California, Sydney ... Bushfire And Climate Change Debate Rage

Kim Noyes

California, Sydney ... Bushfire And Climate Change Debate Rage

By Tamara Thiessen
Nov 18, 2019, 06:26am

There's a certain irony in the way that Sydney's most phenomenal beauty–the nature in the city–also becomes it's biggest threat. There's a personal irony, that my aunt who has called California home for decades winds up in a place which climatically resembles Australia to an extent, and that the two face, as now, very similar bushfire threats.

Maps released a couple of years back for instance identified the Newcastle area north of Sydney as a ‘climate twin’ with San Jose. The presence of ‘gum trees’ (eucalyptus) around Paso Robles, through to Santa Barbara, Morro Bay and the Bay Area has always reminded me of home. The trees are known to survive in poor soil and parched water conditions, which parts of California at least would appear to share with parts of New South Wales. 

Gum Trees: Public Fire Enemy No.1?

Yet the sight of the Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus doesn’t apparently give everyone that same warm fuzzy feeling that they give me and my aunt, who also come from the Australian island state. “Depending on whom you ask, eucalyptus trees are either an icon in California or a fire-prone scourge,” KQED-FM reported in a radio show last year. “Eucalyptus trees have lovers and haters in California. A big part of the debate over whether the trees should be allowed to persist here traces back to the East Bay firestorm of 1991, which left 25 people dead and thousands homeless. Vast swaths of eucalyptus burned.”

The 40,000 or so blue gums across California are considered a “moderate” invasive species. While the trees themselves are known to survive—even thrive—in a wildfire, critics argue the bark they shed liberally creates a serious fire hazard.

Stands of eucalyptus trees along the Interstate 5 in San Clemente, California
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Climate Change, Government Inaction? Who’s To Blame For The Deadly Fire Threat

So do the fires currently being battled in both New South Wales and California have anything to do with eucalyptus trees? In other words are gum trees a culprit? That’s a question that was put during the 2013 wildfires that licked at the doors of suburban Sydney and blazed out of control throughout New South Wales. 

A story in Live Science magazine at the time said the streamers of bark combined with flammable eucalyptus oil can spark “terrifying, explosive firestorms in a matter of minutes”. This property earns them the nickname "gasoline trees." The pros and cons of eucalyptus trees it said was dividing the Californian community, between those who argue that clearing this “public fire enemy No. 1” is vital, and others who label any such moves environmentally destructive.

Omnipresent Gum trees–which thrive from Australia to South Africa and Argentina– the story concluded, “present a worrisome scenario in the face of global warming, which is expected to make wildfires more common.”

Flames engulf a eucalyptus tree
AFP via Getty Images

Catastrophic Conditions For People And Wildlife

As suburban Sydney faced a ‘catastrophic’ fire danger rating for the first time over recent days, and blazes continue to be battled in Queensland and New South Wales, the emergency warnings continue. As they do in Southern California

Exceptional drought, dry, windy conditions are fuelling the current fires in Australia which have seen hundreds evacuated, four people die, and hundreds of animals perish. The real culprit many believe is climate change–and the government's failure to acknowledge a possible link between the two is drawing criticism. A coalition of 11 mayors in fire-impacted regions are calling on conservative Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, for urgent action on climate change. "We need the government to acknowledge the link between climate change and bushfire, we need more funding for all emergency services, and we need the government to take the action required to prevent megafires,” they said in a statement.

Among them was Mark Greenhill, mayor of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, who told BBC Newshour that abnormal temperatures of up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit meant it was time for the government to wake up to the reality. “Australia is in the grip of an unprecedented drought across the country. Our summers over the past 15 years have been breaking heat records–so we are talking about extreme climate impacts in Australia at the moment, and I think there needs to be a mature and rational discussion about that within our nation.”

AFP via Getty Images

California Recognizes Bushfire Climate Change Link, White House Does Not

Over in blue gum tree filled California, the government stance is quite different. Last Monday the Australian current affairs show Q&A tackled the topic of ‘Climate and Catastrophe’.

“In California itself, there is no doubt as to whether it’s linked to climate change,” said panelist, Sarah Friar, CEO of San Francisco based neighborhood social networking service, Nextdoor. “We’re sure that it has a scientific underpinning … these seasons are getting longer and longer, our countries are getting dryer and dryer.” That said, she acknowledged, the White House viewpoint, just officially pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, was alarming. “It’s devastating living in California and seeing the impact, to see we can’t all just believe the science”

A love of the countryside Friar added was compounding the problem. “We don’t like to cut back our trees ever, so when these high winds happen, trees come down, they bring down power lines and they start fires like last year's devastating camp fire that took out the whole town of Paradise.”

No specific mention of gum trees. So the jury is still out on them.