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Australia Wildfires Investigation Calls for Climate Risk Assessment


    02 November 2020

    Wildfires destroyed large parts of southeast Australia during the second half of 2019 and early in 2020. Late last week, Australian investigators released an official report on the fires. The investigators for greater efforts to predict the effects of climate change on the country. The report noted that fire behavior was becoming more extreme.

    The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements began studying the fires in February.

    Firefighters battle the Morton Fire as it burns a home near Bundanoon, New South Wales, Australia, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
    Firefighters battle the Morton Fire as it burns a home near Bundanoon, New South Wales, Australia, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

    The fire season was so destructive that it is now known as Black Summer. The fires killed at least 33 people, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and burned 19 million hectares. Thousands of people were forced to leave affected areas.

    The Royal Commission said the smoke that covered much of the country, including major Australian cities, was partly to blame for hundreds of deaths.

    The commission's 578-page report made 80 suggestions. They include greater sharing of information across Australia on climate and disaster risks.

    The report said federal and state governments should make climate projections and agree on trajectories and timelines for likely climate change. It called on states to create fire maps that are shared nationally. Without this cooperation, the report said, it is "difficult to measure risk at a national scale."

    These measures will "improve the ability to predict or estimate the likelihood of extreme" wildfires, the report said.

    Mark Howden is a professor at the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute. He said the fire risk in some areas was a result of both fuel loads and climate. A fuel load is the amount of dead wood that can easily burn.

    Climate models were "a guide to future change and risk, but it's very clear across Australia that that change in risk is upward," Howden said. "So, it's a question...how quickly and how much that fire danger increases."

    Lawmakers in Australia's government have argued against the effect of climate change on the fire emergency. Some said the fires were set by arsonists.

    The report also said there was no question that more climate change is likely over the next 20 years. It also said the number of floods and fires will increase.

    Former New South Wales state Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins agreed with the report's look at climate change.

    "The main point made in this report is that the Black Summer bushfires would not have happened if not for the effects of climate change and a warming planet," he said.

    The report also recommended that Australia develop its own aerial firefighting abilities and send water bombers to where they are needed most. The country now brings in firefighting airplanes from the Northern Hemisphere during its fire season. But, as a result of climate change, fire seasons in the two hemispheres often happen at the same time now.

    The report said that the prime minister should be given new legal power to declare a state of emergency. This, it said, would make it easier for the federal government to act during the wildfire season.

    I'm Susan Shand.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    page – n. each piece of paper in a book or report

    trajectory – n. the direction

    arsonist - n. someone who deliberately sets a fire

    scale – n. the weight of something or its importance

    aerial - adj. pertaining to flight or the skies

    hemisphere - n. one half of the earth, either southern or northern

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