October 22, 2013
We need to listen to what the firefighters are saying about the NSW bushfires in the Blue Mountains and earlier.
The former rural fire services commissioner Phil Koperberg says this kind of fire emergency in October is unprecedented:
It's not the worst, but it is the earliest. We have never had this in October. This is a feature of slowly evolving climate. We have always had fires, but not of this nature, and not at this time of year, and not accompanied by the record-breaking heat we've had
They are saying that these are the most sudden, rapidly spreading and ferocious fires they have encountered. They are saying that we are beginning to see the earlier onset of severe fire weather in the fire seasons and longer fire seasons.
In contrast, the conservatives are saying that the prevalence of fires is not out of the ordinary, that fire activity in recent years is within the bounds of normal. They are basically denying that the behaviour of the NSW fires and the one in Dunalley Tasmania is different from the ordinary bushfire. Their suggestion to stop fires is for more cutting down the trees around houses, more hazard reduction burning and fuel-load management, and allowing grazing leases on crown lands and national parks.
Though no specific incident like the NSW fires can be unequivocally attributed to climate change we can’t just consider severe fires as one-offs that happen every few decades. Climate science is telling us that there are increasing heat waves in Asia, Europe, and Australia; that these will continue; that they will continue in their intensity and in their frequency. The inference is that climate change will make disastrous events like the NSW fires more likely. It's the new normal.
If they’re becoming a systemic part of our environment, then we have to consider this really seriously and accept that the standard response of prepare and rebuild belongs to the older fire regime. Australia is vulnerable to climate change.