Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Extreme heat across Victoria: heat health alert and total fire ban in place

At a press conference this afternoon people across Victoria were warned of the extreme bushfire threat, and equally, the health threat from extreme heat. Temperatures across the state are forecast to exceed 40 degrees C.

The Victorian Health Department, Vic Health, have issued a heat health alerts for north Central and North East regions with Central region, which includes Melbourne, on the threshold.

Total Fire bans have been issued for eight of the nine regions, with East Gippsland being the exception.

"One of the most important things about tomorrow is it is hot across most parts of Victoria. It will reach 40 degrees in most districts and it will be extremely hot all day with very strong winds." said Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley.

Extreme heat threat to health emphasised

For many years the emphasis has been placed on bushfire risk during these extreme heat days, so it was refreshing to have Paul Holman, Operation's Manager with Ambulance Victoria, stress the very great population health risk of extreme heat. Here is what he said in full:

Tomorrow is an extreme heat day. We are not going into a heatwave but what we are having is an extreme day across the state with temperatures in the 40s.

In these days what we are asking the community to do is respect the heat. You really do need to take care. You need to adapt your lifestyle. So, no running, no going around the tan tomorrow; if you are going to do gardening, then leave it till later in the week or the weekend. If you are outdoors, and you have to be outdoors, make sure you are covered up and most of all, keep hydrated.

It is an extreme day. People will be in danger, and unfortunately every day we see like this we get people that don't respect the heat and the heat kills literally.

We will do unfortunately, cardiac arrests tomorrow where people haven't taken heed of this message. I'll talk quickly about children in cars, it's a very quick message.

Do not leave children in cars. No exceptions. No excuses. If you do, you are putting your child's life in danger.

So the message again is very short and sharp. Respect the heat. Heat Kills. And do not leave your children in cars.

The health threat from extreme heat has been under-rated in previous years. A peer reviewed historical assessment of the impact of heatwaves was published in June 2014 (Coates, L. et al (2014)) which noted that since 1844 there is a lower bound estimate of 5332 heat associated deaths in Australia, about 55% of total deaths from natural hazards and by far eclipsing any other single hazard including bushfire.

The risk factors of heat related mortality are well known with the Coates study articulating "The most important socio-economic and physiological risk factors identified are age; pre-existing medical conditions; chronic mental disorders; medications; alcohol/narcotics; social isolation; low-economic status; homelessness and strenuous outdoor physical activities."

State on alert with severe fireweather risk

Craig Lapsley then summarised the fire risk emphasising that the Wye River Fire is still a going fire, even though it has been extinguished along the Great Ocean Road.

"It is a fire of interest in that it has fire in the deep seated forest west of Wye River and if the fire runs it could be a concern to the Kennett River community and Grey River community that have already been well briefed and understand the fire conditions and know what to expect if it does come out. Dedicated resources on that fire have been working every day, now over 20 days. It is a very difficult fire to extinguish the last parts of it, but we are confident with the work that has been done with contain it inside the control lines, but it is a fire of significance." explained Lapsley.

Lightning moving across the state this afternoon is a cause for concern and may be a source of ignition. "We would like to think we will move into Wednesday without any fires on the board, however that will be one of the factors this afternoon we will need to deal with." said Lapsley.

Yesterday there was a major fire in Broadmeadows, a northern suburb of Melbourne, involving a building and vehicle tyres sending an acrid black plume of smoke into the air to drift over the northern suburbs. It took a number of hours to control the fire, with the MFB is still patrolling the site.

"That has been a significant fire in the last 24 hours with the amount of smoke it put up and obviously those issues related to the concern of smoke across the metropolitan area." explained Lapsley.

Lapsley explained why Victoria did not supply any personnel to support the firefighters in containing the Waroona fire in Western Australia. "NSW has been the nominated state to support Western Australia. South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania staying home to ensure they deal with the risk they have got."

With the Total Fire ban coming into force from midnight he highlighted the need to ensure all camp fires were fully extinguished.

"If you are leaving your campsite, please extinguish your campfire: dowse them with water, dowse them again, drench them with water, and test it with your hand to show there is no heat before you leave the site. Covering it up is not good enough. It needs to be dowsed with water." he said.

The Heat Health Alerts issued:

Bureau of Meteorology forecast temperatures for 2pm Wednesday 13 January 2016.

And the temperature map for Australia:

So what is the link with climate change?

Extreme heat events and heatwaves are becoming more frequent, of greater duration, and with higher temperatures due to the rise in global temperatures. Increased temperatures and reduced soil moisture increase fireweather risk.

What were once rare and single event days we are now seeing more often. Extreme heat affects human health and mortality, impacts delivery of infrastructure and services such as public transport, and affects wildlife and ecosystems, even in urban areas. Read more in my review article on Climate change and heatwaves in Melbourne - a Review.

Take a step back. One of the primary causes of the increase in global temperatures is the steady accumulation of carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere adding to the Greenhouse Effect. The emissions from Victoria's brown coal fired power stations is a not inconsequential contribution to this pollution that is causing extreme heat events and associated extreme fire weather.

The longer these power stations are allowed to continue polluting the atmosphere, the greater the impact on our climate with increasing heat events and bushfire risk. It is time we closed these power stations, starting with the most polluting example: Engie's Hazelwood Power Station. Read more on closing Hazelwood Power Station at Climate Action Moreland

Commentary as the day unfolds

Metro trains feeling the heat

Play at the Australian Open stopped by heat rule on qualifiers first day

So what is the long term trend for heat at the Australian Open tennis? Temperatures and incidence of extreme temperatures will continue to rise. All four grand slam events have seen a steady rise in temperatures, but Melbourne's average January temperature starts at a higher base level.

Over the last 100 years Melbourne's average temperature has increased by one degree Celsius. It might not like sound like much, but it is at the frequency and intensity of extreme heat days that the difference really shows.

See Climate Central, 21 Jan 2015: Heat Stroke, Anyone? Tennis Grand Slams Heating Up

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