Editorial: Kiwis join front line of global warming

00:00, Jan 11 2013

With thousands of Australian firefighters engaged in difficult, dirty and potentially deadly battles on numerous fronts across Australia, the contribution of a 12-strong team from New Zealand will not represent the cavalry that sweeps down in the nick of time to win the war.

However, the arrival of two crews of six - one of them from Nelson - will bring welcome respite to those whose specific areas in Tasmania they were sent to.

It is also a tremendous learning opportunity for the 11 men and one woman from New Zealand, and an important trans-Tasman gesture of solidarity with our most significant close neighbour.

Bushfires of the magnitude that seem to strike Australia so often are only one of a range of "natural" disasters that can bring a nation to its knees. This year's outbreaks must rank alongside the likes of powerful earthquakes and tsunamis in the potential to wreak havoc on whole communities, although in this case the residents of most areas have had sufficient warning to grab cherished belongings and get out of harm's way.

Thankfully, comparatively few Australians have been pig-headed enough to ignore evacuation orders and stay put while seeking to protect their own properties, such has been the intensity of the fires that have been raging out of control for days now in Tasmania and, more recently, New South Wales.

Bushfires of this order are generally classed as a natural phenomenon. Tinder-dry trees and vegetation can self-combust in the relentless heat of an Australian summer. As we saw in Nelson and other parts of the South Island overnight, lightning strikes can provide the spark. Idiot people also heighten the dangers, through butts carelessly flicked from car windows or bottles similarly dispatched and capable of magnifying the Sun's rays to the point that scrub ignites. Outdoor cookups provide obvious risks - and then there is the sinister presence of arsonists who take twisted pleasure in setting fires.


The current spate of destructive fires in Canterbury are a small-scale version of what the people of Tasmania and New South Wales have been facing, and illustrate the volatility that strong winds and high temperatures can bring.

The wildfires provide a stark reminder of what climate change might mean, and the dangers of ignoring the warnings while debate about the contribution of human activities continues.

While sceptics, scientists, cynics and politicians argue about causes and possible solutions, many people at the sharp end of climate change must deal with its effects. Those people whose livelihoods are most at the mercy of the climate would likely agree that the seasons seem to be changing, and that extreme weather events are occurring more frequently.

Although the team of New Zealand firefighters now at work alongside the Aussies is small, the risk they face is significant. The Waimea crew will know that as well as most. Six years ago, local man Nick McCabe suffered serious burns to his hands and face when Kiwi firefighters were caught in a flare-up in northeast Victoria. Hopefully the current team will return unharmed and richer for their experience.

The Nelson Mail