Firefighter dies as Australia works on long-term battle plan

BURRAGATE, Australia (AP) — A firefighter was killed by a falling tree while battling the Australian wildfire crisis overnight and the Prime Minister yesterday said his government was adapting and building resilience to the fire danger posed by climate change.

Bill Slade — one of the few professionals among mainly volunteer brigades battling blazes across southeast Australia — died near Omeo in eastern Victoria state, Forest Fire Management Victoria Executive Director Chris Hardman said. The 60-year-old married father of two was commended for 40 years service with the forestry agency last November.

“Although we do have enormous experience in identifying hazardous trees, sometimes these tree failures can’t be predicted,” Hardman said.

“Working on the fire ground in a forest environment is a dynamic, high-risk environment and it carries with it significant risk.” The tragedy brings the death toll to at least 27 people in a crisis that has destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Four of the casualties were firefighters.

Authorities are using relatively benign conditions forecast in southeast Australia for a week or more to consolidate containment lines around scores of fires that are likely to burn for weeks without heavy rainfall. The reprieve from severe fire conditions promises to be the longest of the current fire season.

A plume of smoke rises from a fire in a huge wood chip pile at a mill in Eden, Australia. PHOTO: AP

The crisis has brought accusations that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government needs to take more action to counter climate change, which experts say has worsened the blazes. Thousands of protesters rallied late Friday in Sydney and Melbourne, calling for Morrison to be fired and for Australia to take tougher action on global warming.

Morrison said his government was developing a national disaster risk reduction framework within the Department of Home Affairs that will deal with wildfires, cyclones, floods and drought. The government was currently working through the details of the framework with local governments.

“This is a longer-term risk framework model which deals with one of the big issues in response to climate changing and that is the resilience and the adaptation that we need in our community right across the country to deal with longer, hotter, drier seasons that increase the risk of bushfire,” Morrison said.

Morrison said his government accepted that climate change was leading to longer, hotter and drier summers, despite junior government lawmaker George Christensen posting on social media over the weekend that the cause of the latest fires was arson rather than man-made climate change.

Another junior lawmaker Craig Kelly has also publicly denied any link between climate change and fire crisis. State authorities have said a minority of fires are deliberately lit.

“The government’s policy is set by the Cabinet. Our party room has a broad range of views,” Morrison said of those within government ranks who reject mainstream climate science.

Morrison later announced that AUD76 million would be spent on providing psychological counselling for firefighters and fire-effected communities as part of a previously announced AUD2 billion recovery fund.

“There has been a deep scar in the landscape that has been left right across our country,” Morrison said. “But I am also very mindful, as is the government, of the very real scars that will be there for quite a period of time to come for those who’ve been exposed to the trauma of these bushfires.”