Bairnsdale’s Coming Summer from Hell

Flying Fox dead by the trailer load -summer 2018 (Image Shelly Nundra)

Having just passed the winter solstice, and lived through our black summer, I realise that I am dreading the next summer from hell. The bushfires were bad enough – spending most of the summer in the smoke, having evacuation orders and on two occasions with Bairnsdale, the largest town in our region, threatened. When one wakes through the night to check the winds and the possibility of ember attack the fire is as close as you ever want it to come.

Last summer was the third time I have closely experienced monster bushfires in the last 20 years – 2003, 2006-7 and 2019-20 – in each case the fires burning the whole summer. Now the experts at the Bushfires Royal Commission have predicted that we will have another monster bushfire before 2030, possibly two.

It is not so much the bushfires I dread as the next big heatwave. The first heatwave I clearly recall was in February 2009 in the days running up to Black Saturday. Our house at the time had inadequate the roof insulation and for cooling we had several portable fans. By the fourth night, temperatures remained so high during the night that sleep was extremely difficult and in the morning, it was still above 30 degrees inside the house.

Now in our all-electric house we have reverse cycle air conditioning and improved roof insulation. In the ‘summer from hell’ our centralised, coal-fired, greenhouse gas producing, power system is the weak link. Most of the coal-fired generators in our country are aging and, even in periods without any stress, the generating units close down for maintenance or occasionally break down.

Imagine the following. “As the heatwave progresses, the generators come under increasing stress, both through the extra demands for cooling the plant, and the increased demand for energy to power the air-cons that everyone has switched on. When one or more of the units at the old clunker at Yallourn W breaks down the load on an already stressed system of the east coast grid is increased.

“By the third day of heat the places on the periphery of our grid – Mallacoota Dargo, Omeo – experience brown-outs and black-outs, possibly of some duration leaving residents with no power, unless they have batteries or a back-up generator. Blackouts occur in large areas of the State, including East Gippsland, when the interconnectors between the States trip.

“On the fourth day, most of the temperatures overnight are desperately high approaching 30 degrees. The bats in the colony on the Mitchell River have been dying for days, and there are only a few survivors left. Large numbers of residents needing treatment for heat exhaustion overwhelm our hospital. Heat fatalities mount up in the young, the elderly, and the sick.

An event something like this will occur locally in the next 10 or 15 years. It will not be the first, for in the last decade Bairnsdale has already experienced heatwaves with temperatures over 42 degrees on three occasions. The ‘canary in the coal mine’ has been the flying fox colony whose numbers have been decimated by each of these events. The flying fox fatalities are warning us of our own vulnerability to an overheating planet. With the next ‘summer from hell’, will there be human casualties to match?