Australia Braces as Bushfire Warning Reaches ‘Catastrophic’

Emily Cadman and Jason Scott

(Bloomberg) -- Australia is bracing for another week of devastating bushfires, with swaths of the eastern seaboard and even areas of greater Sydney facing a “catastrophic” threat that’s unprecedented at this time of year.

It’s the first time authorities have set the highest warning level for Australia’s largest city since the six-step fire-danger rating system was introduced a decade ago.

Three people have been killed and more than 150 homes destroyed in the state of New South Wales in recent days as fires ripped through areas rendered tinderbox dry by a two-year drought. The devastation is exceptional, considering summer hasn’t even begun.

Authorities expect the situation to deteriorate Tuesday as hot and windy conditions sweep through New South Wales and neighboring Queensland, where states of emergency have been declared.

“Everyone has to assume the worst,” New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said at a press conference Monday. “We cannot allow complacency to creep in.”

The fires come amid increasing divisions about climate change policy in Australia, with the conservative government resisting scientists’ calls to take greater action to reduce carbon emissions. They follow a series of blazes in California, including around Los Angeles, that triggered days of blackouts, while areas of Portugal were damaged in July.

With more than 60 fires burning in New South Wales, the Rural Fire Service warned it wouldn’t be able to contain all the blazes before the weather worsened. The temperature is forecast to rise to 34 degrees Celsius (93.2 degrees Fahrenheit) with strong winds on Tuesday.

Sydney is dotted with national parks, forested areas and bushland, often in close proximity to housing, and even urban neighborhoods less than 15 kilometers from the central business district have been advised they face a “catastrophic” risk. Authorities have warned that embers from fires can be carried 30 kilometers by winds, potentially triggering fresh outbreaks.

The Insurance Council of Australia said that any claims from the fires would be prioritized. It’s yet to put a monetary value on property and asset losses.

Climate Change

Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent and is considered one of the most vulnerable developed countries to climate change. The nation gets the bulk of its energy from burning coal, a fuel that last year was also its largest export earner.

While bushfires have been an important part of Australia’s ecology, some scientists have expressed concern that the season is getting longer. The drought gripping parts of Australia has created hazardous conditions in many regional communities, where some residents have complained that insufficient back-burning has taken place during the winter months, leaving a fuel load of fallen trees and undergrowth.

This year’s bushfire season may be exacerbated by strong easterly trade winds across the tropical Indian Ocean that have contributed to what’s known as a strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. Such patterns “are often associated with a more severe fire season for southeast Australia,” it said Oct. 29.

Australia is leading the world in the number of hotspots -- a measure of heat radiative power -- detected by sensors aboard satellites over the past 24 hours, according to NASA data.

Visiting affected areas on Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison again sidestepped questions about the role of climate change, saying his focus was on getting immediate assistance to those in need.

Morrison, a staunch supporter of the coal-mining industry, said earlier this month his government is considering how it can ban activists from pressuring companies not to do business with the mining industry and other sectors with a large carbon footprint.

The government’s refusal to link the fires with climate change was sharply criticized by the Australian Greens party, which has accused it of being in denial.

“Thoughts and sympathies are not enough,” party leader Richard Di Natale said in a statement. “We need to anticipate and prepare for these emergencies, but we also need to go to the root cause which is the burning of fossil fuels that is dangerously heating our planet. Our government has its head in the sand.”

That stance was criticized by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who said on Monday that climate change science shouldn’t be debated during a time of bushfire crisis.

“We’ve had fires in Australia since time began, and what people need now is sympathy, understanding, help and shelter,” McCormack said in a radio interview. “They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies at this time,” he added, using the colloquial nickname for environmentalists.

The nation’s most devastating fires, the so-called Black Saturday blazes in Victoria state in February 2009, caused 180 fatalities.

(Updates with areas of Sydney at risk and map of hotspots.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Emily Cadman in Sydney at ecadman2@bloomberg.net;Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edward Johnson at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net, Peter Vercoe

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