x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Blistering summer back o' Bourke leaves locals unflustered by climate change

As Australia's worst heatwave on record grips large chunks of the country, fuelling bushfires that are still burning across five states and territories, some remain sceptical about global warming.

A scrubfire burns up a hillside south of Bookham, near Yass in southern New South Wales. After two days of cooler weather, heat and high winds returned to much of the country.
A scrubfire burns up a hillside south of Bookham, near Yass in southern New South Wales. After two days of cooler weather, heat and high winds returned to much of the country.

BOURKE, AUSTRALIA // The streets of Bourke, a normally bustling Outback town, were almost deserted at the weekend as locals stayed indoors to avoid temperatures of more than 48°C - uncommonly hot even for a place accustomed to blistering summers and renowned for the resilience of its inhabitants.

As Australia's worst heatwave on record gripped large chunks of the country, fuelling bushfires that were still burning across five states and territories yesterday, Bourke recorded its hottest day since 1939.

"We're used to the heat, but this is extreme," said Lillian Simpson, who runs the Bourke Riverside Motel with her husband, Roy.

Meteorologists blame the soaring temperatures on a "dome" of heat perched over the continent, exacerbated by cloud-free skies and a delayed monsoon season.

But they also warn that such heatwaves - the South Australian mining town of Moomba recorded 49.6°C on Saturday - will become more common as climate change brings increasingly frequent and intense extreme-weather events.

Despite the scorching heat, the residents of Bourke - which is 800 kilometres north-west of Sydney and home to about 3,000 people, one-third of them Aboriginal - were sceptical about global warming.

"I don't think we've been around long enough to judge these things," said Marilyn Reed, an administrative assistant at the police station. "I think it's just part of a cycle."

Built on a bend of the Darling River, Bourke has always been known for its harsh landscape and extreme climate. The first European explorer to reach the area, Charles Sturt, said it was "unlikely to become the haunt of civilised man". In fact, it was settled in the mid-19th century, briefly becoming a major inland port where paddle-steamers transported wool to market from the surrounding sheep stations.

Nowadays, Bourke services the sprawling cattle properties that surround it, as well as irrigated industries including fruit and cotton.

While most townspeople could retreat to their air-conditioned homes and offices last week, farmers had to continue working outside.

"It's not much fun fencing in this heat, I can tell you," said Mariana Simpson, who had popped into town to collect supplies.

Dale Barker, a heavy machinery operator for Bourke Shire Council, finished his shift on Friday and then went out and sheared 30 sheep, to earn some extra money.

"I reckon it was 50 degrees in the [shearing] shed," he said. In the local bakery and cafe, employee Aimee Sutton said she felt sorry for her brother, who had spent eight hours picking sunflower seeds.

The extreme heat was straining the capacity of air-conditioners, and some fridges and freezers were breaking down.

The tarmacked roads were soft and spongy, and bore the tyre marks of heavy lorries. Some petrol stations had to switch off their pumps because the fuel was vaporising in underground tanks.

It is not only inland Australia that has been sweltering. Last Tuesday, Sydney recorded 42.3°C, one of its highest temperatures ever. Melbourne and Adelaide have been roasting, too.

In Bourke, people listened with amusement to the news bulletins. "All that fuss over 42 degrees," joked one local. "Mate, if we were down there, we'd be wearing jumpers."

The fires still being fought after two weeks of hot weather are no laughing matter, however.

More than 90 were burning across New South Wales yesterday, with several threatening properties. Emergency teams were also tackling blazes in Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, while the massive fire that destroyed 200 homes and businesses in Tasmania last weekend had yet to be brought under control.

What makes this heatwave stand out is its duration and geographical spread, said Karl Braganza, the head of climate monitoring at the Bureau of Meteorology.

"We're also seeing an extended bushfire season which starts earlier and ends later," he said.

In a report last week for the federal government's Climate Commission, professor David Karoly, an eminent climate scientist, wrote that there was "clear evidence of an increasing trend in hot extremes, reductions in cold extremes and … more frequent extreme fire danger days."

"Climate scientists have been talking about these increases for more than 20 years in Australia," he said. "We are now seeing exactly what was predicted more than 20 years ago."

Given the scale of the fires this summer and the "catastrophic" conditions, it seems astonishing that no one has died, or been seriously injured.

Experts point to improved planning and alerts in the wake of the Black Saturday disaster that killed 173 people in Victoria in 2009 - as well as sheer good luck. In Tasmania, for example the fires mainly affected coastal towns where people could escape by boat.

Reflecting on the lethal mix last week of high temperatures, strong winds and heavy fuel on the ground in New South Wales, one climate scientist said: "We were just damn lucky we didn't have an inferno. But we're not out of the woods yet."