Australian officials have warned the country could be hit by even worse wildfires next summer than the deadly blazes which killed a record 173 people in February.
Victoria state premier John Brumby said the fire season could be the toughest in a decade, after a leaked report warned of a “worst-case” situation prompted by an expected El Nino weather pattern.
“The prognosis in terms of this year’s fire season is that it’s going to be a very, very tough fire season again,” Brumby said.
“All of the advice at the moment is that this will be as bad, if not worse, than anything that we’ve seen in the past decade,” he added.
The Victoria environment department report, widely leaked to media, said El Nino would bring extensive drought to southeastern Australia, where entire towns were engulfed in flames during the last southern hemisphere summer.
February’s fires were the worst natural disaster in Australia’s modern history, with one expert likening their intensity to the energy produced by 1,500 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
“The prospect we are looking at is not just another above-average fire season with above-normal losses or risks to life and property,” the report said.
“The genuine prospect of a season with the greatest potential loss to life and property is now in sight and, as climate indicators strengthen, this looks to be an increasing likelihood.”
The report said there was a “high likelihood” of an El Nino event this year, with an “observed lack of rain, increased evaporation and the strongest predictions so far of the continuation of drier and warmer conditions.”
El Nino, which is caused by warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean, results in extensive drought in the west Pacific and has been associated with a spike in fire activity.
Victoria and its neighbouring states are in the grip of a decade-long drought, and experienced a run of record-breaking temperatures in the weeks before the fires, leaving uncleared bushland tinder-dry.
An official inquiry into this year’s fires, which consumed more than 2,000 homes, is due to deliver its preliminary findings on August 17.