Thursday, January 2, 2020

Australia is burning

Fires in East and Far East Gippsland and the high country exploded on Monday. We were warned.

Some people who I thought would have known better were sceptical of the warning from Emergency Services to leave Far East Gippsland. After all, it's a huge area, was jam-packed with holiday-makers, and it's on the coast (water puts out fire, right?). They may have neglected to factor in a number of things:

First, the fire services know what they are doing. If they tell people to leave they have good reason for doing so. Their worst nightmares became real, as you've probably heard by now.

Second, there is only one major road through that whole area, the Princes Highway. It's around 250 km from Bairnsdale (the Victorian town just outside the evacuation zone) to Mallacoota, the easternmost town in Victoria. Much of the road is through national and state forest and densely wooded. The road has some sections where there are three lanes (two going, one coming) but it's mostly just two lanes. Towns are small and far apart. The road is mostly winding and hilly. You'd normally need to allow at least three hours to traverse it, then it's another three and a half hours to Melbourne. (The nearest town to the north from Mallacoota is Pambula, about 1 1/2 hours drive but the roads north are also closed.)

Thirdly, and this is related to the second point, it's common to get stuck behind a large vehicle that slows down going uphill, or a car towing a caravan that travels below the speed limit (100 kph except through towns). The number of people in this picturesque coastal region swells by tenfold or more over the school summer holidays. Imagine having ten thousand visitors leaving Mallacoota to head to Melbourne, plus more from all the other small towns on the way, and getting trapped by fire on the highway.

Right now, the tiny town of Club Terrace on the main highway has been burnt out. Cann River on the main highway remains inaccessible and the people trapped there have run out of food and have no power or communications. Mallacoota is almost 30 km off the main highway, and the road has just been cleared for emergency vehicles only. Normal traffic can't get through and even if it could, people would not be able to get down the highway. The only other route would be north, but that road is also closed. You can see how people are trapped where they are on the VicRoads map below, with the red dots being road closures (click to enlarge it).

In the map above I've shown the direction of Melbourne and Sydney, but this is the scenic route, not the normal route between those two cities. Most people driving from Melbourne to Sydney or vice versa would take the more direct inland route up the Hume Freeway, which bypasses towns and is a four lane divided highway once you leave either city (could be six or eight lanes in Melbourne and Sydney).

On top of the terror of raging fires, a lot of power is out as well, which affects phones, refrigerators, air con etc. It could be out for days yet and longer in some areas. The backup batteries on some mobile towers also ran out or maybe the towers got burned. Until it's safe to go in and assess the situation, the telcos and electrical distributors won't be able to begin repairs.

Because these fires are mostly in bushland they will go on for weeks, like the ones in NSW that are smoking up Canberra and Sydney. It's dangerous and difficult to get into the forests. Firefighters focus on protecting lives and property, but can't protect all property (or lives). These areas are sparsely populated normally so there wouldn't be a lot of local volunteers compared to the need. That means there'll be volunteers from distant areas and heaven help their own local communities if fires break out there.

That's not to say people will be stuck away from home for weeks. There are ships going to pick up people trapped in Mallacoota, for example, and maybe some other towns; and there's talk of helicopter rescues. A top priority will be to open the roads again and hope there are not too many more days like Monday this summer. (This Saturday isn't looking too promising and there's a lot of summer to go, so no guarantees). For residents who've lost their homes and farms and businesses, it will be a long road to recovery. Hopefully there will be tradespeople willing to relocate temporarily to help rebuild. The forests will take even longer to recover. Some might not.

I've not yet mentioned the awfulness of the fires in our own region. The Walwa fire not far to the northeast of here has caused a huge amount of destruction in Corryong and the news is just starting to trickle in. [Apart from a very smoky summer, we're fine here in the Kiewa Valley. There have been a few fires this summer, but nothing too dramatic and they are either "contained" (i.e. not spreading), "controlled" (i.e. whole perimeter is secured and no breakouts expected) or extinguished.]

There's a good article by Nerilie Abram in Scientific American about climate change and fires. The tweet about it showed there are still a few deniers floating about. Few firefighters would doubt the world is warming and fire behaviour is changing. (WUWT hasn't mentioned the fires. Whoever's writing for and running the blog these days probably wants to avoid any clear evidence that would upset climate conspiracy theorists.)

Most deniers know next to nothing about wildfire. Some make up stuff about "lack of backburning", confusing it with prescribed burns for hazard reduction. (Backburning is where firefighters fight fire with fire, setting the forest alight ahead of the main fire when conditions allow it, to "burn back" into the fire.) Some blame it on the "greens" (who don't run any government in Australia so can't be blamed for anything, let alone a non-existent "crime"). I believe the allegation is along the lines of "greens won't let us beer-swilling or more likely cocoa-drinking deniers chop down all the trees and cover the entire country with concrete". As if these cocoa-drinking deniers would know what to do with a chainsaw or have a clue about mixing concrete anyway. Some deniers say "we've always had fires", which is like being in the middle of the worst cyclone on record saying "but we've always had rain and wind". There are probably some deniers who doubt there are any areas burning in Australia.

I've dug out some old images of fires from past years. 2013 was known as "the angry summer". 2020 will be the angrier summer, with worse heatwaves and worse fires. The big difference this year is not just the number of fires, but the location and the ferocity.  The east coast of Australia is heavily populated.

Here is a video of a terrifying experience of firefighters in NSW. Warning - avoid if you're prone to nightmares about wildfire:

There is a lot more that could and will be written about this summer, including the abysmal non-reaction from the Australian government. Scott Morrison is the Prime Minister who trotted off for a holiday in Hawaii while his home state was burning to a crisp. He came back, got some photo ops with a few firefighters then, having figured he'd done enough on that score, threw a new year's eve party and went to the cricket. He is adamant he's not going to do anything more to reduce carbon emissions. (Some speculate it's on religious grounds. He's a member of a fairly small and suspect "religious" congregation.)

On that unpromising note, let me change the subject and wish you all a Happy New Year, or at least a fulfilling and satisfying year.

References and further reading

Australia’s Angry Summer: This Is What Climate Change Looks Like - article by Nerilie Abram, Scientific American, December 31, 2019

Australia's Angry Summer - HotWhopper, March 2013

Corryong fires - via Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC

NSW fires - via the Sydney Morning Herald

'Not like other bushfires' - from The Age

Thousands forced to take refuge on Australian beach as deadly wildfires close in - from Washington Post

Why the Fires in Australia Are So Bad - from the New York Times

Australia fires: nine dead and hundreds of properties destroyed, with worse to come - The Guardian

Australia fires: Death toll rises as blazes destroy 200 homes - BBC


  1. "On that unpromising note, let me change the subject and wish you all a Happy New Year, or at least a fulfilling and satisfying year."

    That was a sudden change. Whiplash.

    Those fires make living below the sea in The Netherlands sound like a good deal.

  2. Back burning is dangerous in catastrophic conditions and on more than one occasion recently it has actually caused wildfires. It's really only good in more calm conditions and with time to strategically locate the burn areas.

    Fuel reduction burns also have som utility, but again there are a suite of caveats - windows of opportuntiy, pyrophtyic response over time and its impact on plant community structure and flammability (there's a can of worms...), feasibility of areas that can be covered, and the relatively short duration of the mitigation effect. (usually less than about 7 years, depending on vegetation type).

    One thing that hasn't garnered much attention yet but will become an ecological horror story over the coming months is the number of species that will have been ratchetted toward extinction. There are a number of Australian endemics that could well be irretrievably on the path to extirpation by the end of this fire season, if they're not actually wiped out. Stay tuned to this awful subject...


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