explainer

Fact vs. fiction: Let's get to the bottom of what's true and what's not about the bushfires.

Misinformation often flourishes in times of crisis, as people scramble to make sense of the chaos unfolding around them.

This week has been no exception.

As NSW and Queensland are consumed by ferocious bushfires, claims about the situation have been flung around by MPs, commentators and social media users. But what’s true?

Let’s take a look at some of the key talking points that have sprung from the devastation.

Are these fires the worst Australia has seen?

The crisis is still very much unfolding. But as it stands, in terms of the number of lives and homes lost, the answer is, thankfully, no.

So far, three people have been killed, at least 170 houses have been destroyed and dozens more are damaged.

However, when it comes to the amount of land scorched, it’s a different story. As of Tuesday night, the more than 60 blazes burning across the state were “consuming an area of more than a million hectares”, according to NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

By comparison, our deadliest bushfires, the 2009 Black Saturday blazes in Victoria, which claimed 173 lives, saw 450,000ha burned.

When words like “unprecedented” and “historical” have been used by media and emergency services over the past few days, it’s been mostly in relation to the fire weather conditions.

On Tuesday, for example, low humidity was met by strong winds and temperatures in the high 30s across large parts of the state. As a result, a catastrophic fire warning — the highest alert level — was applied to the Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter and Illawarra/Shoalhaven regions; an area home to roughly six million people.

It was the first time the Sydney region, which includes the Blue Mountains and Central Coast, has faced a ‘catastrophic’ risk since the new warning system was introduced 10 years ago.

Such was the severity of the situation, that a day earlier Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a week-long state of emergency, in order to afford temporary, extended powers to the Rural Fire Service to assist them in battling the blazes.

Are bushfires connected to climate change?

The experts say yes.

While the approach of summer has always brought with it the sound of sirens and the smell of smoke, in recent years, fire seasons are beginning sooner and lasting longer.

The CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology’s 2018 State of the Climate report found that, since the 1950s, there has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season across large parts of Australia.

“Climate change, including increasing temperatures, is contributing to these changes,” the report read.

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Of course, there are a number of factors that must come together in order for a significant blaze to occur. This includes the availability and dryness of fuel, weather conditions, and ignition (be it by arson or lightning strike).

But as Professor Ross Bradstock from the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong noted via The Conversation, “It is no coincidence current fires correspond directly with hotspots of record low rainfall and above-average temperatures.

“The North Coast and northern ranges of NSW as well as much of southern and central Queensland have been primed for major fires.”

In other words, while climate change is not solely responsible for the current bushfires, it’s created the conditions that have helped make them particularly intense and catastrophic.

Did Barnaby Joyce really say that the bushfire victims were probably Greens voters?

Yes. He did.

The role of climate change in creating these blazes has seen plenty of political finger-pointing over the past few days. (See our previous article for some of the ‘highlights’.)

Among the melee, emerged comments by former National Party leader turned backbencher, Barnaby Joyce, which have caused widespread outrage.

In an interview on Sky News, he was asked about his take on the debate around hazard-reduction burning. See, Joyce is of the opinion that “conservationist principles” have prevented these important preventative fires from happening, thereby potentially making these fires more severe. (The RFS has denied the claims.)

barnaby-joyce
Nationals backbencher, Barnaby Joyce. Image: Getty.
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"I just think that it, here, in the first instance, [firefighters] may need more resources, but they also need legislation regulations, to allow them to get in there and do [hazard reduction burning] in a more substantial way," Joyce said.

"I acknowledge that the two people who died were most likely people who voted for the Green party, so I am not going to start attacking them. That’s the last thing I want to do."

While critics chided him for dragging the victims into his argument and speculating about their political leanings, Joyce claims that was a "misrepresentation" of his remarks: “My point is I was saying ‘just be careful, you don’t understand,'" he told The New Daily.

"The people who live there are in a commune basically. Wytaliba is an alternative community. They don’t vote for me, they vote for Greens, and I’ve got no problem with it. They agree there should have been more burn reduction, fuel reduction.”

It should be noted that earlier in the Sky conversation, Joyce acknowledged the role of climate change in the bushfire crisis: "I, like, completely condone that this is climate change. I acknowledge that things are getting drier. We’re in a record drought."

However, he dismissed the idea that any Australian policy change would have a meaningful impact or prevent a fire emergency. He then offered a rather odd take on what else might be to blame...

"I acknowledge that there are other issues as well," he said. "There’s just the oscillation of the seasons. There’s a change in the magnetic field of the sun."

Did it truly not rain anywhere in Australia on Monday?

Headlines were widely shared on social media about our entire continent being dry on Monday. "The day it forgot to rain on Australia." "Yesterday was the first day in history where it did not rain in Australia."

But they were a tad premature.

A Bureau of Meteorology forecast map for November 11 had shown zero rainfall predicted for the entire mainland, with a small amount to fall on Tasmania. And that raised a lot of eyebrows: "The team can't comprehensively identify a day in our records where there hasn't been rain somewhere on continental Australia," BoM spokesman told The Sydney Morning Herald.

But as the day unfolded, a small amount fell in Victoria.

"While it remained dry across most of Australia, during the 24 hours to 9am today rainfall was recorded in locations in both Victoria and Tasmania," a BoM spokesperson told Gizmodo. "In Victoria, totals were mostly below 3mm (5mm at Ferny Creek). Some over 10 mm in Tasmania."

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