Is this the new normal?

Bushfires are nothing new in Australia, but how many of us think of them occurring just one week out of winter? More than 60 fires are burning across Queensland and New South Wales, described by the NSW Rural Fire Service as worse than fires at the height of summer. With a start like this, reports suggest the 2019-20 fire season is shaping up to be grim.

“Bushfires are expected to be worse than normal across much of Australia this summer so we shouldn’t be surprised that when it gets hot, windy and dry, the likelihood of fire increases,” said Dr Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

Their latest Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook shows the first six months of this year have been the driest since 1970 with rainfall to June ranked as below to very much below average over much of Australia.

This warm and dry start to the year for large parts of Australia, builds on previous years, with some areas in New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland facing their third year of dry conditions.

Eastern Victoria and Tasmania, southern Western Australia and South Australia also face above-normal fire potential.

“When vegetation becomes dehydrated there is a loss of water and an accumulation of volatiles in the leaves that will carry fire,” said Dr Philip Stewart a Certified Wildland Fire Ecologist from the University of Queensland.

“With the extreme weather conditions mixed into this, it is really a recipe for increased intensity and severity fires and the probability of large scale wildfires that are uncontrollable.”

Despite the warnings, many Australians, especially those in high-risk areas, are still not ready for fire and have not established fire plans well ahead of time.

According to research from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, many properties are under-insured and some people overestimated the response capacity of fire services.

“So-called ‘catastrophic’ conditions arise when the Forest Fire Danger Index rises above 100. But who amongst the community understands what this really means?” queried Dr Ian Weir from Queensland University of Technology.

Queensland bushfires firefighters
Credit: Tallebudgera Valley Rural Fire Brigade

So is this the new normal?

Dr Jim McLennan from LaTrobe University thinks it might be.

“About this time last year, we were discussing the ‘unprecedented’ threats from bushfires in Queensland,” he said.

“Yet here we are again.”

According to Dr McLennan, the scale of the climate change driven increase in bushfire threat levels across the country means that focusing on households to drive community bushfire safety will have limited effectiveness.

Instead, he says that wider issues such as management of government lands and forests, housing development on the urban-bushland fringe, and vegetation management on private property all need policy development at both the State and Federal levels.

Dr Paul Read from Monash University also thinks Queensland farmers, communities and fire services are also starting to worry more about climate change.

“Some might not call it climate change but they’ve certainly noticed the impact on their livelihoods.”

For now, the key message remains that if you haven’t prepared, get out early.

Read the full AusSMC Expert Reaction.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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