Australia — Scientists say that Australia can expect more of the scorching conditions that fanned the firestorms that killed at least 181 people this month, prompting a nationwide debate about how to prepare for a hotter, more fire-prone future.
As investigators pick through the tangled wreckage left by Australia’s deadliest wildfires, which flattened townships and destroyed more than 1,000 homes starting Feb. 7, a wide-ranging discussion has begun about the way the country handles wildfires – from greenhouse-gas emissions standards to planning codes to an emergency protocol that encourages people to stay and defend their properties.
Wildfires have been a feature of the Australian landscape for centuries; thousands of fires burn across the continent each year. But scientists warn that the “Black Saturday” disaster is a sign of things to come as climate change brings hotter weather and less rain.
The governmental Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization concluded in 2007 that average temperatures in Australia would increase by as much as 2 degrees Celsius by 2030 and 6 degrees Celsius by 2070 unless greenhouse emissions are drastically cut. That would be a difference of 3.6 degrees and 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
Days of high or extreme fire danger are forecast to increase by 5 percent to 25 percent if the effects of climate change are low and by 15 percent to 65 percent if they are high, the report said.
“We do expect these sorts of high or extreme fire danger periods to be both more intense and more frequent over time,” said David Karoly, a climatologist at the University of Melbourne who heads a panel advising the Victoria State government on climate change.
The national firefighters’ union issued a sharply worded letter to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd last week, saying that the government’s failure to set tough greenhouse emissions targets would endanger lives. Rudd has announced plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 5 percent of 2000 levels by 2020, far short of the 50 percent reduction called for by many scientists.
“Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk,” said the letter, which was signed by Peter Marshall, the national secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia.
“If the government doesn’t take notice of our letter, the public should make sure they take notice, because ultimately they’re the ones whose lives are being placed at risk.”
Australia is a predominantly suburban nation, with most of the country’s 22 million people living on the fringes of its eastern and southern cities.
Australians hold a special fondness for this halfway land between the city and “the bush.” But these semirural communities are often at greatest risk from wildfires because they lack the emergency resources to cope with a major disaster.
With climate change bringing increased fire danger, “the way many Australians traditionally like to live may not be tenable in the way it has been in the past,” said David Nichols, an urban planning expert at the University of Melbourne. “People are going to have to reassess whether that’s a luxury they can afford or even, considering the costs and the dangers, whether they should be allowed to live in that way, whether it’s a right.”
Some who survived the fires say officials also need to rethink existing wildfire emergency protocols, which advise residents to evacuate according to their own judgment, or stay and defend their properties with fire hoses, generators and pumps. Many said the fires were too fast and too unpredictable for a timely escape; countless others died while the houses they were trying to save collapsed around them.
The Victoria State premier, John Brumby, has said that officials will examine each of these questions at a government inquiry to be held later this year. Brumby has promised that every aspect of state and local fire policy – from planning codes to emergency protocols – will be closely reviewed, and the specter of climate change will be hanging over every discussion.
“All of this has got to be on the table as we come to grips with much more extreme climatic conditions,” Brumby told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. last week.
Arson suspect identified
A court lifted the ban on identifying the only arson suspect so far in Australia’s recent deadly wildfires, and the authorities urged people not to target him in their rage, The Associated Press reported Monday from Melbourne.
The case of Brendan Sokaluk, 39, went before a court packed with media and onlookers Monday, but he chose to stay in police protective custody rather than attend.