Rick Rycroft/AP
A message left by a business owner at Warburton, east of Melbourne, Australia,
Monday, Feb.
23, 2009,
reflects the wildfire threat that continues in the state of Victoria.

New Wildfires Threaten Already-Ravaged Southeastern Australia

February 23, 2009 05:16 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
After more than 200 people died in fires earlier this month, at least 100 more have been evacuated because of new wildfires.

New Fires Terrorize Australian State

As three new wildfires have been reported in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria, more than 100 people have evacuated their homes. No injuries have been reported.

The state government reiterated the “stay or go policy,” which Reuters explained: “people were urged to either leave their homes early and possibly stay away for several days, or be prepared to stay and defend their homes until the fire danger passes.”

SkyNews quoted a spoksperson with Victoria state’s Department of Sustainability and Environment as saying: “If you see flames, it is too late to leave.”

As many survivors said they had no warning about the Black Saturday fires that killed more than 200 people earlier this month, Australia’s government plans to introduce a new alert system that uses text messaging and phone calls.

Background: Drought-stricken Australia reeling from deadly fires

More than 200 people died after fires spread across the Australian state of Victoria. The fires have burned an area larger than the country of Luxembourg, Agence France-Presse reports, and have completely or mostly destroyed the towns of Marysville and Kinglake, which are northwest of Melbourne in Southeast Australia.

“Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria in the last 24 hours. Many good people lie dead, many injured,” said Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, earlier this month.

Some people burned in their cars as they tried to escape the fires, AFP said. Authorities believe arsonists started some of the fires.

The fires rank among the most deadly Australia has seen. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a 1939 fire killed 71 people in Victoria and burned nearly 5,000,000 acres, an event known as Black Friday. However, a historian told the newspaper that the death toll from that fire was probably much higher because bush dwellers that weren’t counted.

In 1983 the state of Victoria experienced a series of fires that killed 47 people, destroyed 2,000 homes and burned 500,000 acres. On that day, known as Ash Wednesday, fires also killed 28 people in another Australian state.

Context: Australia’s drought

Southern Australia has been wracked with drought for the past several years. Generally, scientists have drawn links between rainfall in the region and the weather pattern known as El Niño, which stems from temperature changes in the Pacific Ocean, or its reverse, La Niña.

But a study conducted by a group of Australian researchers indicates that another ocean-based climate pattern may be the cause of southern Australia’s lack of rainfall: the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD).

Dr. Caroline Ummenhofer of the Climate Change Research Center at Australia’s University of New South Wales was quoted as saying by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), “We have found the Indian Ocean plays a profound role in driving [the southern Australian] drought.”

ABC writes, “In its negative phase, the IOD is characterised by cool water to the west of Australia and warm water to the north, leading to winds that bring warm moist, rain-bearing air to the continent.”

During its reverse, fewer humidity-carrying winds pass over Australia, resulting in less rainfall.

According to 100 years of data surveyed by Ummenhofer and her team, all of Australia’s long-lasting droughts occurred during periods when the IOD had few negative phases. There is some evidence that positive IOD cycles may be occurring more often; however, this needs further study.

The aberrant weather cycle is located some 2,000 kilometers off the coast of Australia in an area of the Indian Ocean that is seeing “unprecedented warming,” writes Australian paper The Age.

Related Topic: ‘Stay or go’ discussed in California

Authorities in California, which has parts experiencing a severe drought, are discussing the idea of training homeowners to stay and protect their homes during wildfires. Evacuation orders are often ignored by many homeowners.

Reference: Australia travel; environmental science


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