Climate change increases risk of megafires, experts warn

Climate change increases risk of megafires, experts warn

12 March 2007

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Australia — Fire experts are warning to expect larger fires in the future as a result of more extreme weather conditions.

It is predicted ‘megafires’ will become more common as climate change sucks moisture from the land.

Tonight’s Four Corners program on ABC TV looks at how best to manage the landscape to reduce the fire risk.

Professor Andy Pitman from Sydney’s Macquarie University has told Four Corners bushfire risk may double if something is not done to slow climate change.

“If we allow the emissions to go to the high end, the population growths continue, and there isn’t some superb technological solution, we continue to burn fossil fuels in much the same way that we have been doing, we’re looking at least 100 per cent increase in bushfire risk, and regionally substantially more than that,” he said.
Victorian fires

Victoria suffered 273 fires in a single day in September, and more than 600 in three days in October.

Victoria’s chief fire officer, Ewan Waller, says the changing nature of fires has led to changes in backburning.

“The main backburn we did to protect Gippsland was well over 100,000 hectares, and we burnt out that amount of country to stop the fire from going south,” he said.

“That’s abnormally large, they are not normally that large, but this means the size of the fire and the dramatic action we had to do to make sure we did get containment.”

Melbourne University fire behaviour specialist Dr Kevin Tolhurst has spoken to Four Corners about the fire situation faced by Victoria.

He says 20 years of success in suppressing fires has caused some problems.

“We’re building up the energy, the amount of fuels in the environments here, and our forest and parks are becoming out of balance in a fire sense,” he said.

“Given the opportunities we’ve had, there’s nature trying to correct that balance.”
ACT fires

New South Wales’ Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, says the fire situation is getting worse.

“Are we in for more and larger than normal bushfires? Probably. Are fires becoming more difficult to contain and suppress? Definitely,” he said.

Some veteran firefighters are concerned the scale of the Canberra bushfires of 2003 were a taste of what could happen more regularly in the future.

Commissioner Koperberg, who has stood down from his position to contest the state seat of the Blue Mountains for the ALP, expresses regret over the massive property loss in Canberra.

“We regret profoundly that 500 families lost their property as a consequence of what happened once the fire got into the ACT under appalling conditions,” he said.

“In exactly the same way, we regret profoundly when a rescue team is unsuccessful in extricating a patient before he or she dies, but that does not go to issues of competency or commitment or dedication.”

In a full interview with Commissioner Koperberg on Four Corners tonight, he explains how the firefighting effort in the lead-up to the Canberra fires of 2003 could have been handleddifferently.

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