The terrible loss of life that occurred in the recent Victorian bushfires has deeply affected all Australians. In less than 10 years, Victoria has experienced three devastating fire events in 2003, 2006 and now 2009, something that has never before occurred in living memory or recorded history.
The Wilderness Society wishes to express our support and deepest sympathies to the individuals, families and communities who have been devastated by the bushfires, and in particular the heartbreaking events of February 7 and 8. We are also part of the affected communities and have been grieving over this period. Tragically, after scrutiny of our database, we have learned that several members and supporters have either lost their lives or the lives of family members.
The 2009 Victorian bushfires is the greatest peacetime disaster on Australian soil, destroying more than 2,000 homes and killing 210 people and counting. While both the 2003 and 2006 bushfires destroyed a larger area (both more than 1 million hectares each compared with over 400,000ha for 2009), these fires have had a larger impact due to their close proximity to Melbourne, the high death toll, destruction of towns, infrastructure and public assets, and the high proportion of private land burnt.
The debates of the past about how to prepare for and manage bushfire in Victoria are just that - debates of the past. We need a new plan and a new approach to how we are going to live in this new environment. Declaring war on the forests and on the environment will only make climate change, water security and drought worse.
It is for this reason that we congratulate Premier John Brumby for announcing a Royal Commission into the Victorian bushfires with broad terms of reference that investigates all possible factors in bushfire prevention, preparedness, warning, response and land management.
Australia’s leading scientists have been warning authorities for many years that climate change will lead to more frequent and intense fires. Until this decade, a fire on a scale similar to each of Victoria’s three major fires since 2000 would have been anticipated once every generation. In addition to Victoria, in the past decade New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory have also experienced fires on a scale rarely seen or expected.
What we do know is that the weather conditions that led to the events of February 7 and 8 were unprecedented. Victoria experienced its universally hottest day on record, accompanied by high winds and low humidity. These conditions followed a decade of almost uninterrupted dry conditions in Victoria. Some scientists are now saying we are not witnessing a drought but a permanent trend of drier conditions in Victoria as a result of climate change.
On top of these natural conditions, we already know that arson played a significant role in many of the blazes.
Due to their increasing frequency, scale and ferocity, fire can now be considered one of the most serious threats to nature in southern Australia.
The full extent of the impacts of the Victorian bushfires may not be known for many years. This severe increase in the frequency and intensity of fires threatens to cause a reduction in the resilience of ecological communities, pushing endangered wildlife towards extinction, place once abundance wildlife on the threatened lists for the first time, and put our precious and dwindling water storages at risk.
There is widespread agreement for the need for fire management to have an ongoing priority focus on protection of people and property. This is particularly important in the era we now face of climate change and prolonged drought. As we all now move forward and determine how best to protect people and property, it is also vitally important that careful consideration of the impact of fire on animals and the natural environment areas they call home also occurs.
As we know, as well as the tragic loss of life, properties and townships, these bushfires will also have taken an unimaginable toll on our native wildlife and their habitat.
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