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No bushfire respite for scorched Australia

January 9, 2020

2019 was the hottest — and driest — year on record for Australia, authorities have said. Residents in southeastern Australia have been urged to flee bushfires as firefighters prepare for unfavorable weather conditions.

BdTD Australien Waldbrände - Rettung eines Koalas
Image: Reuters/AAP Image/D. Mariuz

Exhausted residents and firefighters are readying for fresh fire-fueling winds and hardly any rain along Australia's southeast continental rim, spanning the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

The forecast comes as the federal Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) revealed on Thursday that 2019 was the warmest and driest year since consistent recording began a century ago.

Read more: Smoke reaches South America

Bushfire smoke Sydney skyline
Bushfire smoke has altered Sydney's iconic skyline

Fire season 'getting more severe'

During 2019, Australia's annual mean temperature had been 1.52 °C (2.74 °F) above average and its "nationally averaged" rainfall was 278 mm (11 inches), 40% below the long-term average, said BoM, adding that its annual fire season was "getting longer" and "more severe."

"We are not looking at a short sharp end to the event — it looks like something that we will have to persist with for some time," said Karl Braganza, BoM's head of climate monitoring, while ruling out sizeable rainfalls.

BoM's report traces the turn to the so-called Indian Ocean Dipole and rare stratospheric warming over the South Pole that had pushed "our weather systems northward." 

'Dangerous' conditions ahead

Victoria state's Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp warned that a new weather front, forecast by BoM as likely to pack winds up to 80 kph (50 mph), would make Friday a "dangerous and dynamic day."

"If you can get out, you should get out," Crisp urged residents across rural areas, where already bushfires have left thousands homeless since Christmas.

Victoria was "just at the beginning of what will be a really, really challenging summer," stressed premier Daniel Andrews, referring to southern hemispheric seasons.

At Mallacoota, where over the New Year hundreds escaped by naval evacuation, Mark Tregellas,a stay-put local, told Reuters by telephone that electrical supply was only "slowly" being reestablished.

"Everyone is reliant on generators, and fuel for those is very limited, he said, adding: "People have now run out of petrol so most in town are now riding on bicycles."

'Shoulder-to-shoulder,' says NSW's Berejiklian

In New South Wales state (NSW, with Sydney its capital) emergency officials warned of an "extreme fire danger" expected in its mountain areas on Friday

Already, 1870 homes have been destroyed across NSW since the disaster's onset in September.

NSW's state government on Thursday announced an additional $A 1.2 billion ($US 680 million, €740 million) to rebuild infrastructure and communities.

"We are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those who have been impacted by the devastating fires," said NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian.

BG Waldbrände in Australien | Protest
Critics say the government isn't doing enough to curb bushfires and climate changeImage: AFP/S. Khan

PM Morrison gets backlash — again

Federal Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has pledged A$2 billion (US$1.37 million) for a new National Bushfire Recovery Agency, was on Thursday again on the rhetorical defensive.

Visiting South Australia state's scorched Kangaroo Island, Morrison exclaimed: "Thankfully, we've had no loss of life." The statement appeared to overlook last Friday's deaths of a veteran safari guide and his son (a 43-year-old surgeon) as they battled blazes on the island.

"Yes, two, that's quite right. I was thinking about firefighters really," said Morrison, before expressing his "sincere condolences" for the 27 lives lost during the ongoing disaster.

Read more: Pacific Island Forum's Fiji urges Australia to shift to renewable energy

Long an advocate of Australia's coal exports, Morrison has faced critics who point to the sector as a climate change driver and his seeming detachment from massive wildlife and livestock deaths.

University of Sydney ecologists estimate that one billion mammals, birds and reptiles have perished — excluding a presumed toll among frogs, insects and invertebrates as well.

Pope: 'Powerful fires'

In Rome, Catholicism's Pope Francis urged congregants to pray for Australians in "these powerful fires" in a disaster seen by many as a harbinger for other countries facing climate disruption.

"I'm close to the Australian people," said Francis.

ipj/stb (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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