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Australia's Bushfire Season Gets Off to an Early — and Deadly — Start

Four people were killed just days before a government agency report was published warning that climate change will fuel longer and more intense bushfire seasons.

by Harry Pearl
Nov 23 2015, 8:27pm

Image via EPA

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Three European workers and an Australian man were killed in a deadly start to Australia's bushfire season last week, just days before a national report warned that the country's fire preparedness was at risk from climate change.

The report from the Climate Council found that longer fire seasons in Australia, which are predicted to increasingly overlap with those in the Northern Hemisphere, could present a major challenge for emergency services.

With increased risk of extreme fire weather, the number of professional fire fighters in Australia will likely need to double by 2030, according to the report, which also urged stronger government action on climate change.

"The message that we have tried to deliver is that as climate change continues, there needs to be an increase in resourcing," said Professor Lesley Hughes, a councillor at the Climate Council.

Australia's bushfire season kicked off early this year, sparked by record-breaking spring temperatures.

Early in October, bushfires destroyed homes in the state of Victoria and, on Tuesday, four people died and crops and livestock were lost as blazes raged out of control near the Western Australian town of Esperance.

Three foreign workers — Briton Tom Butcher, Norwegian Anna Winther, and German Julia Kohrs-Lichte — were found dead in a car several kilometers north of their workplace, Karranga Station, in Scadden, north of Esperance.

Local farmer Kym Curnow, who has been praised for trying to warn people of the fires, also died in the blaze.

Related: Unless Earth Is Hit by a Huge Asteroid 2015 Will Likely Be the Hottest Year on Record

The fires, sparked by lightening strikes, were fueled by strong winds and temperatures that exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

According to the Climate Council report, hot, dry and windy weather — like the conditions in Esperance — will be exacerbated by climate change.

"Australia is a bushfire prone country," Hughes said. "What climate change is doing is making the conditions for fire more likely."

The frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including heat waves and droughts, is increasing due to climate change, according to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In Australia, the annual number of record hot days has doubled since 1960.

Last year was the third hottest on record for the country, according to the Climate Council report, and large parts of Southeast and Southwest Australia are expected to experience above-average temperatures over the coming summer.

The Climate Council has warned that climate change is increasing the length of fire seasons on Australia's east coast, where the majority of Australians live.

That mirrors international trends. Globally, the length of fire seasons has increased 19 percent between 1979 and 2013, according to the Climate Council.

In parts of the United States, the wildfire season is now more than a month longer than it was 35 years ago.

Longer fire seasons could strain fire-fighting resources in both Australia and North America, the report warned.

"As fire seasons lengthen, they may begin to overlap and that will put pressure on resources," Hughes said.

Specialized aircraft, leased from international companies, are used by Australian authorities during the Southern Hemisphere summer, and North American fire fighting services during the Northern Hemisphere summer.

Australia also swaps personnel with the United States and Canada.

Related: It's Pretty Obvious Not Enough Is Being Done Ahead of the Paris Climate Talks

While previous reports have warned of the threat posed by climate change on bushfires, the Climate Council paper issued a blunt assessment ahead of climate talks in Paris: The Australian government is not doing enough.

Australia's emissions reduction target of 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 has been labelled insufficient.

"It may be ambitious compared to what we've done before, but we're still at the back of the developed country pack," Hughes said.

For the government to sufficiently protect Australians from worsening forest fires and extreme weather events, the report said, it must cut emissions more rapidly.

Follow Harry Pearl on Twitter: @Harry_Pearl