Australia's bushfires show drastic effects of climate change

Scientists say climate change is behind the unprecedented intensity of the bushfires that have burned a reported 27 million acres in Australia.

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It's summer in Australia and it's been a season from hell. Raging fires have devastated the continent, scorching a reported 27 million acres and killing 33 people. Bushfires are a part of life in Australia and they're often deadly. But the scale of these fires is unprecedented. Areas across multiple states have ignited. Australian cities have suffocated in smoke, on some days giving residents the worst air quality in the world. And according to one estimate, a billion animals have been killed. Scientists say climate change is transforming Australia's environment, making it hotter and drier, and exposing it to longer, more intense fire seasons. The fires started unusually early in September and when we visited the continent this month, we found that Australia is still burning.

The fires have devoured forests like rivers of lava. Smoke blanketing the landscape, the skies turning marmalade in the middle of the day. It's been a black summer down under. And it's not over yet. It sometimes feels as if Australia is at war, doing battle with insatiable flames that are fueled by record heat, high winds and a country parched by drought. And this is what's been left behind in towns like Cobargo, five hours south of Sydney, where Marilyn Mills was trapped inside her burning house.

Firefighters Continue To Battle Bushfires As Catastrophic Fire Danger Warning Is Issued In NSW
Two bushfires approach a home located on the outskirts of the town of Bargo on December 21, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. David Gray / Getty Images

"It started coming up here, just straight and I thought, I'm just gonna burn to death," Mills told contributing correspondent Holly Williams. "And I thought, 'Just die.'"

"You wanted to die at that point?" Williams asked.

"Yeah, if I could have killed myself, I woulda done it in a second rather than burn to death," Mills said. "It was so hot."

Sixty miles away, on the coast, the scenes on New Year's Eve were like a modern-day Dunkirk. The fires forced people to retreat to the beaches, as flying embers gusted across the sand. Greg Mullins, a retired fire chief who is now a volunteer fire captain, was there battling towering flames.

"They actually had to jump into the ocean to escape," Mullins said. "The fires burnt right to the edge."

"Have you ever seen that before?" Williams asked. "People having to shelter on, on the beach and in the water?"

"On a massive scale, over hundreds of miles in, in multiple communities, no. That's just unprecedented," Mullins said. "The wind was howling. When the fire came through, that sounded like a 747 jet landing. So the sounds, the sights, it was just, it was apocalyptic."

Mullins said he'd never seen a blaze move that quickly.

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Greg Mullins

"At one stage, I saw kangaroos come out of the bush on fire, and then just drop dead on the roadway," Mullins said. "And I've never, ever seen that before. Because they're fast animals. They know where to go."

A timelapse video from a dashcam shows how firefighters were forced to scramble in the face of rapidly approaching flames. In less than two minutes, the fire consumed anything that didn't make it out. Hundreds of bushfires have burned for weeks on end, some of them merging into mega fires and firefighters on the front line say nature has gone awry.

"I saw fire behavior I didn't expect. And what I learned later was that the fire had created its own weather system," Mullins said. "Big fires can form storm clouds, which then you have an inrush of air at the bottom, you have downbursts, just like a normal thunderstorm. You have lightning that can start fires 20, 25 miles away. And firefighters can lose their lives. So one night, an 8-ton fire truck was picked up by a downburst and put on its roof and killed a firefighter and injured the rest of them."

"I think this is really redefining what it means to actually be living through a period of rapid climate change."

To drop fire retardant, Australia is relying on borrowed flying tankers from North America. One of the planes went down in smoky conditions last month, killing three American firefighters on board. 

"We're so indebted to those people. And every firefighter felt it," Mullins said. "Three of our brothers, albeit from the U.S. lost their lives trying to help us."

Australia's firefighters are nearly all volunteers. Courageous, but exhausted. They're affectionately known as "Firies" and we saw them protecting suburban homes.

Gospers Mountain Fire At Emergency Level As Heatwave Continues
Fire and Rescue personal run to move their truck as a bushfire burns next to a major road and homes on the outskirts of the town of Bilpin on December 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. David Gray / Getty Images

While Williams and her crew were there a fire 25 miles from Canberra, the Australian capital, was burning out of control. Making it worse it even more dangerous are the conditions. While Williams and her crew were there it was windy, bone dry and nearly 110 degrees.

And it's the changing climate that is at the heart of the problem, according to scientists.

Australia's bushfires impact a 60 Minutes team

"2019 was the hottest and the driest year in Australia's history. So we actually saw temperature records be broken all over the country," Joelle Gergis, a climate scientist at the Australian National University, said. 

"This is the type of summer you might not have expected till the middle of the century based on past projections," Gergis said. "So I think this is really redefining what it means to actually be living through a period of rapid climate change."

"So you're saying you would have expected this kind of scenario that we saw this summer to happen in 2050?" Williams asked.

"Yeah, potentially," Gergis said. "Middle of the century."

Is Gergis shocked?

"Of course, I'm shocked," Gergis, a lead author of an upcoming United Nations report on climate change, said.

Gergis said Australia is more vulnerable to climate change than any other developed nation, in part because it's the driest inhabited continent.

