Own the fuel, own the fire

The day after the great fire burned through central Victoria, I drove from Sydney to Melbourne. Smoke obscured the horizon, entering my air-conditioned car and carrying with it that distinctive scent so strongly signifying death, or, to Aboriginal people, cleansing.

It was as if a great cremation had taken place. I didn’t know then how many people had died in their cars and homes, or while fleeing, but by the time I reached the scorched ground just north of Melbourne, the dreadful news was trickling in. Australia has suffered its worst recorded peacetime loss of life. And the trauma will be with us forever.

I was born in Victoria, and over five decades I’ve watched as the state has changed. The long, wet and cold winters that seemed insufferable to me as a boy vanished decades ago, and for the past 12 years a new, drier climate has established itself. I could measure its progress whenever I flew into Melbourne. Over the years the farm dams filled less frequently while the suburbs crept further into the countryside, their swimming pools oblivious to the great drying.

Climate modelling suggests the decline of southern Australia’s winter rainfall is caused by a build-up of greenhouse gas, much of it from the burning of coal.

Victoria has the most polluting coal power plant on earth, and another plant was threatened by the fire. There’s evidence that global pollution caused a significant change in climate after the huge El Niño event of 1998. Along with the dwindling rainfall has come a desiccation of the soil and more extreme summer temperatures.

This February, at the zenith of a record-breaking heat wave, Melbourne recorded its hottest day ever — a suffocating 46.1 degrees Celsius, with even higher temperatures in rural Victoria.

This extreme coincided with exceptionally strong northerly winds, followed by an abrupt change to southerly. This brought a cooling, but it was the shift in wind direction that caught so many in a deadly trap.

Such conditions have occurred before. In 1939 and 1983 they led to dangerous fires. But this time the conditions were more extreme than they had ever been and the 12-year “drought” meant plant tissues were bone-dry.

Despite narrowly missing the 1983 Victorian fires and then losing a house to the 1994 Sydney bush fires, I had not previously appreciated the difference a degree or two of additional heat and dry soil can make to the ferocity of a fire. This fire was quantitatively different from anything seen before.

My country is still in shock at the loss of so many lives. But inevitably we will look for lessons from this natural tragedy. The first, I fear, is that we must anticipate more such terrible blazes, for the world’s addiction to burning fossil fuels goes on unabated. And there is now no doubt that emissions pollution is laying the preconditions necessary for more such blazes.

When he ratified the Kyoto protocol, Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity.

Shaken, and clearly having seen things none of us should see, he has now had the eyewitness proof of his words. We can only hope Australia’s climate policy, which is weak, is now significantly strengthened.

Rudd has said the arsonists suspected of lighting some fires are guilty of mass murder and the police are pursuing the malefactors. But there’s an old saying among Australian firefighters: “Whoever owns the fuel owns the fire.” Let’s hope Australians ponder the deeper causes of this horrible event and change their polluting ways before it’s too late. —

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