Veteran firefighter Bill Slade mourned as calmer conditions help Australia's fireys

Josh Taylor
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Firefighters in Victoria have mourned the loss of a veteran as calmer conditions allowed firefighters across three states to strengthen containment lines for the hundreds of fires still going across the country.

On Sunday, authorities confirmed Bill Slade, a veteran firefighter with more than 40 years’ experience, had been killed by a falling tree while working to contain a fire near Omeo on Saturday, bringing the death toll from bushfires in the state to four.

Matt Jackson, the chief executive of Parks Victoria, said Slade was a much-loved colleague, friend and member of the Wonthaggi community. Slade had recently been presented with recognition for his 40 years of service in land management and fire management.

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“At 60 years of age, working as an arduous firefighter, Bill has been one of our most experienced, long-serving and fittest firefighters,” Jackson said.

The cooler days in Victoria since Friday had allowed firefighters to strengthen containment lines. There were still 25 active fires across the state, with 10 watch-and-act fires. Close to 1.4m hectares have burnt out.

The fire near Mount Buffalo was reduced from emergency warning to watch-and-act level on Sunday, but Emergency Management Victoria advised residents to keep informed on the conditions.

The Emergency Management Victoria commissioner, Andrew Crisp, said there were “fairly benign conditions” in the state for the next week, with a chance for more thunderstorms, but less dry lightning than had been experienced earlier in the bushfire season.

The rainfall had decreased, with just 2mm in Mallacoota on Saturday, and none in the fire-affected areas of the north-east of the state.

The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said despite the cooler weather, “we are a long way from out”.

Does climate change cause bushfires?

The link between rising greenhouse gas emissions and increased bushfire risk is complex but, according to major science agencies, clear. Climate change does not create bushfires, but it can and does make them worse. A number of factors contribute to bushfire risk, including temperature, fuel load, dryness, wind speed and humidity. 

What is the evidence on rising temperatures?

The Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO say Australia has warmed by 1C since 1910 and temperatures will increase in the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is extremely likely increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases since the mid-20th century is the main reason it is getting hotter. The Bushfire and Natural Hazards research centre says the variability of normal events sits on top of that. Warmer weather increases the number of days each year on which there is high or extreme bushfire risk.

What other effects do carbon emissions have?

Dry fuel load - the amount of forest and scrub available to burn - has been linked to rising emissions. Under the right conditions, carbon dioxide acts as a kind of fertiliser that increases plant growth. 

So is climate change making everything dryer?

Dryness is more complicated. Complex computer models have not found a consistent climate change signal linked to rising CO2 in the decline in rain that has produced the current eastern Australian drought. But higher temperatures accelerate evaporation. They also extend the growing season for vegetation in many regions, leading to greater transpiration (the process by which water is drawn from the soil and evaporated from plant leaves and flowers). The result is that soils, vegetation and the air may be drier than they would have been with the same amount of rainfall in the past.

What do recent weather patterns show?

The year coming into the 2019-20 summer has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. Above average temperatures now occur most years and 2019 has been the fifth driest start to the year on record, and the driest since 1970.

In New South Wales, there were 123 bush and grass fires going, with 47 yet to be contained. All fires were at advice level at the time of publication.

The Rural Fire Service said conditions were easing, which had led to more smoke in fire-affected areas of the state, particularly south-eastern NSW and the coast from Sydney to the Victorian border.

There were no total fire bans in the state, and crews spent the day strengthening containment lines.

On Kangaroo Island in South Australia, the situation had stabilised and firefighters spent Sunday strengthening containment lines for the fire that had burned over 200,000 hectares on the island, ahead of warmer temperatures of up to 30C expected on Monday.

The Country Fire Service spent the weekend dealing with a number of small flare-ups from the fires near properties on the island. A total of 420 firefighters and Australian Defence Force personnel were on the ground over the weekend to prepare for next week.

Travel restrictions to Kangaroo Island were removed on Friday.

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A total of 32,000 sheep losses have been reported to Primary Industries and Regions South Australia so far, along with 517 cattle, 65 alpacas and five horses.

More than 800 bee hives had been destroyed.

The federal government announced on Sunday a $76m fund for mental health services for people in fire-ravaged communities, including more counselling sessions, Medicare psychological treatments and extra funding for headspace for mental health care for adolescents.

The Victorian government also announced $14.4m for one-on-one case workers for people who have been impacted by the fires. Andrews said that this would mean that people would not need to retell their story to different people as they try to recover from the crisis.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, confirmed he would take a proposal for a royal commission on the bushfires to cabinet and would seek the approval from the states and territories.

He also announced that since the stand-up of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency one week ago, $42m had been paid to the states to support local council areas. Alpine council in Victoria was on Sunday added to the list of councils being supported in bushfire recovery.