Australian bushfire catastrophe looms

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As the seas of the tropical Pacific continue to warm, Victoria is bracing for another long, hot summer potentially more dangerous than the cauldron that sparked the disastrous Black Saturday fires less than six months ago.

The state is already dehydrated by a decade of drought, and events in the Pacific signal another El Nino, the weather phenomenon closely associated with hot, dry periods.

A leaked Government report has confirmed fears with a blunt assessment that Victoria faces a fire season of "unprecedented danger" and conditions more deadly than those in February when fires killed 173 people and injured about 500 more.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment report predicts the bushfire season will start early, and will be marked by unpredictable fires burning with greater intensity across land seared by years of drought.

"The prospect we are looking at is not just another above-average fire season with above-normal losses to life and property," fire management expert Paul Brockhoff wrote in a report leaked to the Age newspaper.

"The genuine prospect of a season with the greatest potential loss to life and property is now in sight and, as climate indicators strengthen, this looks to be an increasing likelihood."

The grim prediction comes as the royal commission into the Black Saturday fires prepares to hand its interim report to the Government by August 17.

Evidence to the commission showed a state unprepared for the ferocity of the fires that raged across 4500sq km of land, devastating entire communities, incinerating more than 2000 homes and 1500 other buildings, destroying businesses, farms and livestock, and razing dozens of national parks and reserves.

One expert said the state was hammered by energy equivalent to 1500 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, and evidence described a chaotic response in which more than 80 per cent of 12,800 emergency calls went unanswered, communities were razed after receiving insufficient - or no - warnings, and emergency services were overwhelmed.

As another potentially disastrous summer nears, key issues have yet to be resolved - especially the policy of advising people at risk to decide whether they should stay and defend their homes, or flee.

The policy was attacked during commission hearings after evidence showed that 113 of those who died had perished while sheltering in their homes.

The state government has said it intends to begin a pilot programme of fire refuges to test a system of last-resort shelters that could offer people the prospect of relative safety.

Sirens similar to those used to warn of cyclones in Australia's north are also being considered.

Bureau of Meteorology data show that the first six months of the year were the fourth-driest on record in Victoria, deepening the impact of below-average rainfall that has gripped the state since 1997.

The increasing certainty of another El Nino bodes further ill, with the bureau warning that for much of the state the odds of even average rainfall for the rest of the year are running at less than 40 per cent.

Brockhoff's report said the Central Highlands around Melbourne, including some the areas worst hit by last year's fires, were among the worst affected.

"This area is also the area where the highest exposure to life and property exists, and it also includes the remaining water catchment areas that did not burn last year," the report said.

Chief fire officer Ewan Waller told ABC radio that fire services were preparing for the worst, with the state's vulnerability increasing as it entered its 13th dry year.

"If we have that, if you get bad fire weather and ignition sources, then you will have disastrous fires."

* Source: The New Zealand Herald.