Wildfires are defined as unplanned and unwanted fires, which also includes lightning-caused fires, unauthorized human-caused fires, and escaped prescribed fire projects, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), an American non-profit global policy think tank. In the US, an average of 72,400 wildfires burned an average of 7.0 million acres each year since 2000, as found by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). This is nearly double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s, which was 3.3 million acres, though more fires occurred each year in the 1990s (78,600 on average).
In 2018, 58,083 wildfires burned 8.8 million acres across the US. 40, 581 wildfires burned 4.4 million acres as of October 3, 2019. Most wildfires are caused by humans at an average of 88% from 2014 to 2018. However, wildfires caused by lightning tend to be much larger and burn more acreage, with 51% of the average acreage burned from 2014 to 2018.
Outside the US, more than 27.2 million acres (11 million hectares) of bush, forest, and parks all over Australia have been burned, reported British news channel BBC. The figure can be compared to England’s land area of 13 hectares. The country has had wildfires (bushfires) before, but this season has been worse.
Is Climate Change to be Blamed?
Many Australians are asking that question, but it’s actually more complicated. Scientists have warned that a hotter, drier climate will cause fires to occur more frequently and intensely. In fact, many parts of Australia have suffered from drought, some for years, making it easier for fires to spread and grow.
In December, Australia broke its all-time temperature record twice, with an average maximum of 40.9 C recorded on December 17. This was then broken the following day with a temperature of 41.9 C, beating 2013’s record of 40.3 C. Every Australian state had temperatures above 40 C by the end of the month, including Tasmania, which is usually cooler than the mainland.
With the bushfire season looming the country, people are asking themselves: “what can I do to help?” Life-changing moments provide opportunities for people to turn over a new leaf such as letting go of old habits and fostering new behaviors, noted Denise Goodwin, Abby Wild, and Melissa Hatty of The Conversation, a not-for-profit media outlet. The bushfires in Australia could help citizens take a u-turn, enabling them to acquire and execute long-term actions. But governments and environmental organizations must act now before it’s too late.
Humans Are Creatures of Habit: There’s A Will, There’s A Way
People’s behavior is generally “habitual, resistant to change, and shaped by context.” When the latter is disrupted, new opportunities arise for people to seize. Since the bushfire was relevant to millions of Australians, they evacuated or cut their holidays short. Such instances are described as a moment of change in psychology and behavioral science.
Prior to the crisis, many Australians were prepared to act for nature. The official website of the Victoria State Government conducted a survey in 2018, gathering 3,090 respondents aged 18 and above. Detailing the key results on their official website and The Conservation, they found that 64% of Victorians feel connected or very connected to nature.
Moreover, 86% of respondents support pro-environmental and pro-social values and 95% are aware of Victoria’s environmental condition and the importance of biodiversity. 84% of respondents engage in key actions or behaviors that help improve Victoria’s natural environment. These findings show that people who are connected with nature are more likely to be proactive in taking care of the environment.
Previous Research Supports Behavioral Change
Rebecca Sargisson and colleagues published a 2012 study titled “Volunteering: A Community Response to the Rena Oil Spill In New Zealand” on journal portal Research Gate. The respondents consisted of 112 women and 52 men age 16 and above. While all of them registered as volunteers, 10 respondents had not actually attended a clean-up event. When asked how they first found about volunteering after the Rena oil spill, 26 or 15.6% cited the television, 24 or 14.4% said they found out from the newspaper, and 23 or 13.2% said they found out from the radio. Totaling to 43.1% of responses, these channels outweighed more modern mass communication outlets such as online news sites (nine or 5.4% of respondents) and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council Toi Moana’s website (nine or 5.4% of respondents).
Once registered, 104 said they wanted to volunteer because they live locally or used the beach for recreational purposes. 83 respondents mentioned the need to contribute to a community asset. When asked about the respondents’ volunteer experience, Sargisson and colleagues found that 57.8% of respondents agreed that the Rena oil spill had an impact on their day-to-day life.
This was an interesting find since they were not personally affected by the disaster. However, 84.7% of respondents recommended oil spill clean-up volunteering to other people. When asked if they felt they have made a significant contribution to the cleanup, a total of 81.65% of respondents agreed. 90.57% of the volunteers were also willing to volunteer for other disaster-relief activities.
Overall, the Rena oil spill helped unified local communities due to a collective responsibility to save the environment. Others may choose to help out because they live locally, want to contribute, or they want future generations to use the coastline.
The Time for Change Is Now
When people are given the opportunity, capability, and motivation, they are more likely to take action, as demonstrated by the Behavioral Change Wheel, a model by Susan Michie, Lou Atkins, and Robert West, via its official website BehaviorChangeWheel.com. Australians have shown these characteristics, but they just need more opportunities. Easy behaviors that can be performed easily should be encouraged by governments and environmental organizations. Timeliness aids in promoting new behaviors. Therefore, organizations should limit the time between an individual’s first impulse to help and concrete opportunities to act.
Volunteering groups should discuss with volunteers, state what skills and resources they can bring to the table, and offer easy, practical suggestions for acting quickly. In the short run, this could entail keeping cats indoors and dogs under control when owners live in areas affected by the bushfires. But in the long run, these behaviors could be improved to encourage individuals to plant native plants in their garden, volunteer for nature, and participate in citizen science projects, for example.
Will Australians revert to their old ways after the bushfire crises? No. When people foster one pro-environmental behavior, they are more likely to do it again in the future, just like how the respondents in the New Zealand oil spill study have shown their eagerness to volunteer again.
The Australian bushfires devastated millions of acres of land, forcing citizens to evacuate or shorten their holidays. The key to saving the environment is building up pro-environment habits as early as now. When people share a collective responsibility for protecting the environment, they are more motivated to volunteer or participate in projects that will make Mother Nature happy.