Hawaii fires ‘portent of what Australia will experience’

11 August 2023

The destructive wildfires in Hawaii are a reminder to Australia of the risk it faces this summer as the threat of El Nino looms, a University of Tasmania fire science expert has warned.

Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science David Bowman says the tragedy in Maui is “a portent of what Australia and other countries will experience in a warmer world”.

Yet he says the country has made little progress in preparing for a fiery future after the painful 2019/20 Black Summer bushfire catastrophe, which razed more than 24 million hectares nationally and destroyed over 3000 homes.

Professor Bowman says the bushfire royal commission’s report in October 2020 provided an adaptation plan for fires and other natural disasters but “almost three years on, we haven’t seen the changes needed”.

“We’re behaving as if we’ve got an endless amount of time. Australia is sleepwalking into our fiery future,” he says in an article published by The Conversation.

“The fires in Hawaii remind Australians that our summer is just around the corner. We don’t have much time.”

Media reports in the US say at least 53 people are confirmed dead in the most lethal wildfire since the 2018 Camp fire tragedy in California. Hawaii Governor Josh Green is quoted as saying the fires left a trail of destruction that looked like “a bomb went off”.

Australia is already on an El Nino alert with the Bureau of Meteorology maintaining its forecast this month that the climate pattern is likely to occur in the coming weeks. El Nino typically means reduced rainfall, warmer temperatures and increased fire danger in the south-east of the country.

Weather agencies in the northern hemisphere have already declared an El Nino and the fires in Maui, Greece and other parts of Europe – along with the sweltering temperatures – have been blamed on the climate event.

“Australians must heed the warnings. Australia, too, is fast becoming a continent of more uncontrolled fire,” Professor Bowman said.

He says the drying and warming that drove the Black Summer fires are linked to human-caused climate change.

“These changes are resulting in longer fire seasons and extended periods of drought,” he said.

“As I watch the fires blazing in Hawaii, I’m constantly asking myself: when will Australians – who live on one of the most fire-prone continents on Earth – get a grip on this escalating global problem? How many more warning signs do we need?”

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