Massive wild fires have appeared on every Continent except Antarctica. Now it is hitting Australia even at the end of winter there. With temperatures about 10C—over 20 degrees Fahrenheit above normal—over 130 bush fires were crackling over Australia in early September. A veteran Australian fire expert warns climate change makes the risk much worse, and it may break down the country’s fire defense system. And now strangely, a change high above Antarctica makes this year’s fire season even more ominous.
We have reached Greg Mullins, former commissioner of Fire and Rescue for New South Wales for 13 years until his retirement in 2017. Greg has represented Australia for groups of Asian Fire Chiefs and the United Nations. He currently sits on the Climate Council, the publicly-funded climate watchdog.
Australia has a history of fires going back to aboriginal times. I’m thinking of the Ash Wednesday fires in February 1983 that killed 47, and the Black Saturday Bushfires that killed 173 people in Victoria in 2008. What is changing now? Every year has become super dangerous for wildfires. Climate has changed the game.
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Greg warns that Australia’s method of sharing fire-fighters and equipment could break down. There used to be a succession of fire seasons across that large continent, so each state could share equipment and fire fighters. Now there can be concurrent fires, meaning there is less to share.
I see that danger becoming international. We had firefighters from Australia and New Zealand come here to British Columbia to help fight our massive wildfires. It was out of season for Australian men and women who battle these beasts. But now places like California say “fire season” is all year long. Maybe as the season extends even in Australia, the international sharing will end too and everybody will be on their own?
Greg says that is already happening. Australia has very few large fire fighting aircraft, like 737 size planes. They were always able to get more from California during winter in the Northern Hemisphere. But now fire season can last all year in California, those planes are no longer always available. Australia just bought a 737 to fight fires, but still doesn’t have enough if a super fire season erupts in several parts of the country.
THE “BIG DRY” IN AUSTRALIA
Australia is in yet another drought. Some dams in new South Wales have almost run dry this year. Winter rainfall was dismally low. Towns may run out of water. Water is in such short supply, in some areas fire fighters have to let a home burn because that town cannot spare that much water.
When the Murray Darling river system was hit with low water, it became a question of water for the City of Adelaide or for farmers upstream. The change in rainfall is likely due to the Polar Vortex winds tightening around Antarctica, meaning less rain for Australia.
SUDDEN STRATOSPHERIC WARMING OVER ANTARCTICA HEATS UP FIRE SEASON IN AUSTRALIA
A “sudden stratospheric warming” just popped up over Antarctica. My basic understanding is this means the very cold stratosphere rapidly warms up a few degrees. That happens now and then over the North Pole, but rarely over the South Pole. The only other instance scientists can confirm happened over Antarctica in 2002. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology is predicting this will be the strongest warming of Antarctica on record. Greg discusses the impact on Australian weather.
A “triple-whammy” is hurting Australia right now. Added to changes in Polar winds, and the stratosphere, there is another cycle over the Indian Ocean that is also in a phase which tends to reduce rain-bearing winds over Australia.
But even ideal burning conditions don’t necessarily add up to a catastrophic fire year. An ignition source is needed. Yes there are cases of arson in Australia torching the bush, as there are in Canada and most countries. But farmers are also to blame, being slow to adapt to a changed climate. Where it was fine for their forefathers to burn off fields or scrub bush at certain times of year, that is no longer safe because the fire season has extended. Some agricultural fires get away into the bush with terrible results.
Greg Mullins also tells us that the amount of lightning has increased as well. That is what set ancient rainforests in the Australian island of Tasmania ablaze in recent years. Those forests had not burned for more than thousand years. Those trees are not adapted to fire as some forests are in other parts of Australia. When they burn they are gone for a long time. Even fire-adapted tree species can be wiped out if the fires keep coming back too soon—as they are!
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