Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ready and running for race against time

Peter Munro

The Age, July 26, 2009

STARK images from the ashes: a dead mother cradles two toddlers by a wire fence; the Prime Minister drops to his knees before a weeping woman; molten cars lie wasted by the roadside.

Together, Australia's emergency services battled the Black Saturday blazes, tended the dead in January's heatwave and fought floods in the country's north. They are on the front line facing a climate they fear is becoming more hostile, putting more lives at risk.

Now they have reunited — firefighters, police, paramedics, military and state emergency service workers — for a 6000-kilometre relay run to raise awareness of climate change. Down the eastern seaboard from the Daintree Rainforest to Melbourne, the month-long run in November will pass natural icons under threat from global warming — from the wet tropics and the Great Barrier Reef, to the Australian Alps, Murray-Darling Basin and river red gums.

Run for a Safe Climate will finish on St Kilda Beach on November 29, before the crucial United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen. Among the 35 runners, who will donate their annual leave to take part, is Michael "Ace" Acreman, 26, who graduated as a firefighter two months before searching for survivors of the deadly Kinglake and Kinglake West fires.

"Everything was ash and grey. We found a mum and two kids that had perished in the fire next to a wire fence. The kids were tiny … I've got a niece who is four years old and they were about that size," he says.

"You don't see many fires on that scale. But if we don't do anything about climate change we will see that more and more. And I don't want to see families go through that, let alone have to do it as a job."

For many of the runners, February's bushfires were a catalyst for action, quashing any doubts about the threat of climate change. Altona firefighter Dan Condon, 32, battled Black Saturday blazes in Gippsland and Whittlesea. "The fires we fought this summer were unstoppable. I think they've gotten bigger and worse," he says.

"Australia has some of the most beautiful icons the world can offer and they're all under threat from global warming … We deal with life-and-death situations daily and can't afford to sit on our hands. We need to get a solution and go with it."

Scientists are reluctant to link individual bushfires to global warming. But climate change makes severe weather events — bushfires, floods, heatwaves and drought — more likely, they say. A 2-degree temperature rise could wreak havoc in Australia: driving rainforest species to extinction; causing coral reefs to collapse; shrinking snow-covered areas; and starving Australia's food bowl of water.

Former US vice-president Al Gore launched Run for a Safe Climate in Melbourne this month. "No nation is more vulnerable to the impact scientists have predicted," Mr Gore said.

Victoria Police Leading Senior Constable Matt Astill, 34, is among the 35 relay runners, who will each clock 15 kilometres a day on average. He says Black Saturday was a rude awakening of how climate change places demand on emergency services.

He provided protection for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Premier John Brumby on their visits to bushfire areas. "It stripped people emotionally down to bare bones. The Prime Minister was in Whittlesea Community Hall talking to people who had lost their homes or members of their family … [He] was down on his knees to speak to a grieving mother."

Highett firefighter Dave Rylance, 36, recalls trying to save homes at Narre Warren. "I had been in the brigade for just under 12 months, but to hear firefighters with 40 years' experience say they have never seen fires like that is concerning," he says. "The run is something I can do to educate people about the environment."

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