Smoke blanketed Australia’s outback capital Alice Springs at the weekend as it became ringed by Red Centre bushfires from a hazard reduction burn gone wrong in nearby heritage-nominated Tjoritja West MacDonnell National Park.
The unseasonal blazes burned more than 25,000 hectares of the park in a fire measuring 34km wide by 16km north to south, a stark reminder for residents to brace for a summer still theoretically some four months off.
And a warning to the rest of Australia, given the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) warned in July that the southern hemisphere was likely to be entering an El Niño cycle, likely yielding a “surge in global temperatures”.
In March this year bushfires destroyed more than 100,000 ha of the same park, which the federal government has previously declared significant under a national threatened species strategy.
Fires ravaged the same region in 2011 and then again in 2018/19 when wildfires burnt 660 square kilometres of the park in 15 days.
Authorities are now expecting more than 80% of the Territory will burn by March in a decadal event.
Firefighters had begun a fuel reduction burn in the park to the west of Alice Springs on Friday 11 August, but it quickly blazed out of control on several fronts.
By Saturday, sections of the world-renowned Larapinta Trail wilderness hike had to be closed at the height of the tourist season along with access roads and nearby tourist bike paths, as emergency workers evacuated park visitors from the Simpsons Gap campground.
Heavy smoke made breathing laboured as ash fell across the town throughout the night, and when residents woke Sunday the fires were still burning.
A 15km stretch of the Stuart Highway was closed for several hours owing to smoke north of the town, and a warning issued for asthma sufferers to remain indoors.
The blazes in the Centre could be a harbinger of things to come for Australia in the months ahead, with a UNSW fire expert recently warning this year’s bushfire season could be especially dangerous.
Professor Guan Yeoh of UNSW’s School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering blamed three years of wet conditions that promoted vegetation growth, followed by a dry winter, and urged Australians to get prepared.
“In the last few years, we have had a lot of rain and floods and because of that there has been a lot of growth of grass, trees and bushland,” he says.
“This winter has been very dry and now we must be ready for a scenario where we will have high summer temperatures, the same as they are currently experiencing in the northern hemisphere.
“It is important for people to be really prepared for bushfire season and think about what might be coming.”
In the Centre, largely unchecked growth of buffel grass (or Cenchrus ciliaris)—considered a valuable feed by some pastoralists—has significantly heightened the fire risk, while in South Australia the species is declared a noxious weed.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.