Fires put Aussie lifestyle on line

By Greg Ansley

As the immediate threat to life and property from the immense bushfires burning in New South Wales recedes, debate is heating up over the future facing Australia and the best ways to minimise what will be an increasing toll from searing summers.

Some radical proposals could mean homes and even some towns would have to be moved, and development banned in bushland that has been woven into the national psyche.

The scale and the ferocity of the past week's crisis has alarmed the nation, coming so early in the fire season and with what will be a long, hot, dry few months still ahead.

More than 200 homes and insured property worth at least A$110 million ($127 million) have been destroyed, with far greater costs yet to be assessed. Three lives were lost: two pilots and a 63-year-old man defending his home.

And while firefighters have gained the upper hand for the moment, many fires will burn for weeks.

Authorities warn that disaster could again flare if the powerful winds and baking temperatures return. There are still 57 fires raging across NSW, 20 of them still out of control yesterday.

Already, devastated communities in the Blue Mountains are facing serious decisions on their futures. Many experts believe too many towns and homes are too close to bushland, and question whether they should be rebuilt elsewhere.

It is a debate that goes to the heart of Australian lifestyles, pitting the attraction of the bush against the need to reduce future risk.

Research shows most fires start close to urban fringes. Planners argue that Australia needs to look more broadly at bushfire management.

The commission into Victoria's horrific 2009 Black Saturday fires urged new rules to restrict development in high fire-risk areas, with the protection of life the highest priority. New regulations, including hazard mapping to determine where development would be allowed and tougher building standards, were introduced.

The commission also recommended moving communities already in areas of exceptional risk, an option that most authorities are reluctant to adopt.

University of Wollongong bushfire expert Ross Bradstock argued in the online academic journal The Conversation that more emphasis also needed to be placed on protective measures close to properties rather than large-scale measures such as prescribed burns in cooler periods to reduce fuel loads in bushland.

Fuel provided by shrubs and leaf litter close to property played a key role in bushfire losses. So did the distance of properties from forest edges and the design of gardens.

Research showed measures such as prescribed burning, thinning, clearing, and garden design and maintenance close to property could be up to five times more effective than more distant action.

The past week's fires have also refocused attention on climate change, politically sensitive as new conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott draws international heat for his plans to end carbon pricing and emissions trading in favour of a "direct action" package of other measures.

Abbott has denied any link between the NSW fires and climate change, accusing a United Nations critic of "talking through her hat" by drawing the connection.

"These fires are certainly not a function of climate change," Abbott said. "They are just a function of life in Australia."

But UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretary Christiana Figueres told CNN that climate change and the NSW fires were "absolutely" linked, and criticised Abbott's direct action policy.

Nobel laureate and former US Vice-President Al Gore backed Figueres, telling ABC television: "Bushfires can occur naturally, and do, but the science shows clearly that when the temperature goes up, and when the vegetation and soils dry out, then wildfires become more pervasive and more dangerous."

Climate scientists warn more fires and greater losses are inevitable.

Victoria University Professorial Research Fellow Roger Jones said in The Conversation that research comparing periods before 1996 and after 1997 showed a 0.8C rise in temperatures. The fire danger in Victoria soared by more than one-third.

Repeated studies point to worse to come.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned: "Climate change is expected to increase the number of days with very high and extreme fire weather."

And yesterday Australia's Climate Council, now a private research group after Abbott axed its federal status and funding, said yesterday there was a clear link between climate change and fires.

"Australia has always had bushfires," the council said. "However, climate change is increasing the probability of extreme fire weather days and is lengthening the fire season."

A joint study by Griffith and RMIT universities, led by Griffith's senior lecturer Michael Howes, found firefighters had few doubts.

"You don't find many climate change sceptics on the end of [fire] hoses any more," one senior Victorian firefighter said in the report of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

"They are dealing with increasing numbers of fires, increasing rainfall events, increasing storm events."

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