Triple La Niña and climate change has created extreme levels of fuel for grassfires

As people recover from floods around the country in the past year, a report from the Climate Council released today has warned that after floods come grass fires – and the next 12 months might be particularly bad.

Titled ‘Powder Keg: Australia Primed to Burn’ the report outlines that the three years of La Niña, combined with the lesser known negative phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole and a positive phase of the Southern Annular Mode.

These conditions have created significantly more ‘fuel’ than usual in the form of dry grass that can light up if a spark happens.

“There’s so much fuel around. Depending on which part of the country you look at, the accumulation is five to 10 times higher than average fuel load in much of the arid regions of Australia and that will be primed for fires during the upcoming dry season,” says Professor David Karoly, a climate scientist at the Climate Council.

“That can be disastrous because there’s no rural fire services in inland Australia that can even try to put out those fires, they just let them burn till rain comes.”

Australia rainfall bom 2023 bushfires
January rainfall for the past three years shows significantly higher levels of rainfall in January for most of Australia, except in South East Queensland where places like Gympie are showing some of their lowest summer rainfall on record. Credit: BOM

This is something that some areas around the country are already seeing – as grasslands in New South Wales, rural Victoria and South Australia have already seen grass fires this year.

“We should be watching out for it now and planning for it for later this year. But the really scary part of the story is that in New South Wales and in Victoria already, there has been two months of relatively dry conditions in summer as well as hotter temperatures,” says Karoly.

“There are very high fuel loads that have built up over the last two and three years of wet conditions, particularly in the cool seasons. As soon as it’s got hotter the fuel load or the grass dries out, and it only requires a spark.”  

This could be even worse if we experience a drier El Niño this year.

The report highlights that in 1968 after two years of La Niña, Victoria experienced its deadliest grass fires, where 23 people died.

Karoly says it emphasises the need for both local and federal governments to be better prepared as these natural disasters become worse, more frequent, and hit larger areas.

Grassland victoria
Grassland ‘curing’ percentage as of 13 February 2023 that depicts the clear and present danger of grass fires in Victoria as vegetation dries out after the great deluge of 2022. Credit: Climate Council, adapted from CFA 2023.

“Even now, what we know is that greater preparations are needed and greater planning for the impact of climate change on extreme weather events, not just bushfires, but also in terms of extreme rainfall,” says Karoly.

“We need to make sure that it’s not the Federal Government, but the firefighting agencies, the flood management services, the planning for housing, and avoiding or updating flood risk maps, and planning for buildings. All things that have in some sense been avoided for the ‘lost decade’ of planning for climate change.”

Although Australia has always been a land of fire and floods, climate change is making these events more common, and worse when they happen.

Karoly stresses that as well as being more prepared for natural weather events in the future, we need to get to net zero emissions as fast as possible.

“We’re not doing enough in terms of domestic emission reductions,” he says.

“But what many people in Australia don’t recognise is that the Australian government has also not sought to restrict Australian exports of coal and fossil gas. If anything, it sought to expand it.”

“Those [exported] emissions are double Australia’s domestic emissions. … If you include that with Australia’s domestic emissions, that makes Australia the fifth highest emitter globally.”

“It is dramatically too high.”

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