Firefighters warn of climate risk
February 7, 2009, Black Saturday: you're glued to your TV watching an inferno devour Victoria's bushland, terrified that in a country like Australia, such a fire could have happened anywhere.
Burning with the force of 1500 Hiroshima bombs, the fires tore their way through 450,000 hectares of land — burning them to a crisp, along with anything or anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped in its path.
When the dust and ash finally settled, the death toll stood at 173: 2029 homes were destroyed; and more than 7500 people displaced.
It was Australia's worst natural disaster and forced the addition of the "Catastrophic" rating to the fire danger index — a situation where "even well prepared and constructed homes will not be safe".
A new report by Greenpeace and the NSW Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU), Future Risk, was released on January 28. It describes how the lack of national and global action on climate change will dramatically raise Australia's bushfire risk by the year 2050.
There are four factors that influence the severity of all bushfires: temperature, rainfall, wind speed and the fuel available. Since 1950, climate change has caused a 0.9C average temperature rise and a drop in annual average rainfall of up to 50mm per decade. This is a recipe for disaster and the disaster is known as a "mega-fire".
"These [mega-fires] are new territory, we don't know how to fight them, we don't know if they can be fought", said Jim Casey, state secretary for the NSW FBEU.
Under Future Risk's most extreme scenario — based on business-as-usual modelling — such "mega-fires" could occur as often as once every three years in the area surrounding Melbourne Airport. Residents of Adelaide, Bendigo, Canberra, Nowra and Sydney can also expect "severe" fire dangers to triple.
The next scenario, in which current "pledges" by world governments become a binding treaty, is almost as frightening. "Severe" fire dangers could still occur once every six months in Sydney and Adelaide, and every three months in Melbourne.
It is clear something must change.
The NSW FBEU demands the government get serious about climate change and halve Australia's emissions by the year 2020.
"The inaction we're seeing from the government in Australia … makes me feel tremendously sad and tremendously angry", Casey said. "[Firefighting is] a dangerous job and we know that when we sign up for it. But anything that increases the likelihood of that has got to be stopped.
"I don't want to go to any more funerals of firefighters."
In Victoria, the burned-out trees are starting to sprout new green off-shoots, the bush will always bring itself back to life. We, on the other hand, only have one chance to get this right.