A firefighter looks out at the Bear fire near Oroville, California in September 2020 (Getty Images)

The Bulletin: Wildfires stretch US to extremes

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Fires devastate US West amid other catastrophes, academics call for protecting of Māori colleagues at Waikato, and Labour brings forward 100% renewable target.

Remember the massive wildfires that swept through Australia, and how they turned the skies a deep and forbidding orange? It was less than a year ago, and yet the event has been pushed aside by a tumultuous time since. But the issue underpinning the fires never went away, nor was it localised to Australia, and now the west coast of North America is once again seeing a massive season of burning, which by various measures is the worst ever seen. So that’s why we’re going to have an international lead story today. For context, the LA Times has an updating map of where fires are burning across the USA, and it’s worth noting that many of the areas that seem untouched are already deserts.

Earlier in September, CNN reported that the amount of land burned in California had hit a new state record for the length of a season, and that was still with the typically dangerous month of October to come. In Oregon, several towns have been “devastated” by the fires, reports Oregon Live, along with huge swathes of the surrounding counties. And the Seattle Times reports fires have also hit Washington State, destroying hundreds of homes in the process.

The smoke is absolutely choking for millions of people. The CBC reports it has stretched up into Canada, with health warnings issued for people in most of British Columbia, as well as the major city of Vancouver. The smoke is going all the way down the coast of the USA as well, with bad air being reported as far south as Southern California.

The firefighting workforce is deeply stretched right now. California in particular relies heavily on prison labour to tackle fire seasons (in a system which isn’t a long way away from slavery) but as the New York Times reported in August, prisoner releases to prevent the rampant spread of Covid-19 have massive depleted those ranks. Voice of America reported weeks ago that California’s governor was asking for international help.

One major cause of this all is climate change. But as this CBS News piece outlines, we’re seeing extreme weather in all sorts of ways – while these fires rage, a few hundred miles to the east in Colorado just saw two feet of snow in the middle of summer. One major problem shown by this is that climate change isn’t just resulting in hotter and drier conditions – it’s ultimately a disruptive and unpredictable force that makes life less liveable. Hurricanes are also currently smashing into the southern and eastern parts of the country, leaving emergency services reeling and unable to fight on every front. And in the month of August alone, the country suffered four natural disasters that each resulted in more than a billion dollars in damage.

There’s only so long that such blows can be sustained. Put it like this: the wildfires are contributing to rolling blackouts and horrific smoky conditions, and cannot be fought effectively because of an ongoing pandemic. Both are costing lives, and both are putting immense pressure on the regular economy, which in turn is facing an unemployment crisis. The details are different, but it’s exactly the sort of cascade of scenarios warned about in New Zealand’s recent National Climate Change Risk Assessment. And when all of that is going on, the question is exactly the same – how long does any semblance of social cohesion last?


Thousands of people, including many academics, have called on Waikato University to protect two of their top experts who alleged structural racism at the institution. Radio NZ’s Te Aniwa Hurihanganui and Māni Dunlop report that several other Māori academics are now wondering if their own places are under threat, given an understanding that contracts will not be renewed for professor Brendan Hokowhitu, the Māori and Indigenous studies dean, and professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, a significant figure in the field of decolonisation theory and education. The university has denied the allegations. Meanwhile, cuts appear likely at Victoria University, reports Newshub’s Caley Callahan, with international student numbers down and a huge shortfall of revenue building up.


Various policy launch announcements were made yesterday, and we covered them all in our live updatesI was personally out on the campaign trail in Taupō, where the PM opened the Great Lake Walkway, and announced a new energy policy to bring forward the 100% renewable energy target to 2030. That could require some pretty costly infrastructure construction, reports Politik, and is also probably linked to the closure of the energy-hungry Tiwai Point smelter.


The Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship story is developing into one that is fundamentally about trust. After suggestions that members of the congregation initially didn’t believe in the seriousness of Covid-19, Radio NZ’s Rowan Quinn there are now warnings from Pacific health leaders that bringing in the police to assist with contact tracing could be counterproductive. For valid historical reasons, some Pasifika people simply don’t trust the police, and those concerns have resulted in the police role being pulled back from actual operations.


