Firefighters in Australia are bracing for what they fear will be one of the worst bushfire seasons on record. They say warmer conditions have combined with a very dry winter to raise the threat level.
Australia had one of warmest-ever winters in 2017, and forecasters are predicting dry conditions for spring, prompting fears that the bushfires that rage every year will begin earlier than usual.
Traditionally, summer and fall are the most dangerous periods in the heavily-populated southeast of Australia.
The annual fire season in the state of Victoria is now 50 percent longer than it was in the past, while emergency crews in New South Wales fought 2,500 fires in the winter month of August. Large aerial fire bombers have already arrived in preparation for a severe fire season.
In Queensland, a tropical cyclone, which dumped huge amounts of rain earlier this year, has led to a rapid growth in vegetation that has since dried out, posing a huge fire risk. Early season bushfires are continuing to burn near the Queensland capital, Brisbane.
Craig Lapsley, the Emergency Management Commissioner in Victoria, warns that dangerous times lie ahead.
“We are already seeing some fires in the very eastern part of Victoria being difficult to manage and that is in winter moving into spring. So I think it is very clear for all the states, particularly the southern states, the eastern seaboard where the communities live that we have got a very high risk. The early indicators are telling us to take this very serious, is my view,” Lapsley said.
Southeastern Australia is one of the most fire-prone regions in the world. Many bushfires are sparked by lightning strikes, while others are set accidentally by machinery or discarded cigarettes. Some are the work of arsonists.
Many of Australia's native plants burn easily.
Bushfires tend to occur when Eucalyptus trees, which have a high oil content in their leaves, have dried out, usually following periods of below average rainfall.
In the summer of 2003, bushfires devastated parts of the nation's capital, Canberra. In 2009, a bushfire disaster dubbed Black Saturday killed 173 people in Victoria.