Now he worries that Australia is on the verge of a "great ecological change." Climate change has pushed natural phenomena, such as forest fires, to mutate into more disastrous and deadly versions of themselves.
Temperatures are rising to heights that scientists did not expect to see in decades. Landscapes that are generally fire resistant, including rain forests that house rare and vulnerable species, are catching fire.
Fire tornadoes, formed when rotating winds generate a massive rotating column of fire, ash, steam and debris, are impossible to control. A volunteer firefighter in New South Wales was killed on December 30 when one of these workers overturned his truck.
"Ember attacks" occur when violent winds around forest fires pick up pieces of burning debris and transport them up, dropping them in a flammable place where another fire begins.
Witnesses have reported swirls of fire: vortexes of ash, dust and short-lived flames that are generated when hot air currents twist as they rise along the leading edge of a forest fire. These whirlpools behave unpredictably, so much so that they are sometimes called "demons," and can contribute to embankment attacks, said Janice Coen, a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado.
The heat of Australia's flames has fueled thunderstorms generated by the fire of what is known as pyro-cumulonimbus clouds. These mushroom clouds act like chimneys, ventilate the heat and absorb the surrounding air to intensify fires, making their behavior more unpredictable and unstoppable.
Neil Lareau, a meteorologist at the University of Nevada in Reno, said he had never seen pyro-cumulonimbus clouds on such a large scale.
A weather station in New South Wales recorded an air temperature of 158 degrees Fahrenheit as the pyro-cumulonimbus clouds progressed. That is approximately as hot as most saunas, although the number cannot be verified, since the instruments were not designed to operate at such high temperatures.
In some places, fires have restarted in areas that have already burned, said William Moomaw, a climate scientist at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "You've basically created a lot of coal" in the burned forests, he said.
And they are not close to death.
"This is a real wake-up call," not only for Australia, but for the world, said Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at the National University of Australia in Canberra. "We have to look at this and say," How much worse do we want this to get? "
The scale of this fire season is unprecedented, the Australian Meteorology Office said last week. Across the continent, 15 million acres of forest and farmland have been razed. At least 25 people have been killed and one billion animals damaged. The fires in New South Wales are the largest in the state's history and have burned more areas than have been documented in eastern Australia.
The disaster is the result of climate change combined with an unfortunate confluence of climatic extremes. Australia has never been so hot and dry at the same time as during the spring and summer of 2019 and 2020.
In December, Australia broke its high temperature record twice in two days. A weather station in the Nullarbor, a desert region along the southeast coast, reported a maximum of 49.9 degrees Celsius, or 121.8 Fahrenheit, a national record for that month.
The country's scale for measuring fire hazard, known as the cumulative forest fire hazard index, was the highest recorded in December. That means that most of the country had become a tinderbox.
Without climate change, these high levels would not have been possible, according to Andrew King, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne specializing in extreme events. Even with global warming, I was "amazed" to witness them.
"The temperatures we are experiencing this summer I think many scientists did not expect to see for several decades," he said.
At the end of December, the average temperature across the continent was 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm.
Australia's record heat and drought were caused by several factors.
From the west, a rocker circulation pattern known as the Indian Ocean Dipole caused the air to sink over Australia, heating and drying the continent.
Meanwhile, thousands of kilometers away and about 10 kilometers high, in the thin and icy portion of the atmosphere at the top of the South Pole, something changed.
In an event that is unprecedented in 40 years of record keeping, temperatures over Antarctica rose rapidly, causing the polar vortex over the southern hemisphere to break and even change direction. This had cascading effects on weather patterns: the west winds blowing in the Southern Ocean shifted north. Cold fronts moved across Australia, bringing intense wind but little rain.
These factors "came together to create a really bad situation," said Amy Butler, a researcher at the Cooperative Institute for Environmental Science Research in Colorado.
Scientists say that the dramatic events that take place in Australia illustrate the types of disasters that the rest of the world will soon face.
"Australia: You just experienced the future," edited Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading in England.
The island continent is the warmest inhabited continent, and its unique geography means that it is "highly exposed" to the influence of climate change, said Brendan Mackey, a climate scientist at Griffith University in Queensland. It won't take much warming to take life there from a comfortable existence to the brink of extinction, he said, which makes it a kind of reference for the warming world.
Although the planet has experienced, on average, 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit of warming since pre-industrial times, Australia in 2019 was 2.7 degrees warmer than average.
And those are just averages, said Abram of the National University of Australia.
“We tend to have this idea that our climate is gradually warming up and that this type of impact will be gradual. . . but the Earth system does not work like this, "said Abram." There is no reason to expect a gradual increase in temperature to contribute to a gradual increase in the types of fires we have to fight. "
By converting forests that once absorbed carbon into burning carbon sources, forest fires are contributing to the same problem that makes them more likely. Satellite observations suggest that fire emissions may be on par with what Australia produces annually by burning fossil fuels.
The weeks of living under the relentless threat have exhausted Young, the forest expert. Like her neighbors in her coastal town of South Durras in New South Wales, she keeps an emergency kit and has chosen a place on the beach, hidden under a cliff, where she and her husband could hide if hell could achieves.
In early January, after the forecasters predicted a particularly dangerous fire climate, the couple evacuated. Fires have been moving so fast, often as fast as 40 mph, that waiting to see the flames was not an option.
When they returned two days later, "my house was still standing," said Young, head of the climate program for the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society. "The fate of three winds literally changes."
But better than most people, Young knows that the danger is far from over. In the past, January and February have been the hottest months in southeastern Australia. The future of climate change will probably be even worse.
"We are heading to a completely unknown territory," Young said. "Many more extreme or catastrophic days await us."