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Fires more commonplace in the future -

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Reporter: Simon Santow

BRENDAN TREMBATH: One of Australia's leading climate scientists is predicting even more
catastrophic bushfires in the future.

Kevin Hennessy is a principal research scientist at the CSIRO's Marine and Atmospheric Research
division.

He's told our reporter Simon Santow, that rising greenhouse gas emissions are pushing up
temperatures which, in turn, is leading to hotter and more intense fires.

KEVIN HENNESSY: The conditions on Saturday and Sunday in Victoria were exceptional. The weather
system that was responsible for it was not that different to those that might have occurred to in
the past but the thing that was different was that it was extremely dry, after 12 years of below
average rainfalls, and there was extreme heat coming from the interior of the continent.

Now whether climate change is responsible for an individual weather event if very difficult to
determine. What we do as climate scientists is look at trends in climate over many decades and what
is clear from that is that there has been a warming trend since 1950 and most of that warming trend
is very likely due to increases in greenhouse gases. So in terms of the trend, there does seem to
be human fingerprint.

SIMON SANTOW: And do you think that has implications for perhaps rewriting the rule book on how to
handle these fires and what to do in order to survive them?

KEVIN HENNESSY: Well it's always going to be difficult to manage a firestorm like that which
occurred in parts of Victoria on the weekend. Some of these fires were as tall as buildings and
spotting up to 40 kilometres ahead of the fire front. So that's always going to be difficult but in
future, unfortunately, we see that some continued increases in greenhouse gases will lead to
further warming and drier conditions in southern Australia. So the risks are likely to get worse.

SIMON SANTOW: But if we have a set of rules that are in place at the moment which are based on fire
behaviour over many, many years, if fire behaviour is going to change, do we need to relook at some
of those rules?

KEVIN HENNESSY: Well there's scope for looking at changes in fire behaviour and there's quite a bit
of research looking into that in the bushfire cooperative research centre. Now whether there are
radical changes to the fire behaviour in the future or whether we just get more of the extreme
fires that we've seen in the past - that remains to be seen.

I think a lot of the management strategies that are currently in place and very, very good and in
fact if you look back to the fires of 1939 or 1983 we've handled this rather well, given that the
unfortunate thing is that this is perhaps a worse climatic situation. So I take my hat off to the
people who have been working out there trying to reduce the risk and to the fire plans that all of
the individuals had. It's just that in such an extreme situation, it was very difficult for some
people to escape.

SIMON SANTOW: When we talk about an extreme situation, do you look at events like, situations where
farmers say, "Look, we've burnt, we've done the back-burning, here are these paddocks, we've built
what we think is a firebreak yet it can't contain the fire"?

KEVIN HENNESSY: As I said, there are very many management plans that have been put in place. Both
during the periods of the fire and in the season prior to it in order to back burn and to control
burning to reduce the risk.

It's just that in some situations, you have these fire storms and they're very, very difficult to
manage.

SIMON SANTOW: Why do you think they are so difficult? What is the combination of things that makes
it so hard for firefighters to actually keep it checked?

KEVIN HENNESSY: Just from a climate scientist point of view, it must be difficult dealing with, at
least in the Victorian situation, the last week of January having three days in a row over 43
degrees celsius, which really primed the state for a continuation for a very high fire risk, and
then of course over the weeks we got very hot winds from the interior of Australia, again exceeding
46 degrees celcius in some places, plus the very long period of, over a decade, of very dry
conditions, and really it was just a tinderbox waiting to go.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Climate scientist Kevin Hennessy speaking there to reporter Simon Santow.