BUSHFIRE

Today the 1st anniversary of the devastating Black Saturday fires in Victoria. The fires caused the deaths of 173 people which is the greatest peacetime loss of life in Australian history.

A year ago we were huddling in the air-conditioned cool of a rented apartment in Sydney while outside the temperatures rose to 42 degrees c. We had arrived the day before and as we drove away from the airport I could smell smoke and asked Dad if there were bushfires on the burn. Yes, there were but the worst were yet to begin. That would happen the next day February 7th and we would listen on the radio as the horrible story unfolded.

On this day over 400 fires raged in rural Victoria, some quite close to the outskirts of Melbourne. Fires are a regular occurrence in much of Australia but it’s interesting to wonder what role does climate change play in bushfire occurance? The bushfires were not started by climate change, they were started by lightning, power lines brought down by the extreme winds,  small controlled burns getting out of control, accident and unfortunately 3 fires that caused a total of 42 deaths were started by arsonists. It’s when you look at the severe weather conditions that conspired to make the day so ominous, you wonder if something else is at play:

  • Victoria had been in the grip of drought for the past 12 years.
  • The previous 35 days had seen no measurable rain fall in that region.
  • The extreme heat wave on 7 February came after another record-setting heat wave 10 days earlier, with Melbourne experiencing three days in a row with maximum temperatures higher than 43°C during 28-30 January, unprecedented in 154 years of Melbourne observations.
  • Feb. 7th  saw a new record high temperate in Melbourne of 46.4 deg C. Many other rural stations set even higher record temps eg Laverton hit 47.5
  • An extremely low humidity rate of only 5%
  • High winds are a feature of bushfire and there were winds of over 90km/hr recorded although these aren’t exceptional for the time of year but a major factor in fire spread.

David Karoly, Professor of Meteorology at the University of Melbourne sums it up better than me at Realclimate.org:

“Although formal attribution studies quantifying the influence of climate change on the increased likelihood of extreme fire danger in south-east Australia have not yet been undertaken, it is very likely that there has been such an influence. Long-term increases in maximum temperature have been attributed to anthropogenic climate change. In addition, reduced rainfall and low relative humidity are expected in
southern Australia due to anthropogenic climate change.”

Perhaps it was because I was in Australia when the fires happened last year. Uninsulated by the usual distance I felt the scale of the disaster keenly. If you would like to read a piece that is not about the science but is an emotionally affecting piece written by a survivor who is journalist for The Australian newspaper see here.

Bushfire is one of the themes that I will be exploring in my exhibition Landscape of Change.

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