12 november 2019

Australia fires rage out of control on 'catastrophic' day

Army expected to be deployed to help fight more than 100 fires in country’s east

Ben Doherty in Sydney, The Guardian, Tue 12 Nov 2019

More than 100 fires are raging across eastern Australia, dozens of them running out of control, but the country has so far escaped its predicted “catastrophic” fire day without further loss of life.

At least 170 houses have been razed, but no lives were lost on Tuesday, predicted by fire chiefs to be the most dangerous bushfire conditions the country had ever seen.

Three people died in out-of-control bushfires at the weekend, two of them apparently trying to flee fast-moving fire fronts in cars.

In one of Australia’s largest peacetime military mobilisations, the army is expected to be deployed – including an unprecedented compulsory call-up of reserve soldiers – to assist in the firefighting and the clean-up from widespread fires, some of which have burned for weeks over more than a million hectares.

On Tuesday, hundreds of schools were closed, and entire towns evacuated, as temperatures in the high 30s celsius and gusty winds fanned dozens of existing fires across New South Wales and Queensland.

An extreme and persistent drought has left much of the two states tinder-dry, with forests, grasslands, and farmland vulnerable to dry lightning strikes or accidental blazes.

NSW had declared an unprecedented “catastrophic” rating for Sydney and surrounding regions for Tuesday, when firefighting conditions were at their worst. Residents of fire-prone areas were warned that fires would not be able to be stopped in those conditions, and that houses were not designed to withstand fires of that intensity.

“Catastrophic is off the conventional scale,” the commissioner of the NSW rural fire services, Shane Fitzsimmons, said. “It’s where people die.”

NSW remained in a state of emergency, and “emergency warnings” have been issued for 13 separate fires posing imminent threat to life. There were more than 70 fires running across the state, and more than 40 were out of control.

There are suspicions a fire in the northern Sydney suburb of Turramurra may have been deliberately lit.

In Queensland, the state immediately north, 50 fires were burning, according to state authorities.

Before Tuesday’s catastrophic conditions, as thousands of people evacuated their homes and whole towns in the path of fires were emptied, Fitzsimmons warned that those who chose to stay to defend their homes might be stranded, and that firefighters could not save everyone.

“We cannot guarantee a firetruck at every home,” Fitzsimmons said. “We cannot guarantee that someone will knock on your door and give you a warning.”

Bushfires are a regular occurrence during Australian summers, but the intensity of this year’s fires, and how early in the season they have arrived, have unleashed an acute political debate over the impact of climate change in exacerbating Australia’s fire vulnerability.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, whose conservative coalition government has been consistently criticised over its support for coalmining and power plants, inaction on climate change, and Australia’s rising carbon emissions, has refused to answers questions on climate change worsening fires.

His deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, from the country-based Nationals party, said concerns over climate change while fires were burning were a “disgrace”.

“They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time.”

But critics – some of whom had lost homes in the fires – argued the fires presented the reality of the impact of the climate crisis.

As Morrison visited a fire command site in northern NSW, a protester heckled: “Climate change is real. Can’t you see?” before he was escorted out of the building.

The opposition Labor party has also been condemned over its climate policies. In the wake of a general election defeat this year, it appears set to soften the 45% emissions reduction target that was party policy.

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, was confronted by by Ginger O’Brien, a resident of Nimbin, a famed counter-culture retreat on the north coast of NSW, who told him: “Shame on you.”

“Your house is not burning. My house is burning down,” an incensed O’Brien said. “What are you doing? Nothing. You’re laughing. You’re having a circus. You’re playing with fire.”

A cooling southerly change was expected to sweep north through NSW into Queensland overnight, but while that will lower temperatures, it might also swing fires back towards settlements that were previously out of the fires’ path.

Fitzsimmons said for days ahead there would be more dangerous weather, as hot, dry and windy conditions returned. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are predicted to be extreme – though not catastrophic – weather conditions.

“We can expect to see elevated fire dangers again. I don’t have anything to suggest catastrophic at this stage, but severe and above is likely,” he said.

He also warned that the traditional fire season had not even begun yet. “We have got the worst of our fire season still ahead of us. We’re not even in summer yet.”

In one of the largest peacetime mobilisations of Australian forces, the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, is preparing to send army, navy and air force reserve forces – the equivalent of the UK’s Army Reserve – into the fire zone to assist with evacuations and logistics.

The military intervention might even include an unprecedented compulsory call-up of reserve forces, such is the scale of the fire damage.

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