Faced with an unusually intense time of large fires that have already devastated more than six million hectares of forest, causing at least 18 deaths and 17 missing, and destroying about 1300 homes, Australia now faces another high risk weekend, with the possibility of uncontrollable fires, due to the high temperatures, which may reach 42 degrees Celsius, and the expected strong winds.
That’s why anda large evacuation is underway covering tens of thousands of people in a 250-kilometer stretch of land on the east coast of New South Wales. “Get out before Saturday”, warned the authorities.
Used to forest fires, Australia is, however, experiencing an unusual time of forest fires, due to the extreme violence that has characterized them. After all, what is happening? And is this already a sign of climate change? The first question has an easier answer – let’s go to the next one, but it seems certain that they are already around.
“The main cause of what is happening has to do with the extreme drought in the territory, which has lasted at least since March this year,” Australian researcher Owen Price, of Wollongong University’s Environmental Risk and Management Center, told DN. in the state of New South Wales.
Drought, explains the expert, “determines that moisture levels in vegetation and soils go to minimum values and, on the other hand, as the natural barriers to the expansion of flames do not exist, because rivers are dry, fires end up. reach great proportions “.
High temperatures, which in December twice set a record high for the country’s high, surpassing 41 degrees Celsius, and the wind that has been blowing hard – the violence of the fires unleashes localized high winds – has also favored the spread of the flames and are fueling the big fires
“We have had other large fires in the past, such as 2009, where 173 people died in one day and 3,000 more homes were destroyed, but this year’s have two particular characteristics: they have been more intense and have lasted longer. time, “says Owen Price.
This is exactly one of the “anomalous features” of this Australian fire season, notes in turn José Cardoso Pereira, professor and researcher at the Higher Institute of Agronomy and a specialist in cartography and fire risk, who has collaborated with Owen Price in the study of Australian forest fires, and it is following the situation closely. “The summer has only just begun in the southern hemisphere, but the fires have started at least in early November in the spring,” and this, the researcher notes, makes foreseeing an especially difficult summer. That is, the worst may yet to come. And there is a possibility of this happening this Saturday.
“The biggest evacuation ever”
Predicting the possibility of a catastrophe, the authorities ordered the evacuation of a sprawling 250-kilometer coastal region in New South Wales, between the town of Batemans Bay in the north and the border with the state of Victoria in the south. , which covers a few tens of thousands of people, including residents and vacationers.
The operation, however, is not being easy. Fires that persist in the region and force roads to cut for safety reasons, and the thick smoke that spreads hundreds of miles away, threatening the health of the population, does not help.
“This is the biggest evacuation ever in the region,” said New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance, as thousands of people started their vehicles to leave the region.
Mass escape, however, is not being easy due to fuel shortages, the large number of cars driving in the same direction and also the fact that some roads are cut off, leaving the main roads leading to Canberra and Sydney. , where traffic has been blocked, with long lines extending for several kilometers.
In Batemans Bay, the news is also that long queues are at gas stations where fuel is practically depleted and being refueled by tanker trucks.
In Mallacoota, a small southern town bordering the state of Victoria, more than 4,000 people were isolated and had to be supplied with water, food and medicine by helicopter. Its withdrawal by sea on an Australian navy ship was being prepared for Friday.
An abnormally hot and dry summer
Fires are part of Australia’s natural forest cycle. In the summer months, between December and March, particularly in the now hardest hit states, such as New South Wales and Victoria, which have a Mediterranean climate, native species forests including eucalyptus, acacia and many others that exist only They are often hit by fire there and are therefore well adapted to it, shaped by centuries of this annual regime.
This year, however, is being different, something the Australian government has been slow to realize. This is incurring political costs for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who in the midst of the fire crisis went on vacation to Hawaii and only on the second day of the year, already with casualties counted, appeared in public speaking to the country.
The head of the Australian government had to interrupt a visit to the town of Cobargo, New South Wales, where two people died earlier this week, and where he was greeted with revolt. “Not welcome,” he heard from its inhabitants.
Nor does it help its policy that the government has recently renewed support for the lucrative and highly polluting Australian coal industry. Scott Morrison has therefore been widely criticized at a time as to whether these fires could already be a consequence of climate change.
About this, Australian Wollongong University researcher Owen Price has no doubt: “Sure,” he says. “Australia’s average temperature is now higher than it was 50 years ago, droughts are more intense and, in this context, fire seasons extend and intensify, as the models predict.” And it is well matched by many others who see this troubled Australian fire season as a worrying foretaste of the hottest world of the future.
José Cardoso Pereira is also one of them. “A unique situation is not enough to talk about climate change, but we know that As the temperature rises, droughts and hot flashes become more intense as is happening. “
And this year, in addition to the drought, the high temperatures and the very early onset of the fire season, there is another news that extensive areas of tropical and subtropical rainforest have also been burned in the northernmost state of Queensland and Victoria. . This type of forest, which is characterized by a great biodiversity, is not as adapted to fire and therefore “it is possible that it has difficulty recovering”, estimates Owen Price. “This is a study I am interested in doing after this time of fire,” he said.
By then, however, there are still the summer months ahead: January, February and part of March, which are hard to guess, judging by spring and early summer with temperatures above normal for the season, and with a trail of fires that It is being devastating. The hope now is for the rain to come. “Weather services estimate that there may be favorable conditions within two weeks, but in fact, nobody knows,” concludes Owen Price.