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The State Of Wildfires Raging Across Australia


Millions of acres burned, hundreds of homes destroyed and months of summer still left to go - the bushfire season in Australia is devastating. Smoke has pushed pollution levels in the Australian capital, Canberra, to around 20 times the level considered hazardous, the highest ever recorded.

Canberra is where we reach Cormac Farrell now. He's a scientist who specializes in bushfire management. Welcome.

CORMAC FARRELL: Thanks very much for having me.

CHANG: So how close are you at the moment to the bushfires? Can you just tell me what it looks like in Canberra right now?

FARRELL: It looks like smoke in Canberra at the moment. We are actually a fair way away from the fires. We're about probably more than 100 kilometers. But the sheer scale of the fires means that the smoke blanket from the fires is covering the entire city.

CHANG: And I understand that you and your family are wearing gas masks right now.

FARRELL: Yeah. Indoors - we managed to get one of the last air purifiers, so we're able to take the masks off indoors. But pretty much everyone outdoors is wearing a gas mask to be outside safely today.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious what Australia has learned in the past several years. I mean, these bushfires have drawn comparisons to Black Saturday in 2009. That's when 173 people died in fires in Victoria, one of the states in Australia. You were working as a fire protection planner in the aftermath of that. Can you tell us what sorts of changes were put in place to help prevent a repeat of something like that?

FARRELL: The two really big changes were, firstly, the way we communicated to communities about the risk. Up till then, it sort of gave people the impression that you could stay and defend if you wanted to, whereas now people have been much, much less polite, I guess. They're saying, don't. You know, this is unprecedented. You've never seen fires like this before in your life. You need to just leave.

And the second part is we did a lot of science around the protection element. So building standards were reviewed really intensively, and there were some pretty big changes as to how we designed houses and how we plan the position of houses in the landscape.

CHANG: Interesting. So do you believe that those measures - warning people much more bluntly about evacuating when fires are happening and also reshaping how a building is planned - do you think that those have made a real difference this time around?

FARRELL: We actually don't know. It's a little bit too early to tell because after a major fire like this, we would do a period of intense investigation. I do know that some of the shelters that we designed post-Black Saturday are being used right now. And I know that they're using the school (unintelligible) river, for instance. And I was talking to one of my colleagues that actually designed that solution, and it is both a nervous weight but also kind of a good feeling to know that something we built as a shelter for a bushfire is being used right now. And the community...

CHANG: Yeah.

FARRELL: ...Has been sheltering in that now for several days.

CHANG: Now, one suggestion that's been repeated is that there should just be more controlled burns - basically, reduce the fuel sources for these fires. What do you think of that idea?

FARRELL: I think it's a very simplistic way to look at it, and it simply hasn't worked. We've seen in these really catastrophic fire weather conditions that even areas that were fuel-reduced through controlled burning, they're burning again. The other thing is with climate change, we're seeing the window where we can effectively fuel-reduce safely getting smaller and smaller and smaller going forward.

CHANG: Well, given that there's still few months left in the summer, do you expect these conditions to worsen drastically?

FARRELL: Unfortunately, yes, they are. Tomorrow is going to be a really bad day. We have very severe fire weather conditions predicted that's going to cover a large part of the eastern seaboard of Australia. So we've got basically the beginning of the fire season now. We would normally only have had a few small fires at this stage. Now we have much more intense fires covering literally the entire country.

CHANG: Cormac Farrell is an environmental scientist with the company Unwelt, working on bushfire protection. He joined us from Canberra. Thank you very much for joining us.

FARRELL: Thanks so much for this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.