The Greens have warned they could walk away from coalition negotiations and sit on the cross benches, even if in a position to govern after the election. The NZ Herald has reported on the comments from party co-leader James Shaw, who again ruled out the possibility of putting National into government. But if they hold the balance of power (not impossible, given current polling) they could hypothetically use that leverage to force Labour to act as a minority government, and seek legislative approval on a case by case basis.


There could be much more to come on this: Allegations of corruption among guards are currently being investigated at Rimutaka Prison, reports Stuff. Police have interviewed dozens of staff, and it is understood that several have either resigned or been suspended. It is unclear exactly what the nature of the allegations is, but believed to be in relation to alleged money laundering and drug smuggling.


More on Labour’s tax policy announcement, and their wider philosophy of governing to date: I haven’t seen this put any more succinctly anywhere else, so I’m just going to quote Newsroom’s Bernard Hickey directly here.

“It’s the dirty little secret of the first term of this Labour-led Government. It has been fantastically enriching for the oldest and richest in the electorate, while the young, the old and poor who voted for Labour and the Greens became poorer and are even further away from affordable housing and decent incomes than they were in 2017 when they swept Jacinda Ardern to power.” 


Got some feedback about The Bulletin, or anything in the news? Drop us a line at thebulletin@thespinoff.co.nz

Pulling off combos like it ain’t no thing, even though you haven’t done it since you were a kid? That, my friend, is science. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Right now on The Spinoff: The Side Eye is starting a fascinating series on how to draw political leaders, and Jacinda Ardern is up first. Michael Andrew reports on the extreme squeeze being put on Auckland food court tenants, who are struggling to pay rent to their former Shortland St star landlord. Alice Webb-Liddall reports on the cross-mental health group report aimed at addressing suicide rates. Webb-Liddall again looks at Zincovery, an innovative firm trying to recover zinc that would otherwise be dumped. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports on what Google trends data tells us about how people are seeking out election info. Luke Fitzmaurice writes about a thoughtful conversation with the Crusaders rugby team CEO about whether the name should change. Sam Brooks writes about games, memory, and why you can still play Tony Hawk skater as well as you could two decades ago.

And I missed this one yesterday morning, but it’s excellent – Josie Adams has looked at the enduring allure of gold, for both traders and those who want to survive in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and the increasing trend of people going out and panning for their own nuggets.


If you live in Auckland, you never know when this advice might come in handy. Wired has looked at the deadly eruption of Vesuvius two millennia ago, and asked if anyone in the town of Pompeii could have survived. Surprisingly, the answer is actually yes – and there’s a guide to how. Here’s an excerpt:

The trouble with Mount Vesuvius’ AD 79 eruption wasn’t just its size, but the fact that so many people lived so close. When I asked James Moore, a volcanologist and scientist emeritus at the US Geological Survey, how best to escape an erupting volcano, he said it’s quite easy: “Don’t live near one!”

But that is far more difficult than it might seem. It wasn’t just bad luck that Romans built their city at the base of a volcano. Instead, volcanoes tend to attract human societies because their long-ago eruptions can produce fantastic soils. If the Pompeiians had done any excavation, they might have found evidence of the massive Vesuvius eruption in 1995 BC and the Bronze Age population it destroyed. But they didn’t.

So instead, you and the rest of the Pompeiians find yourselves 6 miles from the vent of Vesuvius with only two options: Run north, or run south.


A bit of a coup for the New Zealand men’s football team, who will be playing two friendlies against top-ranked opposition. Stuff reports they will be meeting both England and Belgium, with the former game taking place at Wembley Stadium no less – crowd allowances are still to be determined of course. The pandemic is playing havoc with coach Danny Hay’s squad options, and he’s largely only going to be able to pick Europe based players. But even so, credible friendly matches have sometimes been hard for NZ Football to secure, so getting these two into the international window matters.


That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme



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