“We are now in uncharted territory” – Experts respond to bushfire crisis

  Last updated June 5, 2020 at 5:32 pm


While politicians point their fingers, the experts weigh in on the role climate change has played in the bushfires.


Firefighters working on controlled back burns, in an attempt to limit the damage of the bushfires in Sydney. Credit: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Why This Matters: Listen to the experts, not the people who shout the loudest.

Bushfires have ravaged more than one million hectares across NSW and QLD, and the finger-pointing over who – or what – is to blame for the scale of these tragic disasters has begun.

Politicians have blamed everything from arson to ‘greenies’ and their influence on environmental regulations for exacerbating the fires, whereas the scientific community suspects climate change has played a significant role.

Deeper: If now is not the time to talk about climate change, when is?

At an AusSMC briefing last week, experts discussed how exceptional this fire season is, how effective our current fire management strategies have been, and how certain we can be that climate change has made bushfires more likely to occur and more severe when they do.

We’re now in uncharted territory

“We are now in uncharted territory,” says Ross Bradstock, Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong.

“Pretty much we’ve gone over the one million hectare mark, and at least for the forest and woodlands in the eastern half of the state, this is unprecedented.”

The most concerning thing, according to the experts, is that summer hasn’t even started yet, and the changing climate has provided new, elevated risks.

One fire management strategy is the use of prescribed burns – lighting fires in the cooler months to burn off fuels before fire season starts.

However, the fire season was declared earlier than usual this year, meaning that the optimum time for prescribed burning has shifted. That makes fire management and prevention more difficult.

“Generally speaking, there hasn’t been a lot of hazard-reduction work in places like NSW this spring because the fire season was declared early,” says Bradstock.

Also: Drought and climate change were the kindling, and now the east coast is ablaze

And, while some politicians have argued that ecologists are preventing prescribed burns due to wildlife concerns, Professor of Pyrogeography at the University of Tasmania, David Bowman says this has not impeded fuel management.

Instead, he said, fuel management has been impeded by “a constellation of practical constraints”, including cost, concerns about the health effects of smoke pollution, risk management and who is legally liable for management on land.

To make matters worse, the experts say fire is behaving differently as the climate changes. For example, managers can no longer be confident that fires will go out on their own, and have to plan for fires that continue to burn vigorously through the night.


The destruction caused by the bushfires at Jimna, QLD. Credit: Jared Risk/QFES Facebook.

Climate change has lengthened the fire season

So are these bushfires the result of climate change? The experts says that’s not an easy question to answer, particularly at this early stage.

According to Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick at the University of New South Wales, “we can’t necessarily say one specific fire – or all of the ingredients overall that go into fire weather – are due to climate change, but we can certainly tease out that climate change has this signal in some of those ingredients.”

For example, Perkins-Kirkpatrick says the fire season has lengthened due to climate change, particularly over eastern Australia, and this is likely to continue until at least 2050.

And while an official attribution report for the current fires will take at least a year to complete, Perkins-Kirkpatrick co-authored a soon-to-be-published study on the 2018 Queensland fires, which she says were exacerbated by dry conditions and high temperatures.

“Those temperatures that helped drive those bushfires were around four times more likely due to climate change,” she says.

Climate change means we need to re-think how fires behave

Why is all this talk of climate change so important? Professor Bowman said the changing climate means many lessons we’ve learnt in the past about how fires behave are no “really no longer fit for purpose”.

“To be very clear, it’s absolutely possible to manage fuels, it’s possible to create fire-safe environments,” he says.

“But that is an enormous research and practical challenge given a rapidly changing climate. We’re having to learn new things now, we’re having to develop new skills.”

And while this sounds like a thoroughly gloomy outlook, Bowman says he remains hopeful for the future.

“I really want to reiterate, particularly focusing on the concerns of the younger generation, that this can be a positive and exciting time, that we can do lots of things to make our future better,” he says.

“There’s opportunity in this to make the world a better place.”

You can watch the full AusSMC briefing here.

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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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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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