"When it comes to climate change is Australia a bell-weather for the rest of the world?" Williams asked.

"I think this summer has been a real wakeup call for most Australians," Gergis said. "And myself as a climate scientist, seeing the extreme level of heat and the bushfires and the drought conditions playing out so catastrophically has been I think a wakeup call to the world."

"We have been mugged by the reality of climate change in this summer," Malcolm Turnbull, a political conservative who served as Australia's prime minister up until August of 2018, said.

"This is climate change in the raw," Turnbull said. "This is what we have been told to expect for years."

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Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Turnbull said he was warned as prime minister the fires were getting worse.

"Well, of course. Everyone has known this," Turnbull said. "We've been warned by the climate scientists. Everyone has been aware of this except for those who, well, the climate change deniers are aware of it, but they choose to deny reality."

Turnbull was bounced out of office by the right wing of his own party largely over his support for cutting carbon emissions.

"The right wing climate deniers treat an issue of science and physics and fact as though it was a question of ideology, and their conduct is not just idiotic," Turnbull said. "It is downright dangerous. Dangerous for us here in Australia and around the world."

"You're talking about people in your own party," Williams said.

"Of course I am. Yeah. Absolutely," Turnbull confirmed.

"Dangerous and idiotic," Williams said.

"Well, of course it is dangerous and idiotic not to be taking the strongest action to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions," Turnbull said.

Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison, who has minimized climate change. He famously stood up in parliament in 2017 and taunted his opponents with a lump of coal.

Morrison has prioritized protecting Australia's mining industry, coal is the country's second largest export. And members of the current government argue it's not Australia's responsibility to act on climate change since the country only produces about one percent of global emissions.

"Isn't there some truth in that?" Williams asked. "I mean, if, if the U.S. doesn't act, if China and India don't act to cut emissions, it doesn't matter very much what Australia does."

"Well, if we don't act, if we don't act, a wealthy advanced economy facing the harsh reality of climate change, if we don't act and show leadership, why would anyone else act?" Turnbull said.

With his country on fire, the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison took his family on a Hawaiian vacation. When he returned home, he was given a cold shoulder as he tried to comfort victims in the fire zones. He was heckled by seething residents, including in the hard-hit town of Cobargo where Marilyn Mills lives.

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Marilyn Mills

"A lot of people in Cobargo are angry with the prime minister," Williams said to Mills. "Do you share those feelings?"

"Well, he didn't light the fire. Like, what can he do? He's just a bloke with a whole bunch of people under him and they're all idiots," Mills said.

"For you, it sounds like it's the entire government that you're angry with," Williams said.

"Well, they need to have a look at what, what threatens Australia," Mills said. "Fire threatens Australia. That's our big thing, fire. Fire, drought, all those sorts of things, that's what they need to focus on."

Greg Mullins says he and 22 former fire and emergency service chiefs from all over Australia wrote to Prime Minister Morrison last April, warning him of a looming catastrophe and requesting more resources to fight bushfires.

And what was the response?

"Ah, that he was too busy to meet with us,"

"He refused to meet with you?" Williams asked.

"Point blank. Told us to buzz off basically," Mullins said." We've been told by senior public servants in Canberra that because we uttered two horrible words: climate change. We were discounted as being activists, and we would not get a meeting at any stage with the prime minister."

60 Minutes wanted to interview the prime minister about the devastating fires and their connection with climate change but he declined our request, as did other members of his government. Scott Morrison has admitted that he made mistakes in his handling of this crisis. But what he has not done is make any change to reduce this country's carbon emissions.

Climate scientist Joelle Gergis says the future of Australia hangs in the balance. Williams asked her if the Australian people are being betrayed by their politicians.

"At this moment I think it is really reckless and potentially criminal because we know enough," Gergis said. "We actually know enough about the science now. I think the science is crystal clear. And I think the impacts are now playing out now. Remember that Australia is actually an extraordinary continent. We have the highest level of plants and animals that are found here and nowhere else on earth."

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Australia's most iconic animals, koalas and kangaroos, have fared terribly, innocent victims of the fires. One scientist estimates at least a billion animals have died. 

We went to Kangaroo Island, off Australia's southern coast, where tens of thousands of koalas are believed to have been killed. 48% of the island has burned. surviving koalas have been brought to a makeshift care center: the living room of a family that runs a wildlife park. The baby koalas, some only months old, receive special attention.

Many koalas were singed on their paws and arrived dehydrated. A mash unit has been set up to sedate them and treat their wounds so they may one day return to their habitat, or what's left of it. Feeding grounds have been reduced to char. And just before we left the island, we came across a hungry kangaroo, scouring the ashes for something to eat.

In the last two weeks it's finally rained, giving everyone some respite and hope that this most brutal season of fires may be coming to an end. But the scars remain: in what used to be pristine wilderness ringing with birdsong and brimming with wildlife there is silence.

The music of the forest, in the middle of the Australian summer, is gone.

If you would like to help the animals affected by Australia's bushfires, please visit the links below:

Produced by Draggan Mihailovich and Jacqueline Williams. Edited by Warren Lustig. Broadcast associate, Sheena Samu.