Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's hell in Australia this fire season

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BRISBANE -- If Australia is point man in the global battle against climate change, we've just spent the week in close contact with the enemy.

In 2009, the Los Angeles Times suggested Australia was experiencing the effects of climate change earlier and more dramatically than most other countries.

And it's true cyclones and floods have battered the northern part of the continent in recent years.

But this week, the truly unsettling aspect alleged to be at the core of climate change -- global warming -- appeared to take the country in its fierce embrace.

If the planet is indeed heating up, we've just seen the future and, for tropical climates at least, it's not pleasant.

Most Australians spent the week entombed in a giant dome of heat. The nation appears to have been transformed into an industrial oven, with a hair dryer providing the breeze.

Temperatures have reached beyond 30 C at midnight. A 7:30 a.m. walk along the river in the Queensland capital of Brisbane leaves one soaked with sweat, the sun hot on the face.

The heat is everywhere, stretching from northern Victoria and inland to New South Wales to Birdsville in the nation's centre and on to the eastern and western coasts.

At the epicentre of this Hades is the tiny isolated south Australian town of Oodnadatta, which broke a heat record with seven consecutive days above 45 C.

Staff manning the Bureau of Meteorology's interactive weather forecasting chart toyed with introducing new colours to portray a new generation of temperatures.

Where once reds and blacks indicated heat waves (which history suggests never get beyond 50 C), deep purple and pink were readied to indicate a life-threatening 54 C.

That they weren't needed was little consolation for a nation huddled in air-conditioned refuges, wondering where on Earth relief will come from. Even the beaches have turned nasty, with hot wind whipping up the sand on the Queensland coast to blast the skin of those hoping for a cooling dip.

To many Australians, especially those in the north, the heat of January is a given, along with the appearance of fat "Christmas beetles'' and flashes of yellowing fruit ripening plumply amid the leafy branches of the mango trees.

But it also brings an almost subconscious expectation of afternoon rains to offset its stifling impact.

Yet no rain comes -- not a drop from a parched landscape that is usually trickling with water at this time of year, but now appears to be gazing at us with an angry red face.

The bush fires began in earnest on the weekend in the far southern state of Tasmania.

A firestorm swept through more than 30 kilometres of farms and hamlets, pushing some terrified residents into the sanctuary of the sea, from where they watched their homes burn to the ground.

More fires followed across New South Wales and Victoria. By mid-week, almost every state was on some form of fire alert.

The massive reserves of vegetation pushed up by heavy rainfalls of the past few years have dried out in the heat, providing a feast for infernos.

And yet all this drama may represent nothing more than a regular heat wave.

Thousands of similar weather events have no doubt rolled across this ancient continent for millennia and been greeted with a shrug by Aborigines who, rather than speculating about global atmospherics, cooled off in a creek until the discomfort passed.

Karl Braganza, the manager of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology's National Climate Centre, told the national broadsheet The Australian on Wednesday the heat wave was notable for it's size.

"Almost the whole continent is warm,'' he told the newspaper.

"It is more typical for parts of the continent to be significantly cooler when we have a large heat wave.''

But, like any good scientist, he was cautious about jumping to conclusions about irrefutable evidence of global warming.

While Australia has broken a series of temperature records this week, it was difficult to untangle the influences of the climate system to identify what caused this unpleasant event, he said.

"It is the frequency of these events we are watching.''


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press Australia correspondent. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2013 A10

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