Shortcuts / 09 January 2020

Bushfires in Australia

Australia’s bushfire history, the scale and extent of what we’ve seen in 2019/20, the conditions that have caused this event, what we can learn from it, as well as the response.

Australia has a history of bushfires. What have been the most devastating before the 2019/20 fires?
Let’s start with what has become known as Black Friday – fires that burnt in Victoria in 1939. It was called Black Friday not just because these fires occured on Friday 13 January, but also because of the devastation that was wrecked in Victoria. Following a heatwave and dry conditions, fires flared across the state killing 71 people, wiping out towns and 1,300 homes and burning through 20,000 km2, which is 2 million hectares of agricultural land and forests.

Moving to the summer of 1982/83 where 486,030 hectares or 4,860 square kilometres of parks and forests across Victoria and SA were burned. This took place on 16 February 1983 on the Christian day of Ash Wednesday that year. Fueled by drought and hot conditions, within 12 hours, more than 180 fires took off in Victoria and South Australia. Seventy-five people were killed, 3,700 buildings were destroyed, more than 200,000 hectares were burnt out in Victoria and SA each.

And in 2009 we had the Black Saturday bushfires. These were the most deadly fires in our history. Again, the focus is in Victoria where terrible conditions saw 400 fires in the Kinglake/Whittlesea area and in the northeast of the state. Tragically, 173 people lost their lives, more than 2000 houses destroyed, and 450,000 hectares of land were burned.

Note: A hectare is 10,000 square metres, or just think that 100 hectares fit into a square kilometre..

What about in terms of land burned?
Yes, Australia is no stranger to big fires. In 1851, approximately 5 million hectares burnt in Victoria – areas affected include Portland, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts. And in 1974/75, NSW’s Cobar Shire and regions around the Lower Hunter were the focus of big fires over the summer. Reports say about 15% of Australia’s physical landmass sustained extensive fire damage. This equates to roughly around 117 million hectares that were burnt. Three people lost their lives which speaks to the sparse population in those areas at that time.

The bushfires of 2019/20 have burnt through 6 million hectares so far with most of that in NSW. Queensland, Victoria, Tassie, WA and SA have all had bad fires this season.

What are factors that create an environment for bushfires like this to occur
Dry, hot and windy conditions are the cocktail for disaster. And it’s why many of the big fires we’ve seen in our country’s history have happened during a drought when the relative humidity is down. Australia being the country it is, we have a lot of vegetation and if there’s dry vegetation on the ground that’s ready to burn from an ignition point that’s caused naturally (like from lightening) or from human activity (like power lines coming down or arson) in the right circumstances it can be devastating.

What are the conditions this season that have caused such a disaster?
The experts say it’s a combination of extreme heat, prolonged drought and strong winds. There’s also lots of debate about why and how there’s so much fuel on the ground issues about land management and hazard reduction burning. None of that is particularly different to previous fires. But on top of that, there a sense that there’s something different about these fires. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has said “The weather activity we’re seeing, the extent and spread of the fires, the speed at which they’re doing, the way they attack communities that have never seen fire is unprecedented.”

How are these fires linked to climate change?
As we talked about in our shortcut about drought, there are acknowledged impacts of what the warming of Australia’s climate has done to exacerbate an already bad situation. Appropriately adjusting to these changes to better manage fires risks is a big next horizon of debate. Which is why much of the discussion around this is about hazard reduction to get the fuel off the ground, better equipping our firefighters and resourcing the effort with more water-bombing planes and the like. And what needs to be done to adapt to the reality of more dangerous fire seasons like managing where people are allowed to live.

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