'Ignored and trivialized': Experts warned Australian government before catastrophic blazes

"We could just see it coming," said Ken Thompson, co-founder of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action.
Image: Rural Fire Service volunteer firefighters watching as the New South Wales "megafire" approaches the outskirts of the town of Tumbarumba in New South Wales
Rural Fire Service volunteer firefighters watch as the New South Wales "megafire" approaches the outskirts of the town of Tumbarumba in New South Wales last month. Kiran Ridley / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Stephen Easton

CANBERRA, Australia — Ken Thompson warned that a calamity was imminent, but those with the power to help did not listen.

The former deputy commissioner of New South Wales fire and rescue services sounded the alarm long before wildfires killed 34 Australians, decimated the country's unique wildlife and created a smoke cloud so vast it was visible from space.

"We could just see it coming," said Thompson, who last August co-founded Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA), a group of experts with huge collective experience dealing with fires and natural disasters.

"You only had to look at the conditions the fire agencies and the land management agencies use to determine the fire danger index — the amount of fuel on the ground, the heat, humidity, wind and so forth — and you could see it."

The group first warned in an Oct. 4 open letter that the nation was unprepared for "increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events." Climate change was worsening "extreme weather events," with bushfire season lasting longer and longer, it said.

"The number of days of Very High to Catastrophic bushfire danger each year are increasing across much of Australia and are projected to get even worse," they said. The group requested a meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison to help the government make plans to mitigate the impending crisis.

The prime minister — an ardent supporter of the coal industry in Australia, which produces more than a third of the world's exports of the climate heating fuel — never met with ELCA members.

Within months, fires that had broken out over the summer intensified and went on to consume 70,000 square miles of countryside.

While they are still burning, Australia's blazes have died down significantly as cooler weather and rain bring desperately needed relief. Still, ELCA members are fighting to be heard, warning that future fire seasons will only be worse if the root causes are not addressed.

Morrison strongly defends his government's disaster preparations. In a Dec. 10 press conference, he said a "nationally coordinated operation" had been on foot "for some time."

Morrison, the leader of the country's Liberal Party, and his colleagues are either reluctant to discuss any link between global warming and the fires, or totally reject the idea. Many of their critics say the government has failed not only to address the crisis, but face up to its causes and prepare for future fire seasons.

"There has been a lot of blame being thrown around," Morrison said at a Jan. 5 news conference. "And now is the time to focus on the response that is being made. ... Blame doesn't help anybody at this time, and over-analysis of these things is not a productive exercise."

He went on to deny that his government had minimized the threat of climate change.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tours the fire devastated Wildflower farm owned by Paul and Melissa Churchman in Sarsfield, Victoria, on Jan. 3.James Ross / AP file

"There is no dispute in this country about the issue of climate change globally and its effect on global weather patterns, and that includes how it impacts in Australia," he said. "The government has always made this connection and that has never been in dispute."

The prime minister's office did not respond to NBC News' requests for comment.

Morrison's detractors reject this, pointing to numerous examples of the government belittling or questioning the links between climate change and extreme weather events such as fires.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, for example, labeled those who made the connection between the blazes and climate change "raving inner-city lunatics" in an interview in November.

"We've had fires in Australia since … time began," he told a local reporter. "What people need now is a little bit of sympathy, understanding and real assistance."

"They don't need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies," McCormack added.

'Roar of the locomotives'

Bruce Leaver, a former forester and national parks manager, cannot be described as a "capital-city greenie." He spent decades leading efforts to prevent and fight major bushfires, and his deep expertise has led to senior-level roles in state and federal government.

"Fires are a pretty heartbreaking thing to get involved in," said Leaver, 74, who retired from public service in 2010 and has seen the most recent fire season up close while defending his farm near the village of Cobargo on the coast of New South Wales.

Leaver said he had warned friends and neighbors for several years that a major fire was imminent. Few others in the lush coastal region shared his level of concern, even as drought turned the area tinder-dry.

A wildfire claimed the Train Cafe and hundreds of other homes, shops and farms in and around Cobargo, a rural village in southeast New South Wales.Stephen Easton / for NBC News

The landscape was becoming more and more "combustible," making wildfires increasingly inevitable, Leaver told NBC News in Queanbeyan, a small city beside Australia's capital Canberra.

"Over the last few years I've noticed with horror the drying out of the landscape and the lack of water in my dams, so my fire preparations escalated, year before last," he said. "I thought, 'This is not going to end well.'"

He said he was "absolutely horrified" by the locations of many homes in the area and their "total lack of protection" from fire.

The day after NBC News spoke to him, Leaver's own farm was threatened again by a fire that flared up during the interview.

The intensity of this year's blazes shocked even him.

"In the words of survivors, you often hear the term, 'the roar of the locomotives' — and I heard it," he told NBC News.

'Ignored and trivialized'

The ELCA, which now counts 29 members, has not stopped accusing Morrison of a major failure of leadership.

Greg Mullins, a co-founder of the group, was the fire and rescue chief for New South Wales state in the southeast of the country for over 13 years "Like countless other men and women on the front line, I have faced off against 30-meter walls of flame, seen many homes burned to the ground, tried to console inconsolable residents, been forced to run for safety and seen native animals bounding out of the burning bush to collapse and die," Mullins wrote on Jan. 20 in a fuming editorial.

He said this "devastating" experience was made all the worse because ELCA has been trying to warn the prime minister of a looming disaster since the fall, and he felt its concerns were "ignored and trivialized" and its advice "ridiculed" by partisan opponents.

Meanwhile, Peter Dunn, another ELCA member, was in the thick of it after taking charge of local disaster recovery in the area near Lake Conjola some 125 miles south of Sydney. It is one of many residential areas to be devastated by an explosive firestorm hot enough to melt aluminium car parts.

The local authorities learned valuable lessons, and Canberra's defenses this summer (winter in the Northern Hemisphere) have held up — so far.

Some local governments may be learning important lessons, but Thompson, the former deputy commissioner of New South Wales fire and rescue services, worries that the ELCA's message has still not penetrated.

After the interview with NBC News, he sends a follow-up text with a final plea: "These fires are a wake-up call, not just to Australia but the rest of the world."