Australia’s fires taken as a portent of global warming

February 11th, 2009 - 11:16 am ICT by IANS  

Sonja Parkinson, whose Kinglake home was among more than 750 houses destroyed in Saturday’s blaze north of Melbourne, blames state authorities in Victoria.

“We saw the fire and heard the roar over the hill. We saw the orange flame. There wasn’t any warning,” she said. “We were listening to the radio the whole time and they didn’t know.”

Others who have lost homes, loved ones and livelihood have taken their frustrations out on the fire brigade.

Australia has the world’s biggest, best equipped and most experienced volunteer firefighting force. It’s backed by hundreds of water-bombing aircraft and its expertise is coveted abroad.

David McGay, a fire captain, defends the record of his team against the criticism, saying it was easily overwhelmed.

“But even if I’d had 20 strike teams all that would have happened is that we would have had 50 dead firefighters as well, me included,” he said. “In hindsight, it’s just as well I didn’t have those teams because I would have deployed them. But at the last moment I pulled the crews out because we were going to die.”

The experts back McGay and his colleagues. Melbourne’s hottest day ever, swirling winds from the parched middle of the continent and 12 years of below-average rainfall made for a catastrophe.

John Handmer, a safety expert at Melbourne’s RMIT university, said Armageddon couldn’t be averted. “Saturday was the worst fire day in recorded history,” he said. “A day like that can overwhelm all our preparations.”

The elephant in the room is global warming.

Clive Hamilton, a lobbyist on environmental issues, says that forest fires travelling 40 km in just 12 hours are “global warming made manifest in the daily lives of ordinary people”.

There are other explanations. The country’s most eminent bushfire expert, David Packham, claims authorities have bowed to the environmental lobby and discontinued setting fire to forests in winter to reduce the fuel load of branches and dead leaves.

Parliamentarian Ron Boswell agrees with him, saying controlled burning in national parks reduces the ferocity of fires. “I just think we need to look at some areas we turn into parks and then can’t defend them,” he said.

State Premier John Brumby has ordered a full-scale inquiry that will look at the management of national parks and at the warning system for impending fires.

He was reluctant to blame climate change, saying all factors should be considered.

But he was insistent that Saturday’s blaze was unstoppable. “You’ve had firefighters that were literally facing flames that were four storeys high,” he said.

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