The Climate Commission released a report this week called The Critical Decade, which makes the threats facing Australia abundantly clear. It spells out the drastic increase in extreme weather and its severity, and points to the increase in extreme heat and extreme bushfire weather.
In my time as deputy commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, I worked closely with volunteer firefighters from the NSW Rural Fire Service each bushfire season. When I began my firefighting career in 1972, firefighters from both these organisations combined their resources to protect their local communities; from the outskirts of Sydney to regional areas such as Lithgow or Coonabarabran.
By the time I retired nearly 40 years later, both fire services were sending firefighters across state lines to communities they had never imagined having to protect. This was because the fires were bigger – and more frequent – and local communities simply couldn’t cope with the magnitude of the fires they were experiencing.
Equally, firefighters from other states, and even from other countries, were sending their firefighters to assist fire services in NSW with bushfires of unprecedented magnitude and ferocity. This was once the exception but now it’s become the norm.
In recent years, we have heard more about ”one in a hundred years” fires such as 2009’s Black Saturday blazes in Victoria and the Siding Springs Observatory bushfires in January this year. Just last week, there was a major bushfire in Dereel in Victoria’s west, and another near Mirboo North, on the other side of Melbourne. About 16 homes were lost. In late March.
This is typically a time when the bushfire season is drawing to a close, yet we are still seeing extraordinary temperatures and severe bushfires. Just because it’s wet now in NSW doesn’t mean we should forget the fire threat.
We broke an extraordinary number of records this summer – hottest summer ever, hottest day ever, and 123 individual location records. Many of these records are precisely the kind of things that lead to increased fire danger, greater risk for homes, families and firefighters, and forcing firefighters to trek across borders to support their colleagues in other states.
Climate change deniers need to recognise this is not a one-off. It is a trend; one we simply can’t manage if it continues for too much longer. But it needn’t get worse. We can act.
By joining dozens of other countries in putting a price on carbon pollution, Australia took a much-needed first step in tackling these threats. We are rapidly moving to renewable energy provision – indeed, Australia is about to see its one millionth house with solar power in a few months. With great work like the Carbon Farming Initiative, we are actually taking steps to suck excess carbon out of the atmosphere, a vital long-term step.
But the work has only just begun. If we don’t continue to make substantive cuts to our pollution levels for years to come, it will make life harder not only for our children and their children, but for generations of firefighters, many of whom are volunteers, who put their lives on the line to protect our homes and families.
No one wants to see another Black Saturday, but all the evidence suggests that without action, that is exactly what will happen.
The work of our climate scientists and the Climate Commission is valuable, but firefighters need detailed, regularly updated information. I’d like to see long-term bushfire weather forecasts every two years, to help us prepare for the inevitable consequences.
Australia is emerging from what has been a fairly devastating bushfire season. Enormous swathes of south-eastern Australia have been ravaged by fires that are not only huge but incredibly frequent.
Certain conditions are required to create the kind of blazes that we are seeing in the Australian bush seemingly every summer. A wet winter – which we look set to have this year – creates an explosion in tree growth, and then an arid summer dries it all out, leaving a ready, and enormous, supply of fuel for the flames to feed off.
Australia’s summers are becoming hotter and drier because our climate is changing. Climate change is charging up the weather, creating more hot days, which are hotter than previous hot days. It is increasing the odds of any given day being a perfect day for bushfires to occur – extremely hot, northerly winds coming off central Australia, before a dry, cool wind shift pushes a long fire front in a new direction.
Things are bad. We need to pull out all the stops to make sure that climate change gets no worse.
Ken Thompson is a former deputy commissioner of the NSW Fire Brigade.