Australian bushfire catastrophe looms

Author: By Greg Ansley

The state is already dehydrated by a decade of drought, and events in the
Pacific signal another El Nino, the weather phenomenon closely associated
with hot, dry periods.

A leaked Government report has confirmed fears with a blunt assessment that
Victoria faces a fire season of “unprecedented danger” and conditions more
deadly than those in February when fires killed 173 people and injured about
500 more.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment report predicts the bushfire
season will start early, and will be marked by unpredictable fires burning
with greater intensity across land seared by years of drought.

“The prospect we are looking at is not just another above-average fire season
with above-normal losses to life and property,” fire management expert Paul
Brockhoff wrote in a report leaked to the Age newspaper.

“The genuine prospect of a season with the greatest potential loss to life and
property is now in sight and, as climate indicators strengthen, this looks
to be an increasing likelihood.”

The grim prediction comes as the royal commission into the Black Saturday
fires prepares to hand its interim report to the Government by August 17.

Evidence to the commission showed a state unprepared for the ferocity of the
fires that raged across 4500sq km of land, devastating entire communities,
incinerating more than 2000 homes and 1500 other buildings, destroying
businesses, farms and livestock, and razing dozens of national parks and
reserves.

One expert said the state was hammered by energy equivalent to 1500
Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, and evidence described a chaotic response in
which more than 80 per cent of 12,800 emergency calls went unanswered,
communities were razed after receiving insufficient – or no – warnings, and
emergency services were overwhelmed.

As another potentially disastrous summer nears, key issues have yet to be
resolved – especially the policy of advising people at risk to decide
whether they should stay and defend their homes, or flee.

The policy was attacked during commission hearings after evidence showed that
113 of those who died had perished while sheltering in their homes.

The state government has said it intends to begin a pilot programme of fire
refuges to test a system of last-resort shelters that could offer people the
prospect of relative safety.

Sirens similar to those used to warn of cyclones in Australia’s north are also
being considered.

Bureau of Meteorology data show that the first six months of the year were the
fourth-driest on record in Victoria, deepening the impact of below-average
rainfall that has gripped the state since 1997.

The increasing certainty of another El Nino bodes further ill, with the bureau
warning that for much of the state the odds of even average rainfall for the
rest of the year are running at less than 40 per cent.

Brockhoff’s report said the Central Highlands around Melbourne, including some
the areas worst hit by last year’s fires, were among the worst affected.

“This area is also the area where the highest exposure to life and property
exists, and it also includes the remaining water catchment areas that did
not burn last year,” the report said.

Chief fire officer Ewan Waller told ABC radio that fire services were
preparing for the worst, with the state’s vulnerability increasing as it
entered its 13th dry year.

“If we have that, if you get bad fire weather and ignition sources, then you
will have disastrous fires.”

* Source: The New Zealand Herald.

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