Nov 21, 2015 by

A fire east of Esperance in Western Australia this week. A prolonged fire season could strain the largely volunteer firefighting forces in Australia and destroy crops, livestock and farms. Credit Department of Fire and Emergency/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


SYDNEY, Australia — A fire that raged this week across hundreds of thousands of acres of grasslands and about-to-be harvested wheat crops, killing a farmer and three workers, points to a dangerous summer ahead in Australia, scientists and weather watchers say.
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The fire, in the south of Western Australia, began last weekend after lightning struck about 12 miles north of the township of Esperance. It was flaring six days later after burning through 580 square miles of farmland, fanned by temperatures above 100 degrees and bursts of wind gusting at more than 50 miles an hour.

The combination of record heat and very dry conditions — October was the hottest month in Australia ever after its third-driest September — is prompting some officials to predict an especially intense fire season, which started early this year.
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“It is going to be a horror summer,” said Trevor Tasker, a firefighter and regional emergency services inspector from Western Australia. “I’ve never seen conditions like this.”

A prolonged fire season could strain the largely volunteer firefighting forces in Australia and destroy crops, livestock and farms, many of which have suffered through decades of drought.

In early November, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards research center warned that large tracts of the country, from Rockhampton in Queensland’s north, down through New South Wales and along the south coast, to Adelaide in South Australia, would suffer higher-than-normal risk of fire through summer, which lasts from December through February. Tasmania’s east and north coasts as well as a large part of Western Australia are also likely to experience an above average threat of bushfires.

The center pointed to an El Niño-linked drought, significantly less rainfall over almost 20 years, and rising temperatures globally and in Australia as reasons large parts of the country might be burning this summer.

Lesley Hughes, a professor and researcher at the Climate Council, a publicly funded research institute, said in a major report released on Thursday that climate change and fire risks were directly linked.

“Climate change is loading the dice when it comes to fire risk in Australia,” Ms. Hughes said in an interview. “El Niño adds another level of complexity.”

The Climate Council also cautioned that a worldwide increase in the length of fire seasons would threaten Australia’s ability to share specialized water-bombing helicopters and firefighters with nations in the Northern Hemisphere.

Temperatures in the country are climbing. At midday in Sydney on Friday, the temperature was 104 degrees, and higher in some western suburbs away from the coastal breeze.

“Once the weather passes a certain threshold, there will be some fires that cannot be stopped,” said Justin Leonard, a bushfire research leader at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

Firefighters said the conditions in Western Australia this week, where two houses burned down, were catastrophic, an official fire rating that reflects extreme weather, the bush or crops that fuel a fire and increase its intensity, and a lack of moisture or humidity in the soil and air.

Esperance, a town of 14,000 that is 450 miles southeast of Perth, and the nearby bush townships of Salmon Gums, Grass Patch and Norseman, recorded temperatures around 107 degrees on Tuesday, said Neil Bennett, a weather forecaster based in Perth at the Bureau of Meteorology. The days before the fire were marked by strong gusts of wind, dry lightning and no rain.

“This is the earliest we have seen the temperatures this high,” Mr. Bennett said. “But we have had a drying trend going back 30 to 40 years.”

Farmers in the district had just begun to harvest wheat. Unharvested fields contributed to the ferocity of the fire, which burned through metal grain storage sheds, causing them to buckle and collapse.

“By the time we knew that fire was alight, it was unstoppable,” said Mr. Tasker, the firefighter and regional emergency services inspector. “There was nothing anyone could do but get out of the way and let it unleash its fury.”

Kym Curnow, 45, a farmer in Esperance, was killed, along with three farm workers: Tom Butcher, 31, of England; Julia Kohrs-Lichte, 19, of Germany; and Anna Winther, 29, of Norway.

Mr. Curnow is believed to have been caught in the blaze when he was driving to neighboring farms to urge residents to evacuate. His body was discovered in his car, where he had bunkered down under his seat.

Mr. Leonard, the researcher, said Australia would have more days where the severity of the weather pushed the fire rating to catastrophic. “On bad weather days, a fire will build and then it gets a run,” he said.

Mr. Leonard said the country ’s worst bushfires, in February 2009 when 175 people were killed in one afternoon in the southern state of Victoria, showed the complexity of predicting a tough season.

“It is about a bad day, or extreme weather over a few days, “ he said. In February 2009, temperatures had soared and gusts of hot wind blew the roofs from houses minutes before the firestorm. Embers were carried long distances and winds dried fuel, which then combusted.

The Climate Council said higher temperatures meant more fuel, particularly as foliage from eucalyptus forests dried to flammable tinder.

“Weather has a very strong influence on bushfires and is directly affected by climate change,” said Ms. Hughes of the Climate Council. “It is clear that changes to the climate and increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels driving these changes will have an impact on fuel and therefore on bushfires in Australia.”

A version of this article appears in print on November 21, 2015, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Record Heat and Dry Conditions Put Australia at Risk of Intense Fire Season. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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