Australia Enters Era Of Catastrophic Fires

With over one million hectares burnt out in Queensland and New South Wales, Australia is already exceeding major fire seasons of the past and it’s just going to keep coming says the Director of the University of Wollongong’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, Professor Ross Bradstock.

According to Professor Bradstock, we’re now in uncharted territory and it’s far from over considering “we’re not even into summer yet.”

He says all the ingredients are there for the rapid development of major fires ranging from plenty of fuel on the ground to areas continuing to confront a record breaking drought, record high temperatures and dry, windy weather.

Moreover, he says the fires burning west of Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour in NSW are “burning in areas that are often too wet to burn such as rainforests, wet eucalyptus forests and swamps.”

Unfortunately, the enormous amount of fuel on the ground has led to the annual array of finger-pointing from politicians blaming environmentalists for not allowing hazard reduction burns to environmentalists blaming politicians for lack of action on climate change.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Piper.

As for where the blame might reside, David Bowman who is a professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at the University of Tasmania says it’s a difficult time for scientists to provide commentary because it’s too early but blaming environmentalists is a little disingenuous.

Bowman says it has been particularly difficult this year and there “hasn’t been a lot of hazard reduction burning in NSW because it has been too dry.”

Furthermore, he says fuel management programs are impeded by practical constraints such as trying to co-ordinate them across wide areas as well as risk management around legal liability and more.

“In urban areas there can be adverse outcomes such as severe smoke pollution as well,” Bowman says.

“It is often not really appropriate to apply planned burning because it’s often too dangerous. It needs to be co-ordinated with other measures such as land clearing which is a lot of work and very expensive.”

And often governments don’t want to spend the necessary money.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Piper.

“In areas where there are settlements and farms it’s very complicated and in some areas such as rainforests they are either too wet or, through the nature of vegetation, too dangerous to burn.

Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick who is a Future Fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales agrees the window for appropriate hazard production burns are decreasing and the drought is contributing to that especially after a record-breaking dry winter with high average temperatures.

As to whether climate change can be blamed for the increasing severity of Australia’s bushfire season, she says it’s a complex argument.

“We can’t necessarily say one specific fire is due to climate change but we can say climate change provides a signal in terms of driving an increase in fires,” she says.

According to Perkins-Kirkpatrick, when researchers look at models of weather extremes to see if the event happened because of climate change (where they use models considering climate change and models that do not), they can detect events are more likely to occur because of climate change.

She says when you calculate the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) combining a number of factors such as extreme heat huge measurement, dryness, humidity and wind speed, it does tease out a human signal but it’s “complex”.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Piper.

Despite this complexity a recent study undertaken at the UNSW looking at last year’s unprecedented fires in Queensland which, were driven in part by high record-breaking temperatures, were four times more likely than normal to have been driven by climate change.

“This is something we’re seeing globally as fire seasons are longer in duration and overlap as with California’s fires at present. There are global studies attributing fires to climate change such as a study undertaken in Canada after their 2017 fires which found the fire conditions occurred twice as more likely because of climate change.” Perkins-Kirkpatrick says.

“And the lengthening of the bushfire season is predicted to continue under climate change or at least until 2050 and this has been confirmed by a CSIRO report.”

As for how we manage this increase in catastrophic fire conditions and lengthening seasons, Bowman says, “once you change the climate – the current prescribed fire thinking is outdated.

“It’s no longer fit for purpose and we have an enormous new elevated risk. We are seeing it right now as fires don’t go out in the cool evenings for example.

Looking to the future, he says while it’s absolutely possible to manage fuels and create fire safe environments, “it’s going to take an enormous amount of research and it’s a huge practical challenge.Unfortunately, it’s not going to stop for a while,” Bradstock says but, “we’re now better equipped than ever to learn about these fires.”

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