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Victoria braced for ‘very extreme’ heatwaves

Victorian Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said preparation and planning for an increase in deadly weather was well underway across key areas of government operations, including health, transport, water, agriculture, education, energy and emergency services.

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Sydney is preparing for its first ever day of “catastrophic” fire danger on Tuesday, with the NSW government declaring a state of emergency after blazes in the north of NSW left three people dead and more than 1 million hectares burnt.

In Queensland, about 50 fires were burning out of control on Monday and the political temperature was rising too, with Coalition politicians at both state and federal levels reacting angrily to calls for action on climate change.

In Victoria, which has been spared deadly fires so far this year, the environment department says the warming atmosphere and ocean is making deadly weather conditions, such as extreme heat, long droughts and intense heavy rainfall, more common and that it is likely to intensify in a “hotter future climate”.

The Environment Department says it is trying to learn lessons from the 2009 heatwaves, which contributed to Australia’s deadliest bushfires, the Black Saturday blazes that killed 173 people, but which also caused 374 additional heat-related deaths.

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The extreme weather resulted in Victoria’s highest ever recorded temperature, with Hopetoun in the state’s north-west tapping 48.8 degrees, and also hit the electricity supply and public transport hard, with mass disruptions and blackouts.

The 2009 and 2014 hot periods were officially defined as “extreme”, but the government’s scientists and researchers say they could soon need a new category: the “very extreme” heatwave.

Emergency services planners have modelled a scenario for training and preparation based on the very extreme heatwave of seven days of temperatures above 40 degrees, leading to 900 heatwave deaths, serious fires across the state and breakdowns of the electricity and public transport systems.

The Environment Department, which estimates the chance of such a heatwave striking will double between now and 2030, is taking the risk and the potential consequences seriously.

“Risk managers are also planning for the impact of a very extreme heatwave event on Victoria, an unprecedented scenario 10 per cent more severe than the 2009 Black Saturday heatwave,” according to a departmental document.

“An event of this magnitude would cause irreparable damage to the natural and engineered systems that underpin the Victorian economy.”

Contact noel.towell@theage.com.au

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