Weather 'merry-go-round' poses new risks for Australia

SYDNEY • A "merry-go-round" of extreme weather is hampering efforts by firefighters in Australia to tackle unprecedented bush fires that have killed at least 29 people and razed vast swathes of land.

Parts of the country welcomed heavy rainfall overnight, but the authorities warned yesterday that storms were bringing added complications, and the fire-danger risk could be elevated.

"It has been a merry-go-round of weather," the Bureau of Meteorology's senior meteorologist Kevin Parkin said. "We have gone from fires and storms and floods, and giant hail - producing widespread damage - to fire danger escalating on our doorstep."

Australia has suffered a collision of extreme climate events in the past week, with storms, lightning, thunder and hail battering areas in the fire-hit east. The bush fire season has been made worse by climate change, experts say.

Victoria state experienced bursts of intense rain over the past 48 hours that helped to contain blazes in some areas, but landslides, fallen trees and lightning strikes have hampered recovery efforts.

The temperature in Victoria is set to climb to the mid-30 deg C range today amid fierce winds, prompting extreme weather warnings in the western parts of the state, where the authorities say "new start" fires will be hard to contain.

"New starts in unprepared communities are the biggest risk," Victoria Country Fire Authority chief officer Steve Warrington told media.

"If communities are not prepared for fire - whether they live or die, whether their property is saved or not saved - is very much dependent on decisions people make right now," he said.

A change is expected to bring more rain to the state late today.

Further north, in New South Wales state, heavy downpours have been welcomed in some areas but have left fire-ravaged areas in other places too damp to undertake preventative controlled burns.

The authorities are preparing for elevated fire danger tomorrow, when temperatures in parts of the state will tip above 40 deg C.

Meanwhile, in Bomaderry, New South Wales, threatened baby flying foxes are finding a home.

Like any mother of a newborn, Ms Janine Davies is running on little sleep as she cares for around 50 grey-headed flying foxes that have lost both their mothers and homes to the huge bush fires.

The mammals, also known as fruit bats, are hugely important to the country's forests as they disperse seeds and pollinate many tree species, including eucalyptus, the sole food source of koalas.

Already threatened by deforestation and a dwindling population, flying foxes are classified as a "vulnerable" species under Australia's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

"Without this night-time pollinator, our eucalyptus forests are going to suffer and ultimately die," Ms Davies said, adding: "That means that other species, such as koalas, possums, birds and insects, anything that inhabits a eucalyptus forest, will suffer."

With its wingspan spreading up to 1m, the flying fox can travel up to 50km and is one of the biggest bats in Australia - making it a champion pollinator.

The Australian government earlier this month launched a A$50 million (S$46 million) wildlife recovery programme focusing on the survival of the country's iconic native animals, particularly the koala.

"I was shocked that all the area I collect blossoms for these little guys is gone, it's nothing but burnt sticks," said Ms Davies. "That is going to be our next problem. Is there going to be enough food for the species to survive?"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2020, with the headline 'Weather 'merry-go-round' poses new risks for Australia'. Subscribe