The record toll in lives and destruction from Australia's wildfires is forcing a fresh look at dealing with such threats. How to deter arson? How to prepare homeowners? Scientists can't link this specific event to global warming, but they forecast a need to adapt to erratic weather. This has implications for fire preparedness the world over.
Bush fires are as permanent a fixture in Australia as the great red Uluru Rock. Eucalyptus, with its highly flammable oil, provides ample tinder in the country's hot, dry, fire-prone south. Australians mark the years of devastating fires: 1851, 1939, and 1983, the former record-holder when 75 people died.
But this recent conflagration is the most intense, exacting the highest price in lives lost – more than 200, authorities estimate. The fires ignited during an unprecedented heat wave, with temperatures hitting 116 degrees F. Much of the country is experiencing its worst drought in a century, while calamitous flooding is sweeping through the northern state of Queensland.
This is the kind of extreme weather to expect from a warming planet. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, warned that fires in Australia – the driest populated continent – were "virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency" because of global warming.
Australia's government science organization, CSIRO, forecasts that warmer temperatures could increase "extreme" fire danger days by up to 65 percent by 2020 compared with 1990. Indeed, Australia has already warmed since 1950, and firefighters say fire intensity has increased in the past decade.
These conclusions mirror those in the US. Last month, "Quadrennial Fire Review," a report by the main US and state agencies that manage land, looked ahead four years and saw this: "The effects of climate change will continue to result in a greater probability of longer and bigger fire seasons, in more regions in the nation."
Those additional regions include the upper Great Lakes, the Northeast, and the south-central plains states. In Europe, Norway – which doesn't normally battle large wildfires – has found fire size increasing. Last August, it sent visitors to Idaho to consult with the National Interagency Fire Center. Greece, which experienced horrific fires and loss of life in 2007, has also consulted with American fire experts.
Many nations are combating global warming, but the effects of warmer temperatures are already being felt. That means fire preparedness must be intensified as fire seasons scale up.
Around the world, topography, vegetation, and population density differ, but countries can all follow basic preparedness:
Educate homeowners and communities about how to defend their properties – and when to evacuate.
Do prescribed burning to clear out brush that piles up (Australia's original inhabitants, the Aborigines, practiced intentional burning).
Enact restrictive land development and building codes in fire-prone areas – and have insurance rates accurately reflect risk.
Provide adequate fire fighting forces and equipment – all with the recognition that ecologies need fire in order to rejuvenate.
Australia plans a wide-ranging review of these fires. Its findings should interest others, too.