As a massive heatwave is sweeping across large parts of the country this week, many people are on high alert for potential bushfires. But it’s not just this week’s weather we need to be worried about.
Even though we’ve known for a long time that Australia constantly bursts into flames, experts are now predicting the continent is set to be ravaged by even more devastating fires in the years to come.
The data comes from a new study which shows that some parts of the world, such as the Mediterranean and Australia’s east coast, are set to become increasingly fiery as weather patterns change due to global warming and related factors. (Read about Australia's extreme weather and heat records in 2016.)
To find out what climate change will do to fire-prone areas of our planet, an international team of scientists put together a global satellite database of 23 million landscape fires between 2002 and 2013. The research was published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution, and was led by ecologist David Bowman from the University of Tasmania.
“We have to understand that nature creates these environments,” he says. “They occur because of weather conditions that drive very extreme fire events.”
WATCH: Why is Australia such a hotspot for blazes?
Clip from two-part documentary Australia's Inferno.
Out of the 23 million fires catalogued, the researchers honed in on 478 fires they deemed the most extreme, of which 144 were “economically and socially disastrous,” happening in places where lots of people live in flammable landscapes.
The team determined that when we get really extreme bushfires, they are associated with anomalous weather—unusual droughts, heatwaves and even storms. Using climate change models to predict the effect of changing weather patterns, they found that Australia’s east coast, including Brisbane, and the whole of the Mediterranean will be getting more and more days when conditions are right for a devastating blaze.
Researchers are warning that we need to change our attitude towards bushfires. According to Bowman, when people build their cities in places that have a natural tendency to catch fire, they live in harm’s way and need to prepare. He likens it to building earthquake-proof houses in areas such as Christchurch, New Zealand.
“The weird thing is, we have this attitude that fires are something you experience and then they go away,” says Bowman. “We want to forget about them rather than really putting our effort into fireproofing our cities, building structures that are going to withstand fires.”
“We have to start understanding the need to manage fuels, modify the vegetation—it can be done in a beautiful way, it doesn't have to be destructive—to make our communities and our infrastructure fire-proof.”