WHEN I was deputy commissioner of the NSW Fire Brigade, summer was always a fraught time. While families headed to the beach for their annual sabbatical, fire services geared up for the bushfire season…
About 15 years ago, we found ourselves having to send our firefighters thousands of kilometres to support firefighters in other states. Similarly, other states sent their firefighters to assist us with bushfires in NSW. Sometimes Australian firefighters were even sent to other countries to fight fires.
The extent and severity of these fires far exceeded what any of the fire services had encountered before. Fire service resources were being overwhelmed and local firefighters were working to exhaustion without the back-up needed to quickly bring these horrendous fires under control.
Property, national parks and state forests were being destroyed on a scale that was affecting local and national economies. Even more concerning, lives were being lost.
I began to question what had been changing.
It wasn't any one thing. Populations had increased and more people were living in areas where the suburbs meet the bush, but it was more than this.
Since the early 1980s, scientists had warned that the ever-increasing release of greenhouse pollution was creating a heat-trapping feedback loop in our atmosphere that would lead to higher temperatures, stronger winds and drier days. In other words, perfect bushfire weather.
As the concentrations of these gases increased, so did the number of extreme bushfire events.
As concentrations increase further, so will the extent and severity of bushfires. In fact, the bushfires themselves are contributing vast amounts of CO2 into an atmosphere that is already seriously overloaded.
This summer, we're seeing this trend continue. No one is suggesting any one bushfire is caused wholly and solely by climate change. What scientists have been saying for some time is that climate change is leading to conditions that will increase the frequency and severity of bushfires. This is now a reality.
Like all members of our community, I believe firefighters have a responsibility to walk the walk and do what they can to reduce emissions. In doing so they reduce the risks for future generations of firefighters.
If the world continues on its present path, the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre says by 2050 we can expect catastrophic fire weather every four years. If we take appropriate action that would be every 33 or more years.
It's a question of risk. Climate change is increasing the chances that any summer's day will be custom-made for devastating bushfires. We have the power to reduce that risk. Why wouldn't we choose to do so?
…Unless we act now, we can expect a future of more and worse fires.
The federal government and several industries have taken small steps already to reduce Australia's emissions, but we all need to do more and we need to act decisively and promptly.
The threat of climate change is real and we are seeing its effects now.
We can all make a difference by taking personal responsibility to protect ourselves, our infrastructure, our natural environment, and our frontline firefighters by cutting our emissions to reduce the risk of more frequent and more catastrophic bushfires that will cause enormous harm to our communities and to our national economy and place our firefighters at unacceptable levels of risk.
Ken Thompson is former deputy commissioner of the NSW Fire Brigade with 38 years experience fighting fires