Australia needs to prepare itself for the threat of year-round natural hazards that in the past were associated only with the summer months.
This is the view of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, whose CEO Dr Richard Thornton has commented in the media throughout the 2018-19 summer.
“Heat, drought, flood and fire are not new phenomena for Australia; we have seen these before and we will see them again. The season just gone saw bushfires on the northern New South Wales coast during August, and although that is not common, it certainly is not unprecedented. It was the severity of the August fires that was exceptional,” said Dr Thornton.
“What is different now is that there is an underlying one degree Celsius increase in average temperatures, which means that the variability of ‘normal’ events sits on top of that. We are seeing weather records routinely being broken across the continent and indeed the world, and all indications are that we are on a trajectory that will see temperatures continue to increase.
“What this means for extreme hazards, we cannot be sure. This is an area in critical need of further research into weather prediction, land planning, infrastructure development, population trends, and community awareness.
“Climate change is causing more severe weather, but demographic changes are having an equal impact and deserve just as much of our attention.
“Australia experienced an unusually dry and warm winter in 2018, and when conditions are like that the bush and grass dries out quickly. It doesn’t take much for a fire to get going once the wind is up, regardless of the time of year.
“This leads to long fire seasons, even in areas that do receive welcome rain. It takes a lot of rain to recover from severe rainfall deficits, and rain does not mean there will be no fire season.”
Dr Thornton said Australia was familiar with year-round bushfires that feature across the north of the continent in the middle of the year and move southwards at the end of the year and into the new year. However, these seasons are now getting longer. So too are the fire seasons in the northern hemisphere.
“With fire seasons lengthening and overlapping across the globe, we need to think of new ways of dealing with bushfires, floods, cyclones and heatwaves. The old ways of sharing resources around Australia and with the northern hemisphere may not always be possible, so we need to discover better ways to manage all our resources.
Dr Thornton said this was not only a matter of managing resources such as water bombing aircraft and firefighting vehicles.
“Firefighting is still very much done by people, despite advances in technology, and a great many of these are volunteers from the community. Our research shows that those human resources are now being stretched with the bushfire seasons getting longer, while our emergency services still regularly deal with floods, cyclones and severe storms, plus other demands such as motor vehicle accidents and search and rescue.
The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC releases bushfire outlooks multiple times a year, covering Australia’s northern and southern fire seasons. The Northern Australia Seasonal Bushfire Outlook is released mid year and covers the fire risk across the Northern Territory, northern Queensland and northern Western Australia, while the Southern Australia Seasonal Bushfire Outlook covers the fire risk in the southern states. This southern outlook is initially released in late August or early September each year, and then again in November. All of the bushfire outlooks are used by fire authorities to make strategic decisions on resource planning and prescribed fire management.
For more information, go to www.bnhcrc.com.au/hazardnotes