Fires to get bigger: report

Fires to get bigger: report

5 December 2008

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Australia –There is no way to fire-proof Sydney, and big bushfires are expected to burn up to 35 per cent more land around the city by the year 2050 as a result of climate change, the first detailed government study of the region has confirmed.

Homes on the fringes of Sydney will become more vulnerable to fires, and more hazard reduction burning would be unlikely to prevent fires getting bigger and more devastating, the report said.

“If you were going to counteract the increased risk, then by 2050 you would need to do prescribed burns at five times the current level, which means five times the cost and allocating five times the resources,” said the study’s lead author, Professor Ross Bradstock, director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong.

The report, prepared as part of the NSW Government’s climate change strategy, found that the hotter, drier weather expected over the next 40 years would be likely to lead to 24 per cent more bushfires around Sydney and threaten 35 per cent more land area.

The study focused on the Woronora Plateau south of Sydney, which was damaged by big fires in 1994 and 1998, the Blue Mountains and the Ku-Ring-Gai district.

As the weather heats up, more people would be crowding into new, semi-rural housing developments on the city’s fringe. “Such trends may have significant consequences for urban protection in these areas,” the report said.

But the research, which translates CSIRO climate change data into local conditions around Sydney, paints a complex picture of possible future bushfires.

Although it concluded that fires would be bigger and more frequent, there was also a possibility that drier conditions could mean less plant growth and less fuel. Although bigger fires were more likely, it is impossible to forecast with complete accuracy, the report said.

One “wildcard” factor was the effect that more carbon in the atmosphere would have on the growth of eucalyptus forests, Professor Bradstock said.

Experiments being undertaken now at Sydney University have shown eucalypts growing faster in high-carbon air, which simulates expected conditions in 2050, suggesting that more bushfire fuel may be available in future.

The NSW Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, Carmel Tebbutt, said that while no amount of burn-offs could guard against the increasing risk, fire damage could be lessened by careful planning.

“As well as taking every possible opportunity to carry out hazard reduction, we will continue to improve safety in bushfire prone areas, while ensuring major funding for bushfire prevention and management.”

Ms Tebbutt pointed to increased funding for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to upgrade its fire-fighting and search-and-rescue radio network, announced in the last state budget.

NSW had bought more than 3000 bushfire tankers over the past 14 years, said the Minister for Emergency Services, Tony Kelly.

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