Experts are warning that Australia faces a long and dangerous bushfire season ahead, with El Nino conditions contributing to an earlier than usual start to the season.
Here, four experts give their views on key factors influencing the spring/summer fire season:
Dr Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC:
“Being prepared for a bushfire is not just a summer job – as communities learnt (this week) in central Victoria, Tasmania, parts of New South Wales and South Australia – we need to be prepared for bushfire 12 months a year.
“When the conditions are right, hot and windy days, with dry vegetation, fires will occur. They are a fact of life in the environment we live in. We all must be vigilant about our local conditions year round.
“While summer is usually the time associated with the highest bushfire risk in the southern states across Australia, bushfire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer.
“With these longer fire seasons, fire agencies are continually refining their education and warning messages for communities in fire prone areas. Much of the new research into bushfires is now about how best to keep communities educated and informed about these changing and evolving circumstances.
“We know from research on recent large fires that many people living in high risk bushfire areas are still under-prepared and ill-informed on the dangers and the preparations needed.
“Our research since Black Saturday across Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia shows that a significant percentage of residents impacted by a bushfire did not believe that they were at-risk. This research is helping fire agencies refine their messages and is changing the way that bushfires, and indeed other hazards, are managed.”
Associate Professor Grant Wardell-Johnson, Director of the Curtin Institute for Biodiversity and Climate at Curtin University:
“We are seeing an unusually early fire season, with projections for a difficult season ahead throughout southern Australia. The El Nino event has already sharpened climate change impacts.
“South-western Australia is not yet on the news this year for fires. But we are also grappling with a new fire world, following trending drying and warming for over 40 years.
“The Department of Parks and Wildlife in south-western Australia has been carrying out prescribed burning in winter, something they have not previously been able to do. This illustrates one aspect of climate change adaptation.
“Fire is a very powerful synthesis of climate and environment. Climate change is happening very quickly, such that the vegetation in the south-west, and many other places, is now in disequilibrium with climate.
“Disequilibrium is bad for society in areas where people are also living in that environment, particularly in peri-urban landscapes where fire management is problematic. This is because fire is usually the process that resets equilibrium.
“However, it is a very uncomfortable process for society to go through. Climate change will force us to reconsider how we live in our environment, if our planning does not rapidly become more strategically climate-change focussed.”
Dr Paul Read, Senior Research Fellow at Monash Sustainability Institute and a Co-Director of the National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson:
“Several trends are inevitably converging on Australia’s bushfire risk and it’s not always the ones you think of. We have around 60,000 bushfires every year, of which 85 per cent can be traced to human activity, 30 per cent deliberate and half of these by disaffected youth.
“We know the background climate is changing and we’re also entering into an El Nino cycle. So this year will be difficult but thankfully we haven’t had ten years of drought as we did leading up to Black Saturday.
“If this year is bad, next year will be much worse because what is happening is that the socioeconomic conditions that encourage arson are getting much worse too. My sense is that growing economic inequities, particularly intergenerational inequity, youth unemployment, what you might call ‘waithood’, rising family violence and the ice epidemic, by more greatly affecting areas on the urban fringes where fires are lit, end up being superimposed over a changing and increasingly unpredictable climate.
“There is more the government can do at a social level to prevent bushfires, not just clean up after them, but this is not yet fully appreciated, despite an annual cost to Australians that would make a stockbroker sweat tears of blood, much less the tragic human cost.”
Professor Roger Stone, Director of the International Centre for Applied Climate Sciences, at the University of Southern Queensland and Program Chair: Natural Hazards and Climate Change/Variability Impacts on Agriculture at the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO):
“Our major bushfire periods in Australia’s past have always had an increased risk during major El Nino events (e.g. Ash Wednesday fires in 1982/83; Hobart in 1965/66) – and this is also a big event.
“However even moderate El Nino events increase our risk. El Nino events tend to lead to lower rainfall and high maximum temperatures plus lower relative humidity in many parts of Australia – and we still have summer to come.
“We should have been ready for this – and possibly were this time?”