Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 February 2020

Australian firefighters use cooler temperatures to fight blazes before coming heatwave

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned the public not to 'get lulled into a false sense of security'

Australian firefighters took advantage of a brief drop in temperatures and light rainfall to attempt to contain bushfires before another heatwave is expected to strike later this week.

Conditions are not expected to be as bad as the worst days of the crisis, but New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned the public not to “get lulled into a false sense of security".

The death toll from the fires rose to 25 yesterday/TUES, with estimates for the total area of burnt land now between 8 to 10 million hectares. Thousands of people have been left homeless, while many in rural towns have spent days without electricity, telecommunications and, in some cases, drinking water.

Already exhausted volunteers were working hard to clear ground vegetation and carry out controlled burns before temperatures and winds pick up again by Friday.

"It really is about shoring up protection to limit the damage potential and the outbreak of the fires over the coming days," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

He described current conditions as "much more favourable" but warned, "we are expecting hotter weather to return later in the week".

There are growing fears that two fires burning in NSW and Victoria could connect to form another uncontrollable megablaze.

Modest rainfall has not been heavy enough in most areas to extinguish fires and in some places, it has only made back-burning more difficult.

The human toll was again laid bare yesterday/TUES, as firefighters held a memorial in Sydney for 36-year-old Andrew O'Dwyer who died along with his colleague Geoffrey Keaton while battling blazes in late December.

Volunteers in bright orange fire suits lined the road in a guard of honour as his cortege passed – with the coffin draped in a Rural Fire Service flag.

O'Dwyer's young daughter, Charlotte, received her father's service medal from Mr Fitzsimmons. In an emotional moment, the toddler wore her father's medal and a fire helmet in front of his coffin.

At a funeral held for Keaton last week, his young son stood quietly, sucking on a pacifier, while receiving his father's medal.

Meanwhile, Australia's government doubled down on its position that there is no direct link between climate change and the country's devastating bushfires, despite public anger and warnings from scientists.

Emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor said Australia did not need to cut carbon emissions more aggressively to limit global warming.

"When it comes to reducing global emissions, Australia must and is doing its bit, but bushfires are a time when communities must unite, not divide," Mr Taylor told Reuters yesterday/TUES, from a bushfire relief centres in his constituency in NSW.

Stepping up efforts to cut emissions would harm the economy, the government argues, especially if it hurt Australia's exports of coal and gas. The country last year overtook Qatar as the world's top exporter of liquefied natural gas.

Australia contributes 1.3 per cent of the world's carbon emissions but is the second-largest emitter per capita behind the United States.

Scientists say climate change is a key factor in the destructive wildfires.

"One of the key drivers of fire intensity, fire spread rates and fire area is temperature. And in Australia we've just experienced record high temperatures," said Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University.

The burning forests are a double whammy for the environment, as they add to carbon emissions while also removing carbon sinks which will take decades to grow back, said David Holmes, director of the Monash University Climate Change Communication Research Hub.

Australia's bushfires since September have emitted about 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, equal to two-thirds the country's annual emissions from man-made sources, according to estimates by Pep Canadell, director of the Global Carbon Project, based on data from NASA satellites.

Imagery posted online from the Himawari 8 Japanese satellite and NASA's Earth Observatory showed plumes of smoke from the fires reaching as far as South America, 12,000 kilometres away. Smoke from the fires has been spotted in Chile and Argentina.

Updated: January 8, 2020 11:03 AM

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