Brief lull in Australia’s bushfire hell

Brief lull in Australia’s bushfire hell

19 January 2007

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Australia — After 50 days fighting some of the worst bushfires Australia hasever experienced, unexpected rains have, on Friday, brought some relief. Butbushfire experts warn that the rainstorms are not heavy enough to douse thefires, and that lightening could start new ones.

“It’s a lull, not full respite; the fires still have the potential tospread,” says Kevin Tolhurst, a fire ecologist at the University of Melbourneand advisor to the government of Victoria – the Australian state worseaffected.

The fires, which have burnt more than one million hectares of land in thesouthern states of Victoria and New South Wales, have been causing havoc forweeks. One person has been killed, and 40 houses destroyed so far.

“It will go down as one of the worst bushfire episodes in Victoria – ever,”said the state’s premier, Steve Bracks, earlier this week, after cutting shorthis holiday because of the crisis.

Black outs

On Wednesday, as temperatures topped 40°C, power was cut to most ofMelbourne – Australia’s second largest city – causing traffic chaos. Theblackout was caused when the main electricity link between New South Wales andVictoria automatically shut down after air thick with soot particles enabledelectricity to arc from one line to another.

On Thursday, fire threatened the catchment that feeds the Thomson reservoir,Melbourne’s principal source of drinking water.

Friday’s more favourable conditions have enabled fire-fighters to continueprotecting high voltage lines by controlled burning of the foliage beneath them,helping prevent future blackouts, according to Victoria’s Department ofSustainability and Environment.

But the nation’s best-known ski-resort, Thredbo, 90 miles south ofCanberra, is currently under severe fire threat, and hundreds of holidaymakershave been evacuated.

Dropping in

Australia’s fire-fighters have been stretched to breaking point. They arereceiving help from over a hundred Canadian, New Zealand and US fire-fighters.

The international teams include fire behaviour specialists and rappel crews,fire-fighters who rappel down ropes from helicopters to put out spot fires inremote areas that have the potential to grow into major blazes.

The intensity of the fires is due in part to a decade-long drought, which hasled to record low humidity levels of 3% to 5%, drying up vegetation and theatmosphere – perfect conditions for major fires. “Even below 20% humidityyou get quite severe fire behaviour,” says Tolhurst.

Such droughts may become more frequent in the region, according to a studyreleased on Wednesday (see Climatechange may boost Asian monsoon and worsen droughts).

The Australian fires form part of a global pattern of extreme weather events.This month, they include major floods in southern Malaysia that led to theevacuation of over 100,000 people, and Thursday’s violent storms acrossnorthern Europe and the southern UK that have killed at least 39 people.

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