IUCN extends its sympathies to those who have suffered from the extreme fires in south-eastern Australia, especially to those who have lost family, friends and their homes.
South-eastern Australia ranks with southern France and southern California (USA) as being the areas most prone areas to severe risk of harmful fires. Fires are part of the Australian environment and have been a key factor in forming many of the unique ecosystems of the country. At the same time, fires that occur during periods of extreme weather can have devastating impact on human communities, such as those witnessed in Victoria in the past few days.
The death toll of the fires in Victoria, Australia is expected to exceed 200. More than 3,000 km2 has been burnt and over 900 houses destroyed. Immense damage to farmland and natural areas will escalate the damage bill and take years to restore. Fires are part of the Australian landscape and Victoria has one of the world’s best organized and equipped fire fighting forces. The long period of exceptionally high temperatures and wind combine to create conditions where extreme fires overwhelm fire-fighting capacity.
Understanding the direct and underlying causes of fires, their relationship to how ecosystems are managed and their associated societal and economic costs is essential to addressing fire risks in a systematic fashion.
It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that the disastrous fires are linked to climate change. Recent reports from the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) suggest that global warming is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of fire-weather, which in turn would alter the distribution and composition of ecosystems, change water yields from catchments, increase damage to property and the risk of injury and death to humans, amongst other impacts. However, whether or not climate change is a factor in the recent fires is less important than supporting the efforts of the government and local communities to manage local ecosystems and plan land use and fire management in a way that anticipates severe fires as a fact of life.
IUCN encourages its members and Commission members to support the efforts of the Victorian government to assist the communities devastated by the fires to rebuild their lives and restore damaged property and ecosystems.