Australia's fire season gets severe


Spring has only just begun and bushfires have already ravaged thousands of hectares along Australia's eastern seaboard in a prelude to what could be one of the worst fire seasons on record.

It is the first time Australia has seen such intense fires so early in the bushfire season, and scientists are saying they will only get worse as the world's temperatures continue to rise.

What has exacerbated the fires now burning across vast swaths of bush and farmland in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland is that many areas are experiencing their worst drought on record.

Scientists say the drought, combined with an abnormally warm winter in Australia, has helped fuel this year's grim fire outlook.

The bushfire season has started earlier than it used to, said Dale Dominey-Howes, professor of hazard and disaster risk sciences at The University of Sydney.

"But it is important to understand that fires can start at any time of the year if the circumstances are right," he said.

He said the climatic conditions - average temperature, average rainfall, wind speed and humidity - vary from location to location.

"We can't generalize for the whole continent, and that is why climate scientists say it is complicated when looking at climate change and its impact.

"Already (Australia) has experienced its driest, warmest winter on record and the eastern seaboard is in the midst of an extraordinary drought.

"It goes without saying that drought is a feature of the Australian landscape. When it comes to the role climate change plays in bushfires, it's a roll of the dice."

The extreme weather and the changing climate will mean this fire season is more severe, Dominey-Howes said. He also made the point that there are now more Australians living in bush land where fires naturally start.

"Heat, drought, flood and fire are not new phenomena for Australia," said Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

"We have seen this before and we will see it again," he said.

"What is different now is that there is an underlying one degree Celsius (increase) in average temperatures, which means that the variability of 'normal' events sits on top of that.

"Our extreme weather will be more extreme - hotter and windier - and when we do see rain it will be more severe.

"We are seeing weather records routinely being broken, and all indications are that we are on a trajectory that will see temperatures continue to increase," Thornton said.

"Yes, climate change is causing more severe weather, but demographic changes are having an equal impact and deserve just as much of our attention.

"These challenges are complex and we should be wary of quick fix solutions."

He said the bushfires in Queensland and New South Wales states show just how dry it is now.

"Our Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook 2019, released on Aug 28, illustrates this.

"Northern New South Wales into southeastern Queensland are into their third year of dry conditions. Once a bushfire starts in those conditions, they can be hard to stop, even in areas that do not regularly see these types of severe bushfires."

Andrew Watkins, senior climatologist at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, said the southern half of Australia has experienced the driest January to August on record.

"When we take into account temperatures as well, which have been highest on record for winter in some of those bushfire areas, we've had high evaporation," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently.

The warm, dry conditions that have led to the early fires are predicted to continue for the rest of the year, he added.

Climate change expert Andrew King, at Melbourne University, said "we can expect to see more intense fires" in the coming years.

"It's quite clear that the type of hot weather associated with bushfires is becoming more frequent and more intense," he said.

"And it is more likely to occur earlier on in the warm season," he said.

He said attributing climate change to bushfires is complicated.

"Bushfire weather is a combination of a number of factors such as high temperatures, low rainfall, strong winds and low humidity.

"What we are seeing now is (that) the high temperature component associated with bushfires is now becoming more frequent and arriving earlier in the bushfire season."

King said drawing a direct link between climate change and increased bushfire activity is difficult "because there are many complex factors".

"But there is no disputing the link between climate change and weather."

Former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner Greg Mullins, who now sits on the Climate Council, a national climate change communications body, said bushfire conditions in Australia are becoming more extreme and unpredictable as a result of climate change.

The fire seasons are becoming longer and more severe, Mullins said. October used to be recognized as the start of the NSW fire season, but with the season starting in August "we are now facing a new reality".