‘Unprecedented dryness’ sees CFA declare fire season starts on Monday

‘Unprecedented dryness’ sees CFA declare fire season starts on Monday

06 September 2018

Published by https://www.theage.com.au/

AUSTRALIA – Record heat and well-below-average rainfall has primed the forested areas of eastern Australia to burn, with the CFA taking the unprecedented step of moving the start of the fire season for parts of Victoria to September 10.

With East Gippsland particularly at risk, according to a new report, CFA firefighters have been brought in early and emergency agencies are in overdrive with last-minute bushfire prevention works before the fire danger period begins on Monday.

East Gippsland has experienced two consecutive years of record low rainfall during autumn and winter, typically among the wettest times of the year. Unusually-early bushfires have already occurred, with one sparking in July – the middle of winter.

The Southern Australia Seasonal Bushfire Outlook report, released on Thursday, is aimed at helping agencies to prepare resources for the coming fire season – and this year looks like being an active one.

“The combination of warming and drying has led to extensive and historically unprecedented landscape dryness across much of southern Australia,” the report said.

Year-to-date maximum temperatures across Australia are running at a record rate – 1.36 degrees above the 1961-90 average – exacerbating the impact of well-below average rainfall by increasing evaporation.

“As a result, forests are significantly more flammable than normal, due to an increase in dead material in the near surface and elevated fuels,” the report said.

NSW, all of which has been declared to be in drought, posted its driest January-July period since 1965 and August registered rainfall totals 57 per cent below average for the month, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Pockets of south-western WA also face an above-average risk of an active fire season despite good winter rainfall, with the forest and shrubland vegetation subjected to additional water stress, the report said.
Officially under way

The report, released at the annual bushfire conference held this year in Perth by the Bushfire & Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre, noted how the fire season had already got under way with large blazes in several states.

All coastal local government areas of NSW began their official fire season by September 1, with many of them bringing it forward by at least a month.

The ACT, too, started its official fire season a month early at the start of September.

“Large fires requiring regional-level bushfire suppression operations can be expected [in the ACT],” the report said.

While the expanding drought has elevated the chances of significant fire activity in wooded regions of eastern Australia, the lack of rain has reduced the threat from grass fires in inland areas because the lack of moisture means that grass simply won’t grow tall enough to be a problem.

The report noted that the outlook for spring – including the possibility of an El Nino event forming by the season’s end – contributed to predictions for a busier-than-normal fire season.

Almost all the country can expect above-average daytime temperatures in spring, while the odds also favour below-average rains in southern Australia, especially western Victoria.

Climate change’s signal

Aside from the near-term conditions, however, the report also highlighted the background effect climate change is having on raising the bushfire threats.

Southern Australia, for instance, experienced above-average temperatures for 22 consecutive years, while cool-season rainfall had shifted to lower totals since the 1970s for south-west WA and the mid-1990s for south-eastern Australia.

“Fire season severity is increasing across southern Australia as measured by annual indices of the Forest Fire Danger Index,” it said, with the biggest increases coming in inland eastern Australia and coastal Western Australia.

“For example, the Victorian annual Forest Fire Danger Index has increased by about 50 per cent since 1950, with particularly high values during the severe fire seasons of 2002/03, 2006/07, 2008/09 and 2015/16,” it said.

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