Australian Prime Minister Jeered in Fire-Ravaged State

PERTH, Australia (AP) — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was confronted by angry residents who cursed and insulted him Thursday as he visited a wildfire-ravaged corner of the country.

Residents of Cobargo, New South Wales, yelled at him, made obscene gestures and called him an “idiot” and worse, criticizing him for the lack of equipment to deal with the fires in town. They jeered as his car left. In the New South Wales town of Quaama, a firefighter refused to shake hands with him.

Boats are pulled ashore as smoke and wildfires rage behind Lake Conjola, Australia, on Thursday. (Robert Oerlemans via AP)

“Every single time this area has a flood or a fire, we get nothing. If we were Sydney, if we were north coast, we would be flooded with donations with urgent emergency relief,” a resident said in Cobargo.

The outpouring of anger came as authorities said 381 homes had been destroyed on the New South Wales southern coast this week. At least eight people died this week in New South Wales and the neighboring state of Victoria.

More than 200 fires are burning in Australia’s two most-populous states. Blazes have also been burning in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania.

“I’m not surprised people are feeling very raw at the moment. And that’s why I came today, to be here, to see it for myself, to offer what comfort I could,” Morrison said. “There is still, you know, some very dangerous days ahead. And we understand that, and that’s why we’re going to do everything we can to ensure they have every support they will need.”

Morrison, who also has been criticized for his lack of climate change policies and accused of putting the economy before the environment, insisted that Australia is “meeting the challenge better than most countries” and “exceeding the targets we set out.”

Cooler weather since Tuesday has aided firefighting and allowed people to replenish supplies, with long lines of cars forming at gas stations and supermarkets. But high temperatures and strong winds are forecast to return Saturday, and thousands of tourists fled the country’s eastern coast Thursday as conditions worsened.

New South Wales authorities ordered tourists to leave a 155-mile zone. State Transport Minister Andrew Constance called it the “largest mass relocation of people out of the region that we’ve ever seen.”

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a seven-day state of emergency starting Friday, which grants fire officials more authority. It’s the third state of emergency for New South Wales in the past two months.

“We don’t take these decisions lightly, but we also want to make sure we’re taking every single precaution to be prepared for what could be a horrible day on Saturday,” Berejiklian said.

The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has led authorities to rate this season the worst on record. About 12.4 million acres of land have burned, at least 17 people have been killed, and more than 1,400 homes destroyed.

The crisis “will continue to go on until we can get some decent rain that can deal with some of the fires that have been burning for many, many months,” the prime minister said.

In Victoria, where 83 homes burned this week, the military helped thousands of people who fled to the shoreline as a wildfire threatened their homes in the coastal town of Mallacoota. Food, water, fuel and medical expertise were being delivered, and about 500 people were to be evacuated from the town by a naval ship.

“We think around 3,000 tourists and 1,000 locals are there. Not all of those will want to leave, not all can get on the vessel at one time,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Smoke from the wildfires made the air quality in the capital, Canberra, the worst in the world, according to a ranking Thursday. Australia’s unprecedented wildfires are supercharged due to climate change, the type of trees catching fire and weather, experts say. These fires are so extreme that they are triggering their own thunderstorms.

Wildfires rage this week in Bairnsdale, Australia. (Glen Morey via AP)

Here are a few questions and answers about the science behind the Australian wildfires that so far have burned about 12.4 million acres, killing at least 17 people and destroying more than 1,400 homes.

“They are basically just in a horrific convergence of events,” said Stanford University environmental studies director Chris Field, who chaired an international scientific report on climate change and extreme events. He said this is one of the worst, if not the worst, climate change extreme events he’s seen.

“There is something just intrinsically terrifying about these big wildfires. They go on for so long, the sense of hopelessness that they instill,” Field said. “The wildfires are kind of the iconic representation of climate change impacts.”

Q: Is climate change really a factor?

A: Scientists, both those who study fire and those who study climate, say there’s no doubt manmade global warming has been a big part, but not the only part, of the fires.

Last year in Australia was the hottest and driest on record, with the average annual temperature 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1960 to 1990, average, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. Temperatures in Australia last month hit 121.8 degrees.

