Wildfires in South Australia ripped across 20,000 hectares of land, destroying several homes on Sunday. After yet another summer of catastrophic burning, Australians are debating whether the fires are the result of climate change, and whether enough is being done to stop them.
The blazes had destroyed at least 26 homes as of Monday afternoon, but the full extent of damage may not be known for several more days. Large areas remain inaccessible, and authorities are focused on fighting the fires that still threaten to spread across the Adelaide Hills.
"We're really at the pointy edge of a very strong learning curve that the world is facing," environmental scientist Tim Flannery told VICE News. "Bush fires are now behaving in ways bush fires haven't behaved before. They're hotter than ever, bigger than ever, and across a larger portion of the country than ever. They threaten more property, and we're seeing simultaneous fire seasons across the whole southeast of Australia."
Flannery is an ambassador for the Climate Council, a revival of Australia's Climate Commission, a government organization that was abolished by the current Australian government. Resurrected as a think tank, the Climate Council was funded by Australia's largest ever crowd-funding campaign.
"We're at the tip of a change that the Mediterranean region and the United States are going to be dealing with soon," Flannery said. "Australian bush fires are on the leading edge of a global problem, we're seeing really extreme conditions that haven't been seen for 200 years."
Climate change quickly became a political talking point in Australia, even as the fires still burned out of control Sunday afternoon.
"Every year we are going to face these extreme weather events, which are going to cost lives and infrastructure, and enough is enough," Christine Milne, leader of the Australian Greens, said at a press conference. "The Abbott Government has to stop climate denial and help to get the country prepared to adapt to the more extreme conditions."
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott openly disagreed with Christiana Figueres, a top United Nations climate change official, last year when she linked the country's wildfires to climate change.
Abbott said Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was "talking out of her hat" when she said there was "absolutely" a link between wildfires and climate change. Abbott instead insisted that bush fires "are certainly not a function of climate change, they're a function of life in Australia."
Flannery said Abbott's government is not taking climate change into account, or planning for its impacts. "We know that we need to double the number of firefighters by 2030 in South Australia, just on current projections," he said. "Then there's the medical service, in Melbourne alone ambulance call outs increase 20 fold during a heat wave.
"Climate change at the moment is having an incremental impact on average temperatures, but a big impact on the margins," Flannery continued. "Heat waves are increasing in length and in amplitudes, that is to say, the hottest periods are much hotter and lasting much longer."
Greg Nettleton of the South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS) described the conditions in South Australia as the worst since Australia's 1983 Ash Wednesday disaster. That conflagration saw 180 separate fires — fanned by winds in excess of 68 miles (110 km) per hour — burn across more than 1.2 million acres.
Volunteers from across Australia have flown in to bolster South Australia's firefighters and continued to battle blazes on Monday. They are frantically trying to eradicate the fire before mid-week, when conditions are expected to return that could see them lose control of the blaze.
"We are going into a warming pattern today. Tomorrow it's 38 degrees and the forecast for Wednesday is 38. The winds will swing around to the north," Nettleton said. "That's enough, given the dryness of the country, for the fire to spread, so our number one priority is to secure the outer perimeter of that large fire so it doesn't impact on further communities."
No casualties have been recorded so far, although 29 people were injured or hospitalized. A local kennel burned down Saturday morning, killing some 40 dogs and cats.
Infrared footage released by the South Australian Police revealed the vast size of the fire at its height Sunday.
Australia has wrestled with enormous wildfires for several years. During last year's fire season, 190,000 hectares of land burned in Victoria, and New South Wales dealt with fires that destroyed more than 100,000 hectares the year before.
The current fire began at Sampson Flat, just northeast of Adelaide, and soon engulfed much of the Adelaide Hills that overlook South Australia's capital city.
Starting on a single property, the fire quickly leapt out of the control of firefighters. The Adelaide Advertiser, a local newspaper, spoke to the owner of the property on condition of anonymity.
"It looked like it was under control, there were no plumes going up, and it seemed to have stopped and then she just went up almighty," he said, adding that the fire jumped 20 meters from where crews reportedly had it contained.
"I don't know how it jumped that far with just a wind gust," he added. "It started over the top of the hill and then jumped the track."
The Victorian Country Fire Association, meanwhile, wrestled with fires across the Mornington Peninsula, near Melbourne. In total, firefighters battled some 600 fires, although they managed to control them by Sunday morning.
"We certainly had a hell of a lot of trucks out there," a CFA spokesperson said. "We had 41 vehicles out there. We had strike teams. We've just had a very intense attack on that fire in a really short space of time."
Australia's fire season still has at least three months remaining.
Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter:@s_mitchell
Photo by Toni Fish via Wikimedia Commons