Climate Change: The Smoking Gun in Australia's Firestorm: Ken Eastwood Reports on the Recent Bushfires in Australia, the Country's Worst Peacetime Disaster and Discovers Why They Were So Devastating

By Eastwood, Ken | Geographical, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Climate Change: The Smoking Gun in Australia's Firestorm: Ken Eastwood Reports on the Recent Bushfires in Australia, the Country's Worst Peacetime Disaster and Discovers Why They Were So Devastating


Eastwood, Ken, Geographical


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The mind numbs when it considers the firestorm that hit Victoria, in southeastern Australia, on 7 February. More than 200 people killed, more than 1,800 homes flattened, whole towns reduced to ashes, and an estimated 4,500 square kilometres of bushland burnt: equivalent to an area nearly four times the size of Berkshire. The fires, whipped up by ferocious, hot northeasterly winds of 100-120 km/h, had fronts 80 kilometres long and reached temperatures high enough to turn jewellery to treacle. These weren't fires you could fight.

It's only the personal touches that make it seem real. I rang a friend whose home no longer exists in Kinglake, one of several towns that felt the full fury of the blaze. A few days after the fires, he had been looking for his neighbours, who had been missing for two days. He found them, cuddled together with their pet dog in their driveway. All dead.

Australia is no stranger to fires. Much of the vegetation can only reproduce after fire. In the northern savannas, an average of 340,000 square kilometres burns each year--that's an area 100,000 square kilometres larger than the entire UK. The savannah is sparsely inhabited grazing country, and these vast grass fires don't tend to make the news.

It's different in the southeast, where most of Australia's 21 million people live. Here, any large fire quickly threatens infrastructure, property and lives. As cities and towns spread, more and more people are living on what's called the 'bush--urban interface', with bushland abutting their backyards. Between Sydney and Newcastle alone, there's an estimated 3,000 kilometres of bush-urban interface. Firefighters can't patrol all of it, and people who move to these areas are increasingly unwilling, too blase or not knowledgeable enough to take steps to reduce their bushfire risk. Fires come through and neither they nor their houses are prepared.

On top of this, much of the way in which the country was managed by Aboriginal peoples for millennia--regularly lighting small bushfires as part of their daily lives and spiritual practices--is no longer occurring, so there is a build-up of burnable material.

But climatologists agree that it was climate change that made the February fires Australia's worst peacetime disaster. As well as suffering a decade-long drought (with most areas receiving 20 per cent less than average rainfall), and one of the driest years on record, Victoria had a heatwave in the days and weeks leading up to 7 February that broke nearly every temperature record in the book, according to Dr David Jones, head of the National Climate Centre at the Bureau of Meteorology.

'On the day, we saw 48.8[degrees]C in Hopetoun, which is 1.6[degrees]C hotter than the previous state record: 47.2[degrees]C in Mildura in 1939,' Jones said. 'That's not beating the record by millimetres, that's beating it by feet or metres.'

Seven other Victorian sites also experienced record temperatures. 'It has broken records in every single way you could think about,' Jones continued. 'If you look at Mildura [in the state's northwest], there were 12 days in a row above 40[degrees]C, which is a state record. …

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