“What would have been a bad fire season was made worse by the background drying/warming trend,” Andrew Watkins, head of long-range forecasts at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, said in an email.

Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada, said Australia’s fires are “an example of climate change.”

A 2019 Australian government brief report on wildfires and climate change said: “Human-caused climate change has resulted in more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires in recent decades for many regions of Australia.”

Q: How does climate change make these fires worse?

A koala drinks water from a bottle given by a firefighter in Cudlee Creek, South Australia, in late December. (Oakbank Balhannah CFS via AP)

A: The drier the fuel — trees and plants — the easier it is for fires to start and the hotter and nastier they get, Flannigan said.

“It means more fuel is available to burn, which means higher intensity fires, which makes it more difficult — or impossible — to put out,” Flannigan said.

The heat makes the fuel drier, so they combine for something called fire weather. And that determines “fuel moisture,” which is crucial for fire spread. The lower the moisture, the more likely fires start and spread from lightning and human-caused ignition, a 2016 study found.

There’s been a 10% long-term drying trend in Australia’s southeast and 15% long-term drying trend in the country’s southwest, Watkins said. When added to a degree of warming and a generally southward shift of weather systems, that means a generally drier landscape.

Australia’s drought since late 2017 “has been at least the equal of our worst drought in 1902,” Australia’s Watkins said. “It has probably been driven by ocean temperature patterns in the Indian Ocean and the long term drying trend.”

Q: Has Australia’s fire season changed?

A: Yes. It’s about two to four months longer, starting earlier especially in the south and east, Watkins said.

“The fires over the last three months are unprecedented in their timing and severity, started earlier in spring and covered a wider area across many parts of Australia,” said David Karoly, leader of climate change hub at Australia’s National Environmental science Program. “The normal peak fire season is later in summer and we are yet to have that.”

Q: Is weather, not just long-term climate, a factor?

A: Yes. In September, Antarctica’s sudden stratospheric warming — sort of the southern equivalent of the polar vortex — changed weather conditions so that Australia’s normal weather systems are farther north than usual, Watkins said.

That means since mid-October there were persistent strong westerly winds bringing hot dry air from the interior to the coast, making the fire weather even riskier for the coasts.

“With such a dry environment, many fires were started by dry lightning events (storms that brought lightning but limited rainfall),” Watkins said.

Q: Are people starting these fires? Is it arson?

A: It’s too early to tell the precise cause of ignition because the fires are so recent and officials are spending time fighting them, Flannigan said.

While people are a big factor in causing fires in Australia, it’s usually accidental, from cars and trucks and power lines, Flannigan said. Usually discarded cigarettes don’t trigger big fires, but when conditions are so dry, they can, he said.

Q: Are these fires triggering thunderstorms?

A: Yes. It’s an explosive storm called pyrocumulonimbus and it can inject particles as high as 10 miles into the air.

During a fire, heat and moisture from plants are released, even when the fuel is relatively dry. Warm air is less dense than cold air so it rises, releasing moisture and forming a cloud that lifts and ends up a thunderstorm started by fire. It happens from time to time in Australia and other parts of the world, including Canada, Flannigan said.

“These can be deadly, dangerous, erratic and unpredictable,” he said.

Q: Are the Australian trees prone to burning?

A: Eucalyptus trees are especially flammable, “like gasoline on a tree,” Flannigan said. Chemicals in them make them catch fire easier, spread to the tops of trees and get more intense. Eucalyptus trees were a big factor in 2017 fires in Portugal that killed 66 people, he said.

Q: How can you fight these huge Australia fires?

A: You don’t. They’re just going to burn in many places until they hit the beach, Flannigan said.

“This level of intensity, direct attack is useless,” Flannigan said. “You just have to get out of the way. … It really is spitting on a campfire. It’s not doing any good.”

Q: What’s the long-term fire future look like for Australia?

A: “The extreme fire season in Australia in 2019 was predicted,” said Australian National University climate scientist Nerilie Abram. “The question that we need to ask is how much worse are we willing to let this get? This is what global warming of just over 1 degree C looks like. Do we really want to see the impacts of 3 degrees or more are like, because that is the trajectory we are on.”

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