SYDNEY – Fuelled by one of the worst droughts in a century, this season’s bushfires have already scarred a slice of Australia nearly three times the size of Britain – or almost as big as the second largest U.S. state, Texas.
Up to the end of December, 659,185 square km (254,500 sq miles) of bush, pine plantations, rainforest, desert scrub, tropical savannah and city suburbs burned as fierce blazes roared across the parched landscape, according to satellite data.
Throw in massive fires in January that killed four people and destroyed 530 homes in the capital Canberra, and others that have raged for weeks through Alpine ski resorts in Victoria, and almost 10 percent of the giant continent has been singed.
Furthermore, the fire season for southern parts of Australia, where the bulk of its 20 million people live, is far from over with two months of 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) southern hemisphere summer temperatures left to go.
“We’ve got conditions like…if someone throws a match, if we get lightning…,” said Neil Phillips of the Bushfires Council Northern Territory, who watches over the south of the Northern Territory from his offices in the outback town of Alice Springs.
Yet, as data collated for Reuters shows, the scale of the fires so far is not all that unusual.
In 2001, 800,900 square km of the island continent burned, said researcher Belinda Heath of the Satellite Remote Sensing Services in the Department of Land Administration in Western Australia state – the only body mapping the fires on a national scale.
The year before, the amount of blackened land reached 715,000 square km.
Those figures only map the large blazes, as the satellite’s resolution cannot spot fires that are less than 400 ha (988.4 acres) in size.
But they do underscore a fact of life modern Australia is still coming to terms with – wildfires are as natural to the landscape as the sun and the rain.
While many are sparked by lightning, fires have also been a tool used for thousands of years by Aborigines to manage the land, or hunt for game, and continue to be used by farmers today.
Every year, virtually unnoticed by the outside world, enormous wildfires burn through the tropical savannah of the remote Pilbara region in northern Western Australia.
More than half of the fires mapped in 2002 tore through the arid outback of the Northern Territory, where cattle ranches, or stations, are thousands of square kilometres in size and bushfires barely rate a mention in the national media. Jim Gould, research leader for Bushfire Behaviour and Management at the government-funded Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), said the current 11-month drought, which has savaged agricultural production, could not necessarily be blamed for causing the fires.
FUEL BUT NO SPARK
It has dried out the “fuel” the fires feed on – fallen leaves and twigs that coat the forest and outback floors where eucalypt provides a high-octane additive with its flammable oil.
The drought has made normally immune rainforest dry enough to burn.
But the “Big Dry’s” most notable effect has been to drain creeks that might otherwise have provided natural firebreaks, and thereby made bushfires much more difficult to control.
“It’s not an unusual event,” Gould told Reuters.
Similarly devastating bushfires took place in 1994, when almost 300 homes in Sydney burned, and in 1983 when 76 people died on Ash Wednesday in South Australia and Victoria.
In 1967, 61 people were killed on Black Tuesday in Hobart, capital of the island state of Tasmania, and in 1939, 71 died on Black Friday in outback Victoria.
“And it will happen again,” said Gould. “I think one of the things we really do have to learn…(is) to live with fire, maybe become a bit of a master of it rather than it mastering us.”
That is little consolation to the Australian Capital Territory, half of which – or 154,000 hectares – was left charred on January 18 when bushfires swept through the Canberra suburb of Duffy.
Nor to Victoria, which has seen 1.14 million hectares blackened by fires that have blazed a 1,700 km trail through the Snowy Mountains, compared to the state’s long-term average of 110,000 hectares burned a year.
“It’s the most severe we’ve had since the 1939 fires when two million hectares burned,” said Stuart Ord of the South Australia Department of Sustainability and Environment.