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20 May 2024

As Australia bushfires rage, warning of more heatwaves


Firefighters were battling scores of wildfires raging in Australia Saturday, as a government commission warned that climate change had raised the risk of scorching heatwaves becoming more frequent.

In the eastern state of New South Wales, some 1,000 firefighters were attempting to douse about 94 wildfires, about dozen uncontained, while fires were also burning in neighbouring Victoria and Queensland states.

And in the southern island state of Tasmania, known for its cooler temperatures, residents were returning to the burnt-out homes they fled a week ago when flames raced through villages on the Tasman peninsula.

No deaths have been reported from the bushfires, which have flared during extreme summer temperatures, but the unprecedented heatwave has prompted the government's Climate Commission to issue a new report on the weather event.

It says that climate change has contributed to making the extreme heat conditions -- in which record-breaking temperatures in parts of the country have topped 45 degrees Celsius (113 F) -- and bushfires worse.

"The length, extent and severity of the current heatwave are unprecedented in the measurement record," the report "Off the Charts: Extreme Australian summer heat" notes.

"Although Australia has always had heatwaves, hot days and bushfires, climate change is increasing the risk of more frequent and longer heatwaves and more extreme hot days, as well as exacerbating bushfire conditions."

It says while many factors influence the potential for bushfires, so called "fire weather" is highly sensitive to changes in climatic conditions.

And hotter temperatures, longer heatwaves, high winds and drier soils and grasses can all dramatically exacerbate fire conditions.

"Thus when fire occurs in more extreme weather conditions, there is the potential for the fire to be far more intense and difficult to control," the report said.

One of the report's authors David Karoly said there was clear evidence of an increasing trend in hot extremes in Australia, where the current heatwave has affected more than 70 percent of the vast continent nation.

Karoly said the current heatwave, which began in December, saw the average maximum daily temperature across the whole of Australia hit a 40.3 degrees Celsius on January 7, breaking a record of 40.17 C which had stood since 1972.

"That's an amazing temperature," he told AFP. "No cool areas offsetting the record heat. What we've been experiencing this week... people have been calling it a 'dome' of hot air."

Karoly said there was likely to be an increased frequency of hot extremes, more hot days, more heat waves and more extreme bush fire days during Australian summers in the future.

"We still will have natural climate variability, so some years will be cooler and a little bit wetter," he said.

"But, yes, we will expect to see more frequent heatwaves that are lasting longer and covering more of the country and getting more and more intense as time goes on."

There was some relief from the heat in sight Saturday, with cooler temperatures expected to help firefighters battling blazes in southern New South Wales and Victoria.

But in northern inland New South Wales, the temperature soared past 40 C and fires, hit by increased winds, were still burning strongly.

Wildfires are a fact of life in arid Australia, where 173 people died in the 2009 Black Saturday firestorm, the nation's worst natural disaster of modern times.

As owners returned to their gutted homes this week in the small communities of Dunalley and Murdunna in Tasmania, they were aware things could have been worse.

"Never mind these things can be replaced, it's not a problem," one man told the ABC as he surveyed his destroyed holiday home in Murdunna.