Around six million residents in the Australian state of New South Wales are bracing for catastrophic bushfire conditions today.
This morning there are 57 bushfires burning in the state, with 28 of them out of control, and the weather is on track for the predicted conditions of strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures.
There are more than 45 fires are burning in Queensland, with three rated “watch and act” south of Toowoomba and near Yeppoon.
The New South Wales government has declared a state of emergency for seven days, and more than 575 schools and TAFE campuses have been closed. More than 150 homes have been destroyed, three people have died, and two firefighters were seriously injured by a falling tree.
This morning NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, told a media conference: “We are starting to see an increase in the wind speeds, especially in the ranges. We are expecting those to continue to strengthen from 10 to 11 o’clock late morning… Now is the time to exercise those decisions to leave, leave early and go to safer locations, safer towns or safer places in your community such as shopping centres.”
Several regions of eastern New South Wales has a catastrophic fire danger warning applied today, including Greater Sydney.
The Bureau of Meteorology forecast temperatures in the high 30s, with winds up to 65 kilometres per hour in some parts, across the danger areas.
The scale and severity of the fires has led to a war of words between local authorities and fire-fighting experts calling for action on climate change, and a Federal Government that has presided over a rise in carbon emissions.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack claimed it was “disgusting” the people were linking the fires to climate change.
He said victims of the fire “don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time”.
Carol Sparks, the Mayor of Glen Innes, where two people died on the weekend as a result of the fires, said the Deputy Prime Minister “needs to read the science”.
“That is what I am going by, is the science… It is not a political thing — it is a scientific fact that we are going through climate change,” she told local media.
Mid Coast Mayor Claire Pontin told local media that the Federal Government needs “to get out and have a real look at what’s happening to this country”.
“We’ve not had situations like that. Fifty years ago, this would never happen… We don’t have capital city greenies around here, we have farmers coming to us and saying, ‘look what’s happened to my farm, I can’t afford to feed the cows anymore because I’ve been buying feed for the last 18 months’,” she said.
In April, 23 former chiefs and deputy chiefs of fire and emergency services across Australia said the country was unprepared for worsening natural disasters from climate change and government inaction was putting lives at risk.
In a statement issued before a Federal Election date was announced, the group called on both major parties to recognise the need for “national firefighting assets”, including large aircraft, to deal with the scale of the threat.
The signatories included Greg Mullins, the second-longest serving fire and rescue commissioner in New South Wales and now a councillor with the Climate Council; Neil Bibby, a former chief executive of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority; Phil Koperberg, a former NSW rural fire service commissioner and former Labor MP and NSW environment minister.
The statement called on the next Prime Minister to meet former emergency service leaders “who will outline, unconstrained by their former employers, how climate change risks are rapidly escalating”. The group also wanted the next government to commit to an inquiry into whether Australia’s emergency services are adequately resourced to deal with increased risks from natural disasters caused by climate change.
In September, Mr Mullins told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that his requests to meet with the Prime Minister and Cabinet to discuss the bushfire risk were ignored.
“People are talking about this being an early fire season. No, it is not. It is the new normal. Things are happening here that are outside the experience of seasoned firefighters. I am seeing things that frighten me,” he said.
In June, the New South Wales firefighters union said the state government had cut the capital budget of Fire and Rescue NSW by 35.4 per cent, and that in addition there were $12.9 million dollars of cuts in expenses.
In its statement, the union said: ” There are many growing communities, particularly in regional NSW, who do not have enough professional firefighters. There are some towns with no professional firefighters. We have fewer firefighters now than we did eight years ago. Our trucks are old. We need more specialist equipment, not less. Some of our existing stations desperately need updating. We need safe protective uniforms and safe equipment. We need training. We need support after traumatic events.”
The overwhelming scientific consensus is that Australia’s bushfire season is growing longer and more intense because of climate change.
The Bureau of Meteorology stated in a 2018 report that climate change has seen an increase in extreme heat events and in the severity of natural disasters, including drought.
In the past four months, northern New South Wales and southern Queensland has experienced a historically severe drought.
“There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season across large parts of Australia since the 1950s …Climate change, including increasing temperatures, is contributing to these changes,” the report said.