Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Drought, Fire, and Climate Change?

Earlier this year I posted on an unprecedented firestorm that overtook Tasmanian towns in "Fire on the Mountain." What was astounding about that event was the fact that there was nothing anyone could do to "fight" that blaze; the wind, the soaring temperatures, and the aggressive nature of the fire were more than conventional firefighting tactics could handle, and as such, the only thing people could do was to get out of the way and let it burn.

Six days ago what started as fires in the brush and farm lands around the Blue Mountains of New South Wales (NSW), a national park area roughly 60 miles from the heart of downtown Sydney, has mutated into 60 fires with 18 of them uncontained thanks to high winds, high temps, and low humidity. In addition to the environmental factors fanning the flames, the topography of the mountainous area in question and the high density of volatile eucalyptus, or "gasoline trees," are adding to the challenges of keeping an ever expanding fire front under control.
NSW brushfire 10.21.2013             Source: Brisbanetimes
And while all signs point to the an unholy trinity of environmental factors: high heat, low humidity, and high wind for fanning the flames of the current situation, Andy Pitman from the University of New South Wales believes that climate change is the cause of this current emergency and not the coincidental alignment of environmental factors. Pitman asserts that the 2nd warmest winter on record in NSW, part of Australia's warmest 12 month period created the environment in which the fires are thriving and that there is probably a larger link to climate change. Regardless of the root cause, Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons just wants it to end.

Wednesday Morning (AEDT) Rural Fire Service Media Briefing:

So the big question is...if fires have been a way of life in Australia for decades, would it not make sense to create a map based on fire behavior and historical fire data to inform where and how homes are built in the future? Like all large disasters, the cleanup and restoration of areas are often partially subsidized with taxpayer dollars. While you can't predict where a fire will start, I believe there is enough data to inform the designation of high risk areas where it would be likely to spread and why. Based on this information couldn't mapping of "red zones" or off-limit areas be compiled to not only reduce the scope of these destructive events, but to also alleviate some of the taxpayer burden, and reduce the anxiety of living in fear of fire?

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