When the writers of the long-running Australian soap opera Home and Away return to work, they’ll have plenty of real-life drama to inspire fresh story lines. On Sept. 28, an out-of-season bushfire — as wildfires are called in Australia — stripped bare 17 hectares of bushland overlooking Palm Beach, the golden strip of sand 45 km north of Sydney where the soap is set. A quick response by 80 firefighters and three helicopters saved a handful of bush walkers caught up in the middle of the inferno. Also rescued was local landmark the Barrenjoey Lighthouse, a 133-year-old sandstone building crowning the point.
“We smelt some smoke so my husband went out onto the balcony and yelled, ‘Fire!’” a Palm Beach resident tells TIME on condition of anonymity. “We called the fire brigade, and in the 20 minutes it took them to get there, the flames had spread from one small point right across the entire headland.”
That couple’s multimillion-dollar home, along with those of actress Rachel Griffiths, former world No. 1 tennis star Lleyton Hewitt and other members of Sydney’s glitterati, was never really threatened by the fire thanks to geography: the two headlands, Barrenjoey and the suburb of Palm Beach, are separated by a mostly treeless isthmus of sand. The same could not be said of residents in the Markwell Valley 190 km to the north, where an out-of-control bushfire has consumed 245 hectares and threatens homes. It’s one of 60 bushfires reported across the state of New South Wales this weekend and one of 25 that continue to burn uncontained.
Bushfires are an essential part of the continent’s ecology. Numerous eucalypt and banksia tree species depend on fire for reproduction; the extreme heat from fires causes their seedpods to open and germinate. But the Australian summer is still more than two months away, and it’s feared the early arrival of the bushfire-danger period, coupled with the warmest winter on record, will be a portent for catastrophic firestorms in southeastern Australia later in the year. “If you’ve been waiting for a wake-up call about preparing for bushfires, this is it,” says New South Wales rural-fire-service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
The last major firestorm occurred Jan. 4 on the island state of Tasmania, when 50 different fires destroyed 80 houses and claimed one life. But that was nothing compared with what took place in the state of Victoria on Feb. 7, 2009. Remembered as Black Saturday, the vast conflagration saw 400 fires, with walls of flames up to 100 m high, reduce towns like Marysville and Kinglake into a tangled mess of twisted metal and smoking rubble. By the time the smoke cleared, 173 people had been killed — the worst natural disaster in Australian history. “Hell and all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria,” said then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
There are three key precursors for any fire: oxygen, fuel and heat. On Saturday, the thermometer reached 29°C in Sydney and surpassed 30°C three times last week. It’s a fair way short of the 46°C heat wave that precipitated Black Saturday. But given that the fire at Barrenjoey point occurred in first month of spring, one can’t help wonder if global warming is exacerbating bushfire activity in southeastern Australia.
According to a report published in January by the Climate Commission — a state-funded research group disbanded last month by the newly elected conservative government — the increase in extreme fire weather in southeastern Australia has coincided with an increase in average temperature of 0.9°C since 1910.
“We have 38 weather stations in Australia used to gauge bushfire threats, and 16 of those have shown significant increases in average temperatures in the past 40 years, and those 16 are biased towards the southeast of the continent,” Will Steffen, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra and former senior member of Climate Commission, tells TIME from the Asahi World Environment Forum in Tokyo. “Making the link to fires is more difficult because there is a mix of factors that cause large, intense fires. Though we can say that climate change is loading the dice towards more extreme fire-danger weather.”
People are increasing the odds too. According to the Australia Institute of Criminology, up to half of all wildfires in the country are “suspicious” or likely deliberately lit. Then there are the dropped cigarette ends, or the discarded bottles and other chunks of glass that can so easily concentrate the already intense rays of the sun onto dry and brittle vegetation. When I spent an hour tramping through the Barrenjoey fire’s still-burning embers on Sunday, I counted 78 broken glass bottles — any of which could have focused the sun’s beams and started the fire.
“Ignition of bushfires is a bit like a car accident,” said a national-parks officer at the site. “You can have one simply because you turn left instead of right. Everything’s got to line up.” This summer, everything looks like it is.