Stanford researchers weigh in on Australian wildfires

Jan. 16, 2020, 10:28 p.m.

For weeks, wildfires have been tearing across Australia in one of the most devastating fire seasons the country has seen. Recent reports say that at least 28 people have died with more missing, and more than 12.35 million acres of land have been burned.

The Daily spoke to several professors and researchers to get their perspective on the situation and speak to the larger issues at play. Kevin Arrigo is the director of the Earth Systems program and is on the Bing Overseas Studies Faculty Oversight Committee. He teaches classes in biological oceanography, his research area, as well as the introductory earth systems class, EARTHSYS 10. Rebecca Miller is a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering who is researching wildfire policies and their impacts. Michael Wara is the director of the Climate and Energy Policy program and is an expert in California law and policy concerning wildfires and the utility industry. Gabrielle Wong-Parodi is an assistant professor in the earth science department who researches how behavioral decision research methods can address challenges associated with global environmental change.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): To what extent are the wildfires in Australia related to climate change?

Kevin Arrigo (KA): It is hard to pin any single event to climate change, but the fact that Australia has been in a protracted drought, coupled with this being the hottest summer on record, certainly points to climate change as a contributing factor.

Rebecca Miller (RM): Climate change is a contributing factor to the wildfires in Australia due to drier and warmer fuels and weather conditions. Last year, Australia experienced record-breaking heat and drought.

Michael Wara (MW): Bushfire has been a problem in Australia for a long time, but what happened this year is what happens when you add climate change to an already-dangerous situation. Part of the issue is what started the fire, but then what happens afterward has a lot to do with climate change.

The incredible intensity of the fires is what we should be, at this point, expecting. I think it’s a great illustration of how when people talk about “one and a half or only two degrees” — that’s actually a lot of change for sensitive systems. It can push them from something that’s kind of manageable into situations that are unmanageable. I think the bigger element of the story is that these effects are caused by an interaction. 

So much of the way that we live is very finely tuned to the environment, and climate change is just like altering all the assumptions upon which a very complicated human society is built. So, expect disruption and catastrophe.

TSD: Is there any research at Stanford regarding wildfires? What are the findings so far?

Gabrielle Wong-Parodi (GWP): My group has several ongoing studies looking at wildfires and their impacts in California. The first are a set of qualitative interviews with people impacted by the 2018 Camp Fire smoke. We have interviewed people in Sacramento, Chico, Fresno and Palo Alto on their views of wildfire and smoke risk, ways they mitigate that risk, and sources of information they use to inform their decision-making.

The second is a survey conducted with Californians impacted by the public safety power shutoffs (PSPS). I surveyed individuals in terms of how they were coping psychologically and physically to the demands of the PSPS, their views on such measures reducing wildfire risk and their tolerance for future wildfires. We are also about to embark on a study looking at how wildfire smoke impacts individuals who work outdoors.

TSD: What are the effects of wildfires like these on biodiversity? What does that mean for the environment moving forward?

KA: Over the years, Australia’s wildlife has been concentrated into smaller and smaller patches of land, many of which are now on fire. Given that reports suggest 500 million to a billion animals have been lost to the wildfires, it is hard not to be concerned about the impact that could have on the biodiversity of this unique place.

RM: One billion animals are estimated dead from the Australian wildfires. Australia has a high number of endemic species, referring to species that only live in that area. It’s hard to guess what the long-term impacts on the environment will be, but this is likely to be a biodiversity crisis given the endemism.

MW: Australia is certainly a hotspot of biodiversity, so a catastrophic fire on a large piece of that landscape is going to be important. It’s important for folks to remember that Australia is basically many coastal areas with an interior that’s a gigantic desert, so a lot of the biodiversity is really concentrated where these fires are happening. It’s not just that a big piece of new South Wales burns — there are disproportionate impacts.

TSD: Could weather patterns like this affect the Stanford in Australia study abroad program?

KA: Our students in the Bing Overseas Australia program certainly smelled the fires when they were in Sydney, but it was pretty early in the season, so they were not impacted to a large degree. Fortunately they are back home now!

TSD: In what ways are the wildfires in Australia related to those in California recently? Is it possible that California could experience wildfires as intense and devastating in the future?

KA: Both places share a Mediterranean climate that is adapted to fires, and our long drought seems to have finally ended, so I am not that concerned about wildfires of the scale in Australia happening here. Unfortunately for Australia, their fire infrastructure is not as good as it is in California, and their sparse population makes it difficult for people to reach all the burning areas.

RM: Climate change is a factor that has made these wildfires in Australia and those in California recently so devastating. We can expect to see more and more of these catastrophic wildfire seasons in both locations, as the number of days with high-risk fire weather will continue to increase.

MW: I think this is something that we’ve observed to some degree in California as well, where you take some not smart land-use decision-making and layer that on top of a drought, and then you put higher temperatures into that mix, and maybe an irresponsible utility or two, which has also been a problem in Australia. The other dynamic is in Australia, there are a lot more people in harm’s way than there used to be, and that’s because the land values have really pushed people out into the more dangerous areas. That sounds kind of familiar. I don’t know that California would experience something at the scale of Australia. We’re much better at catching things when they’re small and getting them out.

TSD: Is there anything that can be done to prevent disasters like this in the future?

KA: I think that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is the only long-term solution to these kinds of problems.

MW: I think a much more active fuels management policy. I think this is a legitimate criticism that many people have levied at the Australian government: they haven’t done enough. The state governments and the federal government haven’t done enough to manage fuels, and they have tended to manage fuels in a way that is not targeted at reducing risk. I think that’s where both California and Australia have a long way to go.

TSD: Is there anything else you think the Stanford community should know about the wildfires in Australia?

MW: I think it’s important for people to understand that — and this is actually ongoing research at Stanford that’s conducted by a number of people — if you asked most of the people that are working on this, “How many people die from the fires versus from the smoke?” more people are dying from the smoke. So there’s an invisible death toll to these fires that you don’t see reported as death caused by fire, but it’s every bit as real. We’re working on the question of what is a better quantification of what that number looks like, at least for the California fires. 

The other thing is that the experience from California suggests that the costs of fires are disproportionately borne by poor people. The people that own their homes and have homeowners insurance get rental coverage from their insurance company, and then they go out and bid up all the rents on apartments nearby, and the landlords evict all the low-income people that live in rental housing. There are big issues with displaced populations in fire areas, both people who lose their homes and people who are displaced after the fire by the economic impacts of fire.

These transcripts have been lightly edited and condensed.

Contact Danielle Echeverria at dech23 ‘at’

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