As Australia fires rage, warning of more heat waves
By Madeleine Coorey ,AFPSYDNEY -- Firefighters were battling scores of wildfires raging in Australia Saturday, as a government commission warned that climate change had raised the risk of scorching heat waves becoming more frequent.
January 13, 2013, 12:02 am TWN
In the eastern state of New South Wales, some 1,000 firefighters were attempting to douse about 94 wildfires, about dozen uncontained, while fires were also burning in neighboring Victoria and Queensland states.
And in the southern island state of Tasmania, known for its cooler temperatures, residents were returning to the burnt-out homes they fled a week ago when flames raced through villages on the Tasman peninsula.
No deaths have been reported from the bushfires, which have flared during extreme summer temperatures, but the unprecedented heat wave has prompted the government's Climate Commission to issue a new report on the weather event.
It says that climate change has contributed to making the extreme heat conditions — in which record-breaking temperatures in parts of the country have topped 45 degrees Celsius (113 F) — and bushfires worse.
“The length, extent and severity of the current heat wave are unprecedented in the measurement record,” the report “Off the Charts: Extreme Australian summer heat” notes.
“Although Australia has always had heat waves, hot days and bushfires, climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heat waves and more extreme hot days, as well as exacerbating bushfire conditions.”
It says while many factors influence the potential for bushfires, so called “fire weather” is highly sensitive to changes in climatic conditions.
And hotter temperatures, longer heat waves, high winds and drier soils and grasses can all dramatically exacerbate fire conditions.
“Thus when fire occurs in more extreme weather conditions, there is the potential for the fire to be far more intense and difficult to control,” the report said.
One of the report's authors David Karoly said there was clear evidence of an increasing trend in hot extremes in Australia, where the current heat wave has affected more than 70 percent of the vast continent nation.
Karoly said the current heat wave, which began in December, saw the average maximum daily temperature across the whole of Australia hit a 40.3 degrees Celsius on Jan. 7, breaking a record of 40.17 C which had stood since 1972.
Wildfires are a fact of life in arid Australia, where 173 people died in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation's worst natural disaster of modern times.