Australia‘s heatwave set a new high of almost 50C as authorities warned that large uncontrolled bushfires would continue to threaten areas in the south-east of the country.
Meanwhile, in remote Moomba, a gas exploration and processing town in the outback of South Australia, the temperature hit 49.6C by mid-afternoon, making it the hottest of the two-week spell, and 48.6C in the town of Bourke, 500 miles north-west of Sydney.
In other parts of New South Wales (NSW) authorities fought nearly 100 bushfires with many still out of control. Fire crews also fought blazes in Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland. In the south, firefighters struggled to control a massive bushfire near the town of Cooma, that has burned through 10,000 hectares. In the late afternoon an emergency alert was issued indicating that danger from fire was imminent.
NSW rural fire service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the last week had presented some of the “most atrocious” fire-fighting conditions he had seen in 30 years. “When it comes to fire, this week will be recognised as one of the worst, if not the worst danger weeks NSW has ever experienced,” he added.
Around 350,000 hectares of land has been destroyed and thousands of livestock have been lost. Many blazes have been grass fires which travel two or three times faster than an average bushfire. They are easy to start and spread quickly, particularly as there has been plenty of grass on the ground following two wet summers in 2011-12.
Fitzsimmons paid tribute to the fire crews’ efforts in preventing major losses: “To come through those conditions with the minimum amount of property being reported as damaged or destroyed and no loss of life is an extraordinary testament to the fire-fighting effort on the ground and the strategies used.”
Many fires began on Tuesday when large areas of the state were given a fire danger rating of “catastrophic”, the highest possible level. High temperatures and strong winds fanned the flames of 140 fires across the state. “We’ve never seen conditions like that and never want to see them again,” said Fitzsimmons.
Garry Morgan, chief executive of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre, said big improvements in the way bush fires could be predicted, the direction they were likely to take and their spread had been significant in protecting lives and livelihoods. “If we’d had these fires eight years ago, we’d have had a big loss of life. It’s been an amazing outcome.”
Australia is one of the top three bush-fire-prone places in the world, along with the west coast of the US and France’s Mediterranean coast. Improvements in weather prediction and communications have helped to change the authorities’ ability to manage outbreaks.
“We can tell people where the smoke is heading, how far away the fire is and when to get out of their houses,” said Morgan. “There’s no doubt the messaging to communities about the dangers is much better too.”
Fitzsimmons said there had to be “a demonstrable shift and an improvement to the way that communities engaged and warned” after the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009, which claimed the lives of 173 people and shocked the nation. “There was a very deliberate decision made to improve our systems and our language to make sure we put out a clear and simple set of messages and instructions [to the public].”
In the past week the Rural Fire Service has had an unprecedented number of hits on its website, Facebook page, Twitter account.
The heatwave of the past two weeks has been a key factor in the scale of the week’s fires. On Monday, the country experienced its hottest day on record, with an average high temperature across the continent of 40.3C, surpassing the 1972 record of 40.1C. The third-hottest day on record was on Tuesday.
The first nine days of 2013 have recorded average maximum temperatures of more than 39C, making the length, severity and extent of the heatwave unprecedented, according to the climate commission’s special report on the heat wave.
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