Random notes on the Gippsland Bushfires and the Climate Emergency

Evacuation area 29.12 ABC

Writing seven years ago on possible sea level rise in Gippsland for the year 2100 and under the heading of ‘Extreme Event Scenario’ I wrote the following: “The use of the term ‘1 in 100 year’ to describe the frequency of any unusual event is to some extent subjective. The problem of how to categorise the extreme bushfires in Victoria over the last decade is an example. In terms of either size or ferocity it can be argued that Victoria has seen three 1 in 100 year bushfire events over the last decade – in 2003, 2006/7 and 2009.” In terms of area burnt the current fires are well on the way to eclipsing the first and second of these events. And they have the potential to eclipse all 3 in length of time, being already 40 days old with the real summer fire season just beginning.

As I have recently blogged the fires are likely to trickle through the bush on the relatively calm days and flare up under warmer windier conditions (see here). Even so I was shocked at the rapid advance of some of the fires over the past two days. To compound this spot fires and lightning strikes added another two hundred extra fires to contend with. Although confirmed news is scarce it seems that the small communities of Clifton Creek, Sarsfield and Buchan have copped the brunt on the fires, plus Mallacoota has been hit by another fire in the east only two days old.

Chaos reigns. One of my former students referring to family and friends noted on facebook “Update from Nowa Nowa. Bill thinks the fire went just north of Nowa Nowa so he is OK after a night with no reception and not knowing what was going on. Wairewa and Buchan not so fortunate. John Hermans* saved his house at Clifton Creek.” The emergency news on the ABC, as beneficial as it is, cannot keep track of the rapid changes. Power and phone reception often breakdown as is currently the case in Ensay and Tambo Crossing.

The word ‘unprecedented’ has been used many times but the call to evacuate a huge area of East Gippsland Shire (see above) was a first – if it was disregarded by large numbers of tourists and residents. And on the last day of the year the Vic Emergency fire maps were almost changing before our eyes showing stunningly advances of some of the fire fronts – jumps of five to ten kilometres were made in a few hours. Having bushfires – large, damaging and continuous – across the nation is also, dare I say it, ‘unprecedented’. For that is what climate change means in practice – extreme weather events on the warmer side of the spectrum continually getting much worse.

During this time the firefighters have been employed purely on asset protection and the perimeter of the fires has also greatly expanded, often in mountainous and inaccessible country, making their containment almost impossible. As one local wit said it looks like they will burn until they reach the ‘big break’ (Bass Strait) or we get a very heavy fall of rain. Climate scientists predicted more than 30 years ago that with global warming we would have longer more intense droughts, more frequent and bigger bushfires and longer fire seasons. Most of these predictions have materialised already. I have the uneasy feeling that the Gippsland bushfires are going to occupy this blog for most of the summer.

*John is an occasional contributor to this blog