Bushfire seasons have lengthened by 19 per cent globally since 1978, according to a new Climate Council report, and signs are pointing to a potentially destructive one for Australia this summer.
2015 is set to be the hottest year on record, and has been met in Australia by early starts to bushfire season in Western Australia and Victoria.
The Climate Council’s Professor Lesley Hughes warned that Australia could face similar conditions to the US, which recorded more than 50,000 bushfires over the year, burning more than 38,000 square kilometres of land.
“Years of severe drought in combination with warmer temperatures created the tinderbox that fuelled the North American bushfires,” Professor Hughes said.
“Australia will face the same set of circumstances more and more often in the future.
“Already, record-breaking temperatures in October have driven an early start to the bushfire season and large areas of south-east and south-west Australia are facing above-average bushfire potential this summer.”
The report also noted that the fire seasons between the US and Australia could potentially start to overlap, which would put in jeopardy the shared firefighting aircraft arrangement between the two countries.
Climate Council chief executive Amanda McKenzie said rising temperatures and more frequent droughts were “a ticking time bomb”.
“Australia’s climate change action is not enough to protect Australians from worsening bushfires,” she said. “We must join the rest of the world in meaningful action to bring climate change under control. The Paris climate conference provides an ideal opportunity for our country to set stronger emissions reduction targets.”
The Fire Brigade Employees’ Union said it was “alarmed” by the findings.
“Ask any experienced firefighter and they’ll tell you that the fire season seems to start earlier each year, that we are seeing fires that move faster, grow quicker, are harder to predict, and pose greater challenges to fight,” union secretary Jim Casey said.
“This report’s revelation that fire seasons have indeed grown markedly, that they are now overlapping between the northern and southern hemispheres, and that climate change will only make that worse, highlights the need for urgent action.”
He said only a “global response” could battle the problem in the long term, however in the short term additional firefighters, specialist equipment and improved technology could save lives and property.
Fires rage across WA
This week in WA, multiple bushfires in the Esperance and Goldfields region have claimed at least four lives, and have been described by authorities as some of the worst bushfires seen by the state.
Dr Alan March, associate professor in urban planning at the University of Melbourne, said the fires demonstrated a need for considered, integrated and long-term action.
“The most effective management of bushfire risks focuses on forward-planning of settlements and properties that includes a combination of careful building, vegetation management and site planning actions that complement the capabilities of emergency response agencies,” he said.
Because the farms and settlements in the Esperance and Goldfield region were remote, emergency responses from police and fire services were often limited, he said.
Although leaving early is the best option to protect residents from fire, Dr March said that if residents had knowledge that they could shelter with their families in their homes with the certainty that they could defend their properties, it would reduce the burden and risk for themselves and emergency services.
“The challenge is to improve planning and building regulations to facilitate this, because these provisions do not apply to existing structures that may have been built well before planning and building regulations.
“Over time, if town planning, building regulations and vegetation management controls are used in conjunction with community engagement with response agencies, risks from fires will be considerably reduced.”