Raging Australian wildfires raise questions about climate change, emergency preparedness

Wildfires hitting Australia's east coast are the worst in a decade and have struck unusually early in the season.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service/AP
Smoke rises from a fire near Lithgow, west of Sydney, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Nearly a hundred wildfires are burning across Australia's New South Wales state, more than a dozen of which are out of control, as unseasonably hot temperatures and strong winds fanned flames across the parched landscape.

The worst fires to hit Australia’s east coast in more than a decade have raised questions about what if any lessons have been learned from previous bushfire tragedies and stoked controversy over the federal government’s climate change credentials.

Firefighters in New South Wales admitted they were unprepared for the hot and windy conditions that led to Thursday’s inferno, which turned hundreds of houses into smoldering ruins and left at least one person dead. At the height of the emergency, 97 fires with a combined front of more than 400 kilometers were burning across Australia’s most populous state.

More than 80 fires continue to burn across New South Wales, with over 20 blazes not yet contained, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. 

The early start to the bushfire season in New South Wales has prompted warnings that the state could face the same conditions that led to the 2009 fires in Victoria – the worst in Australian history. Those fires claimed 173 lives and caused more than $4 billion in damage.

A Royal Commission into that disaster made dozens of recommendations including enhanced community warning and messaging systems, the construction of fire refuges in high risk areas, more widespread fuel-reduction burns, and better communications systems between various agencies such as rural fire brigades, police, and emergency services.

Although many of the measures have been adopted nationwide, the unpredictability of fire behavior and climatic conditions makes it nearly impossible to guarantee lives and property will not be lost.

In the Blue Mountains region west of Sydney, worst hit by this week’s fires, many existing properties lack adequate fire prevention measures such as adequate setbacks from the surrounding forest, sprinkler systems, or shelters. 

“We are in a very dry situation in the greater Sydney region and when these landscapes dry severely, many of the natural barriers to fire are removed,” says Professor Ross Bradstock of the Center for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at Wollongong University.

“Unfortunately New South Wales and the greater Sydney Basin have been left with a legacy of development that continues to place property and infrastructure at risk. Although the development and planning regime has vastly improved in the past 10 years, there’s still a huge stock of houses in very high risk areas,” adds Mr. Bradstock.

The early start to the fire season has also prompted debate over the new federal government’s climate change policies. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised that removing a controversial carbon tax introduced by the previous government will be the first item on the agenda when Parliament reconvenes next month. 

On Thursday the deputy leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, hit out at Mr. Abbott in a tweet that said removing the carbon tax would mean “more bushfires for Australia.”

“In the last 12 months we've had the hottest year on record, the hottest month, and the hottest day. Tony Abbott has picked this time to say he's going to rip up action on global warming, which is going to mean these are the kind of fires we will see more often,” Mr. Bandt later told ABC radio.

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt lashed out at Mr. Bandt, accusing him of politicizing human tragedy. 

“There has been a terrible tragedy in New South Wales. No one anywhere should seek to politicize any human tragedy, let alone a bushfire on this scale,” Mr. Hunt said. 

According to environmental scientists, the worst is yet to come – and not just in New South Wales.

The Australian Climate Council said that the early start to the bushfire season is an example of the types of extreme weather events that are likely to increase in severity and frequency due to climate change.

“Climate change is making many extreme events worse in terms of their impacts. It is crucial that communities, emergency services, health and medical services, and other authorities prepare for increases in the severity and frequency of many types of extreme weather,” says Lesley Hughes of the Australian Climate Council.

“We’ve seen bushfires in Victoria and Tasmania where the intensity of fires overwhelmed emergency service workers. As we prepare for a changing future it is important that emergency services are adequately resourced to respond,” Ms. Hughes says.

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