Australia — In October, huge bushfires devastated communities, property and livelihoods in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Tragically, two lives were lost. As the Climate Council’s first major report makes clear, our changing climate is increasing the chances of similar events in future.
Yes, bushfires are part of the Australian experience, but large and severe bushfires in October are unusual.
There has been considerable discussion in the media around the link between climate change and bushfires. So let’s get the facts straight.
Hot, dry conditions create conditions favourable for bushfires. Australia has just experienced its hottest 12 months ever recorded, and September 2013 was the hottest September on record.
These conditions have meant that fire risk has been extremely high – and one small spark has the potential to grow into a raging bushfire.
The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria were also preceded by extreme fire danger conditions: a decade-long drought and a number of record hot years, all compounded by a heatwave in the week prior. The ferocity of these fires was unprecedented, and so severe were they that they broke the record for the Forest Fire Danger Index, and a new category – ”catastrophic” or ”code red” – was added.
Worryingly, since 2009, we have experienced more days of ”catastrophic” fire danger, and this number will very likely increase in the future. Fire frequency and intensity is also predicted to increase in already fire-prone areas – areas in which a large proportion of the Australian population lives.
We are now also seeing the season of bushfire weather lengthening from October to March, and this will continue to extend in future. This means that there will be less opportunity to conduct hazard reduction burning safely.
Protecting life, property, and other assets will become more difficult as Australia’s climate continues to change. Emergency services will be put under significant strain to meet this rising demand, and it has been estimated that by 2030, the number of professional firefighters will need to be more than double that in 2010, if we are to keep up with the increase in fire danger weather, alongside population and asset growth.
It is vital that Australia’s emergency services, health services and other authorities prepare for increased extreme fire conditions, and important that they are properly resourced in order to do so effectively.
So, while bushfires are part of the Australian story, more intense and frequent bushfires are part of the Australian climate change story. The current environment in which we experience bushfires is changing. The lengthened bushfire season, and increased frequency and intensity of heatwaves, mean that the overall risk of bushfires in Australia has amplified. Bushfires in Australia are now occurring in a new, more dangerous environment. It is this new environment of increased bushfire risk that will affect Australia, and Australians, significantly.
Climate change is happening now, and we are already seeing its effects. We must act rapidly to cut our emissions from burning coal, oil and gas to ensure a safe and stable climate, and to reduce the risk of seeing more bushfires devastate communities as early as October.