Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signalled an overhaul of laws surrounding hazard reduction in national parks and land clearance as the Australian Defence Force prepares to ramp up its response to the nation’s bushfire crisis.
With mass evacuations under way in New South Wales and Victoria, and South Australia and Tasmania facing major bushfire threats, Mr Morrison promised a review of the contributing factors once the immediate operational response had settled down.
Some residents have said that a lack of prescribed burns in the cooler months had led to high fuel loads that fed the devastating blazes.
“The season has been quite extraordinary in terms of the very lengthy drought that has preceded it,’’ Mr Morrison said.
He said issues such as “climate change and drought’’ had had a profound effect on the length of the fire season.
The PM also said there was a need to “address issues around hazard reduction in national parks, dealing with landclearing laws, zoning laws and planning laws around people’s properties and where they can be built in countries like Australia, up and down our coast”.
“There have been many restrictions put around those issues that now, I think, would have to be reviewed on the basis of the impact of the broader climatic effect we are seeing in this country.”
He has called a special meeting of Cabinet’s National Security Committee on Monday to discuss a further rollout of Australian Defence Force assets, but no details have been released about what they might be.
Across the country, hundreds of fires are burning or have burned, lives have been lost and livelihoods destroyed, and communities forced on to beaches to escape the fires that are burning with a ferocity experts and locals have never seen before.
The air quality in Canberra is currently the worst in the world — 14 times what is considered healthy and worse than Delhi in India and Lahore in Pakistan.
And there is three months of hot weather to come.
The death toll is rising, as is the list of people who are missing. State and federal politicians have appealed for calm while communications to fire-hit areas are restored.
Nationally, 5,884,000ha have been lost this fire season already — a total land area larger than Denmark.
Seventeen people have been killed — 15 in NSW and one each in Victoria and South Australia. There are fears the death toll will rise, with at least 18 listed as missing. One of those is in the NSW South Coast, the remainder in East Gippsland.
Authorities in Victoria are still trying to reach the worst affected areas, and the news is expected to get worse especially with scorching temperatures returning. Corryong, for example, is forecast to reach 39C on Friday.
The NSW Rural Fire Service has described the season as the state’s worst.
Victoria and NSW are not the only states in the grip of a bushfire hell.
In Queensland, 30 fires continue to burn with a total of 250,000ha lost. The sunshine state has lost 45 homes, but has not yet recorded any deaths.
In South Australia, three of the 20 fires still burning remain out of control. Hundreds of firefighters have battled about 120 blazes that have burned 60,000ha and destroyed 88 homes this week alone.
In Western Australia, 1.2 million hectares have been burned. One home has been lost and 30 fires continue to burn.
In Tasmania, residents are on high alert with seven of a total 30 fires continuing to cause concern. One home on the island has been lost.
Thousands of firefighters, mostly volunteers, have worked day and night to fight the blazes. More than 1000 are working in Victoria and 3000 in NSW.