Queensland bushfires: Is this the new normal?

  Last updated October 25, 2019 at 3:24 pm


Bushfires across Queensland in the first week of September have devastated communities.

queensland bushfire Canungra Binna Burra

A firefighter surveys the aftermath of the Canungra and Binna Burra fire. Credit: Queensland Fire and Emergency Services

Why This Matters: Climate change is increasing bushfire risk earlier in the year.

Bushfires are nothing new in Australia, but how many of us think of them occurring just one week out of winter? More than 60 fires are burning across Queensland and New South Wales, described by the NSW Rural Fire Service as worse than fires at the height of summer. With a start like this, reports suggest the 2019-20 fire season is shaping up to be grim.

“Bushfires are expected to be worse than normal across much of Australia this summer so we shouldn’t be surprised that when it gets hot, windy and dry, the likelihood of fire increases,” said Dr Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.

Their latest Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook shows the first six months of this year have been the driest since 1970 with rainfall to June ranked as below to very much below average over much of Australia.

This warm and dry start to the year for large parts of Australia, builds on previous years, with some areas in New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland facing their third year of dry conditions.

Eastern Victoria and Tasmania, southern Western Australia and South Australia also face above-normal fire potential.

“When vegetation becomes dehydrated there is a loss of water and an accumulation of volatiles in the leaves that will carry fire,” said Dr Philip Stewart a Certified Wildland Fire Ecologist from the University of Queensland.

“With the extreme weather conditions mixed into this, it is really a recipe for increased intensity and severity fires and the probability of large scale wildfires that are uncontrollable.”

Deeper: Catastrophic Science: Bushfires

Despite the warnings, many Australians, especially those in high-risk areas, are still not ready for fire and have not established fire plans well ahead of time.

According to research from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, many properties are under-insured and some people overestimated the response capacity of fire services.

“So-called ‘catastrophic’ conditions arise when the Forest Fire Danger Index rises above 100. But who amongst the community understands what this really means?” queried Dr Ian Weir from Queensland University of Technology.

queensland bushfires firefighters

Credit: Tallebudgera Valley Rural Fire Brigade

So is this the new normal?

Dr Jim McLennan from LaTrobe University thinks it might be.

“About this time last year, we were discussing the ‘unprecedented’ threats from bushfires in Queensland,” he said.

“Yet here we are again.”

According to Dr McLennan, the scale of the climate change driven increase in bushfire threat levels across the country means that focusing on households to drive community bushfire safety will have limited effectiveness.

Also: Model predicts “impossible to put out” firestorms

Instead, he says that wider issues such as management of government lands and forests, housing development on the urban-bushland fringe, and vegetation management on private property all need policy development at both the State and Federal levels.

Dr Paul Read from Monash University also thinks Queensland farmers, communities and fire services are also starting to worry more about climate change.

“Some might not call it climate change but they’ve certainly noticed the impact on their livelihoods.”

For now, the key message remains that if you haven’t prepared, get out early.

Read the full AusSMC Expert Reaction.

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About the Author

Lyndal Byford
Lyndal is the Director of News and Partnerships at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days turning complex science papers into tasty morsels to help news journalists cover science. Lyndal has an Honours Degree in Biotechnology from Flinders University and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication from the Australian National University. She has spent the last 20 years communicating science in a range of settings including science museums, within the pharmaceutical industry and in media relations both here and in the UK. Lyndal regularly speaks about science on ABC Radio National and 2CC in Canberra. Lyndal was also a member of Inspiring Australia’s Science and the Media Expert working group for the Federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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