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Victoria braces for more extreme fire weather -

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Victoria braces for more extreme fire weather

Broadcast: 02/03/2009

Reporter: Heather Ewart

Victoria is bracing for the onslaught of more extreme fire weather including gale force winds up to
150 kilometres per hour. Four large fires are still burning in Victoria where 12 years of drought
has left the landscape bone dry. But experts now see the drying of the state as more than just a
temporary event, and are warning that Victorians will have to learn to live with less rain and the
increased threat of fires that entails.

Transcript

KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Victoria is bracing yet again tonight for the onslaught of more extreme
fire weather, including gale force winds up to 150 kilometres per hour, a situation so serious the
Victoria Police warnings included text messages to millions of mobile phone customers.

Four large fires are still burning in the state, where 12 years of drought has left the landscape
bone-dry.

But experts now see the drying of Victoria as more than just a temporary event, and are warning
that the people of the state will have to learn to live with less rain and the increased threat of
fires that that entails.

Heather Ewart reports.

HEATHER EWART, REPORTER: Once called the Garden State, Victoria is rapidly losing any claim to that
old title. This is Barkley Gardens, one of the oldest parks in inner suburban Richmond, and like so
many parks throughout Melbourne, it's struggling.

(To Mark Donnellan) Have you ever seen it quite like this before?

MARK DONNELLAN, ENVIRONMENTAL SERVICES, CITY OF YARRA: Never, no, this is extraordinary.

HEATHER EWART: Mark Donnellan is the Parks and Habitats officer for Yarra City Council and one of
his jobs is to check on the welfare of the inner city's trees and vegetation, doing it tough after
12 years of drought.

MARK DONNELLAN: Watching trees die and of course watching the wildlife suffer in our parks and
gardens is pretty hard, and you know, I only have to look at this bit of turf or once was green
turf here - you know, it's quite sad. Last year we lost probably 100 trees. If the conditions don't
improve and we don't have the resources to keep them alive, potentially we could lose 100 in the
next 12 months.

HEATHER EWART: This comes as no surprise to those who have been closely tracking Victoria's
rainfall, or lack of it, for several years.

ROSS YOUNG, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WATER SERVICES: It's been terrifying and frightening some of the
most Melburnians and Victorians. We've had the hottest and driest start to the year on record and
that's not by a small amount, it's by a large amount.

BLAIR TREWIN, BUREAU OF METEOROLOGY: We've seen an about 20 per cent drop in rainfall over the last
12 years in much of Victoria and that's consistent with what we'd expect to see with long-term
climate change.

ROSS YOUNG: An umbrella is now a lazy asset in Melbourne, you never need it and people have had
cars for months and never had to use the windscreen wipers on it.

AMANDA LYNCH, ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE, MONASH UNIVERSITY: We need to understand that this is our new
life. This isn't temporary and we need to make those adjustments part of our psyche.

HEATHER EWART: Melbourne has had only 3.8 millimetres of rain since the start of the year. The
previous record low was about 11.3 millimetres back in 1983. For many areas hit by the Black
Saturday bushfires, the comparison is even worse.

BLAIR TREWIN: The area around and east of Melbourne is actually a real stand-out here. A lot of
that area has been 10 per cent or more below the previous lowest on record for a 12-year period. So
what we've seen in the last 12 years is way outside the range of historical experience in that
region.

HEATHER EWART: And it's a trend that looks set to stay.

AMANDA LYNCH: Because the systems that bare the rain are no longer passing across us and raining.
They're all shifted further to the south and so we - the rain is still falling, but it's falling
over the southern ocean.

HEATHER EWART (to Ross Young): Is this the way things are going to remain in Victoria, as far as
you're concerned?

ROSS YOUNG: Well, I certainly believe this. This is why I don't use the word drought any longer,
because drought has connotations of being something that's temporary, and we get over. This is a
new reality.

HEATHER EWART: What could also well be the new reality is more frequent bushfires, with the Bureau
of Meteorology predicting that for at least the next 50 years, Victoria's climate will be dryer
than it was last century.

AMANDA LYNCH: In the short-term what we're going to see is much more severe fires, much more
widespread because the fuel is very dry.

ROSS YOUNG: I think that we have to prepare, probably, for more bushfires, because the catchments
are going to be dry. But the more startling this is that the bushfires are going to be of intensity
that I don't think we ever predicted.

HEATHER EWART: This poses a big threat to Melbourne's traditional source of water supplies. Damns
and reservoirs in catchment areas prone to fire.

TIM HOLDING, VICTORIAN WATER MINISTER: In the short-term we need to protect against water quality
impacts. When the rains come, they can potentially wash ash and silt into our storages and reduce
the water quality.

HEATHER EWART: Authorities got first-hand experience at this after Black Saturday when water in
damns damaged by the fires had to be pumped into other storages.

Ross Young heads the peak body representing Australia's urban water industry, including Melbourne
Water. And for him the greatest long-term concern is the destruction of the Mountain Ash Forest,
which forms the majority of Melbourne's water supply system.

ROSS YOUNG: Those trees are killed by bushfire, and so they need to regenerate from seeds and in
the process of regenerating from seeds to beautiful, old majestic forest that are up there, or were
up there until the fires came in, is a process of 30 or 40 years and during that time the younger
forest drink a lot more water out of the soil than what the older trees do, which means, of course,
there's less run-off into the reservoirs.

TIM HOLDING: From our perspective, this really underlines the importance of moving away from
relying exclusively on water collected in storages and reservoirs and damns. As successful as that
strategy's been over the 20th century, we need to recognise that with more frequent bushfires, with
our climate changing and with longer droughts, we need to diversify our water sources.

HEATHER EWART: For months now, Victorians have been bombarded with a TV advertising campaign
promoting the State Government's controversial plans for a desalination plant, as well as a
pipeline system to bring water from the State's north to Melbourne to address it's water problems.

But the desalination and pipeline projects won't be finished for at least another year or two, so
in the meantime, as the drought continues and Melbourne's population keeps growing, do we still
have enough water to cope?

ROSS YOUNG: Who knows, at this stage it's enough but, you know, the frightening reality is that all
of the predictions on climate change that we've had for the last 10 years, we've always exceeded
them.

TIM HOLDING: We have enough water until these big projects kick in. We'll need to continue the
emphasis on demand management and conservation in the meantime, and households and businesses and
farmers have done a great job in reducing their water consumption in recent years.

AMANDA LYNCH: Victorians have done better than most other states in terms of voluntary actions to
reduce water usage. And what we need to do, as desalination comes online, we need to make sure that
we're not lolled into a false sense of security that we can use as much water as we want.

HEATHER EWART: The Victorian Government is under pressure to do more to guarantee the State's water
supplies, but so far it's ruled out tougher water restrictions for Melbourne.

TIM HOLDING: You can always make them tougher, but you have to make a judgment at what cost - at
what cost would tougher water restrictions come? The cost in terms of jobs, the cost in community
life, in terms of reduced sporting activity as our sports grounds decline.

HEATHER EWART: But in inner suburban Melbourne at least, perhaps the penny's already dropped that
this is pretty much how it is from now on. Yarra City Council says its ratepayers have even stopped
phoning to complain about it.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Heather Ewart with that report.