World Faces Megafire Threat -- Australian Expert
Author: Rob Taylor
Bushfires like those which have raged through Australia's Southeast for two months and which struck Europe, Canada and the western United States in 2003 are a new type of "megafire" never seen until recently, a top Australian fire expert said on Friday.
"They basically burn until there is a substantial break in the weather, or they hit a coastline," Kevin O'Loughlin, chief executive of Australia's government-backed Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, told Reuters.
"These fires can't be controlled by any suppression resources that we have available anywhere in the world."
Wildfires have struck five of Australia's six states since November, blackening more than 1.2 million hectares (4,600 square miles) of bushland, killing one and gutting dozens of homes.
Firefighters were being airdropped on Friday into the country's rugged southeastern alps to try to control a blaze threatening the upmarket ski resort of Thredbo, just 150 km (93 miles) south of the capital, Canberra.
An army of 15,000 Australian volunteers was being assisted by firefighters from Canada and New Zealand, with more teams from the United States expected to arrive next week.
O'Loughlin said international experience pointed to megafires becoming usual in many parts of the world, driven in part by global warming and by laws protecting national parks, which provided a source of fuel to megafire fronts.
Huge fires devastated large parts of Portugal, Spain and France in 2003, and also struck Canada and the United States as well as Australia, which is the world's most fire-prone country.
"Even in the US, which has quite substantial suppression resources -- helicopters, the army, fleets of planes -- they still cannot control them," O'Loughlin said.
Megafires are created when separate fires link and create one "super-front". Some of Australia's fires this summer have borders stretching thousands of kilometres, although authorities have been fortunate in that most have been in remote mountain ranges.
The fires are so fierce they create their own weather and winds, sucking in air from all directions.
"Once you get to a certain size the fire takes on a life of its own and, for example in Canberra in 2003, you got fire tornadoes," O'Loughlin said, referring to blazes which swallowed entire suburbs in Australia's capital four years ago.
To tackle megafires amid global warming, O'Loughlin said, governments worldwide might have to consider unlocking protected parklands and rejecting environmentalist arguments against intentionally burning dry timber littering the forest floor.
Climate change was also playing a part, reducing seasonal rains in some areas and drying out forests.
"The forests now form a major fire hazard. In the US they are starting to reintroduce fire to forested areas, but that is a very sensitive topic and you need to bring people along, especially parts of the conservation movement," O'Loughlin said.
Experts from Australia and around the world will gather in Canberra on February 27 to consider how to tackle megafires.
"It's to do with land management, water resources, forestry resources, and it will require political decisions to be made," O'Loughlin said.