As an ecologist and a councillor with the Climate Council, I have had the privilege of meeting many of the dedicated Australian men and women who pick up a fire hose every summer to protect their communities. Firefighters who have seen how extreme heat and excessive fuel loads can combine to produce truly terrifying fires are often eager to share their experiences of how climate change is affecting the nature of firefighting.
One of the trends that worries firefighters most is the increasing frequency of “megafires” – like the 100km fire front that claimed 173 lives during the Black Saturday fires in 2009. These fires are so hot and move so fast that they act more like a storm than a fire, and can be virtually impossible to fight.
One of the most vexing problems posed by the climate change we have already experienced, in addition to increasing the bushfire threat, is that it is also hindering efforts to minimise that risk. As fire seasons lengthen, the window to conduct safe hazard reduction burning decreases.
Bundaberg volunteer firefighter Marilyn King has seen first-hand how bushfires and heatwaves have intensified in regional Queensland over the last decade. Her local brigade has the enormous challenge of protecting 93 per cent of the land around her community – a task that has often left volunteers fatigued and forced to call on the already-stretched metropolitan crews to provide relief. It’s the same story in the country’s south-east. In August 2014, for example, volunteer fire crews were pushed to breaking point as they faced 90 fires simultaneously. Almost a year ago, the Great Ocean Road bushfires in the Separation Creek and Wye River regions destroyed more than 100 homes, while bushfires in the Sydney hinterland have already been placing pressure on fire services this season. With dry and hot conditions expected in NSW over the summer, the scene is set for a very damaging bushfire season.
In Victoria, the most vulnerable bushfire state, the combination of high forest fuel loads and predicted above-average temperatures has firefighting veterans extremely worried about the prospect of a devastating late summer outbreak.
We know Australia has always been a fire prone country. However, as climate change drives hotter, more intense heatwaves and drives up the odds of high-fire danger weather, the increasing severity and frequency of fires throughout Australia will strain our existing resources. Many nations are making decisive moves to implement the goals of Paris Climate Agreement – aiming ultimately to ensure that global warming does not exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But Australia, considered to be one the most vulnerable developed countries to the impacts of climate change, is lagging behind. Indeed, Australia was recently ranked third-last in the Climate Change Performance Index – an assessment of the climate policies of the top 58 CO2-emitting nations – just beating Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia. Put simply, Australia’s head-in-the-sand approach to climate change policy is contributing to a situation in which thousands who put their lives on the line each summer to fight fires are at increased risk. Without a strong plan to transition energy systems towards renewable energy as soon as possible, risks from extreme weather events will continue to increase.
As any firefighter will tell you, fire prevention is key. And climate action should be considered a key pillar of fire prevention efforts.
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