Bush fire in Australia by Flickr user Shek Graham
By Andy McElroy
GENEVA, 21 October 2013 – Barry O’Farrell, the Premier of New South Wales, Australia, has declared a state of emergency as weather conditions are expected to deteriorate significantly over the next few days in bush fire zones “with potential for a significant and widespread danger to life and property across the State.”
Summer does not officially begin in southern Australia for another five weeks but already a series of devastating fires look set to make the coming hot season one of the costliest on record.
As 63 fires continued to burn across New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, Rural Fire Service Captain Bill Shields commented “ordinary people are doing extraordinary things” as heroic volunteer fire fighters and residents battled to contain the mounting destruction.
Emergency Services Minister Michael Gallacher said a state of emergency declaration included the following measures: allow emergency services personnel to direct the public to evacuate an area or not enter an area; order power and gas supplies to be shut off; and shore up or pull down buildings.
The current disaster comes almost five years after Black Saturday, the worst disaster in Australia’s modern day history. Then, on Saturday 7 February 2009, as many as 400 bushfires raged across the state of Victoria, killing 173 people, injuring 414 and affecting tens of thousands.
The 2009 Royal Commission into the Victorian Bushfires made 67 recommendations to strengthen disaster management approaches in the southern Australian state, many of which resonated closely with the key areas of the international agreement to reduce disaster risk, the Hyogo Framework for Action.
The Royal Commission’s recommendations included: focus on the “the most ferocious fires on the worst days”; strengthen warnings and improve their timeliness and dissemination; and provide more practical and realistic options such as community refuges, bushfire shelters and evacuation “including assisted evacuation of vulnerable people”.
The Head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Ms Margareta Wahlström, today said: “The government, fire services and people of New South Wales are to be commended for their community response to this developing emergency which illustrates in a very dramatic way the global threat posed by climate change, drought and global warming.”
The risks of wild-fires affect all continents with increasing occurrences particularly in the western United States of America, south-east Australia and southern Europe. The global cost of damage to ecosystems services may reach $190 billion in the case of tropical ecosystems.
Ms Wahlström visited Australia four months ago for discussions on disaster risk information and strengthening approaches to disaster risk management.
The UNISDR Chief acknowledged the major challenges Australia faces in managing its own natural hazards. “Australia is at the forefront of disaster management. The resilience of the people of Australia is extraordinary in the face of more frequent and more intense hazards, like floods and bush fires,” she said.