were occurring outside the normal bushfire seasons were highly unusual. “I have studied wildfires for 40 years and what we are seeing now is simply extraordinary,” he said.
But in Australia, where the Liberal-National coalition has prioritised economic growth over environmental protection since coming to power in 2013, talk of the link between climate change and bushfires has been angrily shouted down by the government.
Michael McCormack, deputy prime minister, this week dismissed climate change concerns as the ravings of “woke capital-city greenies”, saying bushfires had occurred since time began.
His colleague, Barnaby Joyce, ignited a political storm when he said without providing evidence that two of the fire victims probably voted for the Green party — political opponents who have criticised the government for failing to tackle climate change. In parliament, Green senator Jordan Steele-John branded the coalition “no better than a bunch of arsonists”.
Australia’s government, which in 2014 became the first country to scrap a national carbon tax, has been a staunch supporter of the coal industry. The coalition successfully capitalised on controversy over the opposition Labor’s party apparent hostility to a planned A$2bn coal mine in Queensland to capture critical votes in May’s election.
But political analysts say the scale of the bushfire emergency poses a threat to the political fortunes of the coalition, which despite being a signatory to the Paris climate change agreement, has overseen a rise in annual greenhouse gas emissions since coming to power.
“Climate change is moving up the political agenda and the severity of this bushfire season is only likely to intensify the conflict over coal and the need to cut emissions,” said Ian McAllister, a politics professor at Australian National University.
He said the global warming debate was fraught with danger for the government, led by prime minister Scott Morrison, as new ANU research showed the number of people who viewed global warming as a threat had doubled in the past decade and was likely to continue increasing.
On the frontline of the bushfire emergency, some residents are increasingly concerned about how global warming will intensify the fire risks and threaten their properties and lives. “Climate change is happening everywhere and I just don’t know what will happen in the future as temperatures get hotter,” said Ms Anand, as she hosed down her driveway stained bright red with fire retardant.
Emergency service personnel, who put their lives at risk to defend properties and save lives, have also begun to voice concerns.
It emerged this week that Mr Morrison’s office took three months to respond to a request made in April by more than 20 former fire and emergency service chiefs for an urgent meeting to explain how climate change was “supercharging” bushfire and natural disaster risks.
“The government is not prepared to acknowledge climate change is a problem and they just don’t understand we are in a new paradigm,” said Neil Bibby, former chief executive of the Victorian Country Fire Authority who was one of those who wrote the letter.
In an ominous warning, he said this week’s fires were the ‘new normal’ for Australia and a precursor of worse to come as global temperatures continued to rise.
“I fear we will start to see the type of ‘megafires’ that have struck California, where many smaller fires join together and cause a major threat to life,” he predicted. “If this doesn’t happen this year, it will happen next year and make world headlines.”