THIS northern summer, bushfires have taken a terrible toll in Greece – where more than 90 people died as fires raged around Athens – and in the United States, where fewer people died but the fires were larger, burning out more than 1.7 million hectares.
At this time of year in Australia, we should be able to sit back in the cool of winter, and sympathise with those fighting fires on the other side of the world, while knowing that our turn will come again soon enough.
Instead – with much of the eastern half of Australia in drought – we also find ourselves in the midst of an alarming three-state run of fires, much as the Rural Fire Service had predicted when it shifted the start of the official bushfire season for much of NSW from October 1 to August 1.
In Queensland, where the authorities took a similar stance, more than 1000 fires have been recorded since the start of the month, including 700 in the past five days.
In both states, strong winds and extremely dry conditions have been making it difficult for firefighters wherever flames have erupted. Fires that would otherwise be easily contained at this time of the year have proved extremely difficult to bring under control, as shown by the emergency conditions evoked last week on the South Coast, and at Port Stephens over the weekend.
And as is increasingly the case each time we find ourselves facing unusual or unseasonal events, it is difficult to discuss such situations without reference, to some degree, to climate change.
Some will say that it doesn’t matter either way, that we’ve always had droughts and bushfires in Australia, and always will.
And they might have a more valid point if out-of-control winter bushfires were the only sign that something is seriously skewiff with our weather.
But they are not. As well as the plethora of scientific information used to build the base case for climate change, there’s the obvious things that all of us can see, like the early arrival of migratory birds, and the early flowering of a myriad of plants.
In the short-term, if the rains don’t come, it’s increasingly likely we are in for a worrying summer as far as fires are concerned.
As formidable as the Salt Ash fire proved to be at times, the next fire will likely be another level of threat altogether if its flames are blown by a hot westerly, rather than cool wind that prevailed on Sunday.