Australia's firefighters know from first-hand experience that climate change has led to more frequent and more intense fires. It has also made our fire seasons longer.

Every day, firefighters go into situations as others flee in the opposite direction.

Firefighters' jobs are already dangerous. But we are increasingly concerned that changing climate conditions are increasing this danger.

Firefighters' jobs are already dangerous. But we are increasingly concerned that changing climate conditions are increasing this danger.

This summer is on track to be one of the worst on record for fires. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rates it as a 97 per cent chance that 2015 will be the hottest year on record – and it looks like it will be the hottest by quite a wide margin.

On October 6, Victoria had the earliest day on record for a temperature of more than 35 degrees, resulting in total fire bans all over the state. In Tasmania, we've witnessed an unseasonably early start to the fire season – with three days of total fire bans in the first half of October.  

We are about to begin an El Nino summer, meaning severe fire conditions are expected. On top of already severe drought conditions in parts of southern Australia, the fire risk over the 2015-16 period is urgent.

The lengthening of the fire season is causing additional strain on resources with the overlap of northern and southern hemisphere bushfires meaning that aerial firefighting services are in multiple demand.

As a country at the front line of climate impacts, in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the broader community have been urging the Australian government to take a leadership role.

As a country at the front line of climate impacts, in the lead-up to the Paris climate summit, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the broader community have been urging the Australian government to take a leadership role.

That means doing all we can to make sure the planet does not remain on a path towards catastrophic levels of global warming. Climate experts say that means avoiding warming of more than 1.5 degrees. Australia's targets are in line with 3 to 4 degrees of warming, and that makes them woefully inadequate.

Scientists recently revealed that average global temperatures have already reached one degree higher than pre-industrial temperature levels. That puts us halfway to the 2-degree mark. Without a rapid turnaround, we will be asking our firefighters to continue to put themselves at unacceptable risk.

Ideology aside, firefighters find themselves at the front line of climate impacts, and we are well aware that something is going on and conditions are gradually worsening. Of course climate change is not the only factor making firefighters' work more and more challenging, but there's no question that increasing temperatures and increasing drought conditions are a big part of the problem.

Recent research has shown that Australia will need to double the number of full-time career firefighters by 2030 – even without allowing for the growth in the fire season or the declining number of volunteer firefighters.

A further concern is the resistance of fire services to work together. Past inquiries, including Victoria's 2009 bushfires royal commission has called in for greater inter-operability between urban and rural fire services. We need to properly co-ordinate our responsiveness to a worsening bushfire threat.

To reduce the risk of even more extreme events, including bushfires, Australia must cut greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and deeply and do our fair share in global efforts to stabilise the world's climate.

Where we are seeing leadership is from communities across Australia and from a whole range of different sectors – from the youth movement to unions and the Indigenous community – that are behind climate action.

That's why the United Firefighters Union will join with tens of thousands of Australians this weekend at the People's Climate Marches taking place all over Australia.

When the people lead, our political leaders will follow. We need to send a strong message about our hopes for a healthy and prosperous future that protects our firefighters, our communities and our environment.


  • This article first appeared in the Fairfax online network
  • Peter Marshall is national secretary of the United Firefighters Union

Victoria McKenzie-McHarg

Climate stuff, art and my new kitten – love it all! Climate Change Campaign Manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation.