What caused the fires that are burning in Australia? Some people suggest climate change is causing the fires, but the answer may not be that simple. Over the years, the Australian government made it illegal to do controlled burning of underbrush to prevent larger fires. Together with arson, the results are devastating.
Environmentalists and the government have stopped people from controlled burning of dry plant matter, like leaves and fallen branches, on the forest floor. This is a common way of getting rid of flammable material, and is used by farmers around the world. Australian lawmakers believed that doing these burns would release carbon dioxide into the air – the same chemical that people think causes climate change.
In 2015, bushfire scientist David Packham said that forest fuel levels had gotten worse over the last 30 years. He warned that unless at least 10% of dry ground matter on public land is burned every year, “a massive bushfire disaster will occur.”
Despite the good intentions behind the policy, forbidding controlled burns actually makes wildfires more likely and more dangerous. And when the material burns anyway, the same amount of carbon that would have been released in smaller amounts over time is released all at once.
Government statistics show that humans start most of the fires, and arson is suspected in up to half of the cases. In the state of New South Wales, the current disaster hotspot, 183 people have been arrested for starting fires.
When a person starts a fire that gets out of control, whether it is caused by arson or an accident – neither climate change nor the law is to blame. Simply being careful with fire can prevent the majority of blazes.