Deadly fire season ahead

Issue 

Victoria's record six-month dry spell has raised fears that the summer of 2009-10 will be worse than last year, when hundreds died in the Black Saturday bushfires and the record-breaking heatwave that preceded them.

The July 29 Age reported a leaked government document warning the dry weather had seen the bush dry out to such an extent that the dangerous fire season would start earlier, that fires would be more intense and the normal methods for predicting fire behaviour would tend to underestimate the threat.

Victoria's drought has lasted more than a decade, and the forecast for coming years is that it will get only worse. A report by scientists at the US Naval Research Laboratory and NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies predicts the El Nino effect is set to enter into a new warm cycle. At the same time, the sun's 11-year sunspot cycle is due to go into the upswing, sending more heat towards Earth.

The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, looking at the Black Saturday disaster, is set to deliver its interim report on August 17. The commissioner has received numerous submissions highlighting the clear link between climate change and increased bushfire danger.

Professor Neville Nicholls, who led the long-range climate forecasting research group at the Bureau of Meteorology for 20 years, pointed out in his submission that the heatwave's "setting of new record high temperatures reflects what has been happening almost everywhere across the globe where data are available … [this] is what has long been expected from an enhanced greenhouse effect due to human activities".

Nicholls concluded: "Climate models, and our understanding of the climate system, lead us to expect even stronger warming, perhaps with further rainfall declines, over the next few decades." The consequences for fire risk are obvious.