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Australia's fires, the world's fires

Scientists say climate change is bringing more intense fires. The watchword? Preparedness.

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The record toll in lives and destruction from Australia's wildfires is forcing a fresh look at dealing with such threats. How to deter arson? How to prepare homeowners? Scientists can't link this specific event to global warming, but they forecast a need to adapt to erratic weather. This has implications for fire preparedness the world over.

Bush fires are as permanent a fixture in Australia as the great red Uluru Rock. Eucalyptus, with its highly flammable oil, provides ample tinder in the country's hot, dry, fire-prone south. Australians mark the years of devastating fires: 1851, 1939, and 1983, the former record-holder when 75 people died.

But this recent conflagration is the most intense, exacting the highest price in lives lost – more than 200, authorities estimate. The fires ignited during an unprecedented heat wave, with temperatures hitting 116 degrees F. Much of the country is experiencing its worst drought in a century, while calamitous flooding is sweeping through the northern state of Queensland.

This is the kind of extreme weather to expect from a warming planet. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, warned that fires in Australia – the driest populated continent – were "virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency" because of global warming.

Australia's government science organization, CSIRO, forecasts that warmer temperatures could increase "extreme" fire danger days by up to 65 percent by 2020 compared with 1990. Indeed, Australia has already warmed since 1950, and firefighters say fire intensity has increased in the past decade.


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