Australia is getting a head start on what looks to be an incredibly brutal year of bushfires.
Since early August — still in winter — hundreds of bushfires have flared up in the states of Queensland and New South Wales, prompting some local authorities to declare bushfire season open more than a month ahead of schedule.
This freak fire lashing has experts extremely worried for what lies ahead as Australia transitions into spring and then summer.
“We’re dreading what the rest of the season holds for us,” former New South Wales Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Greg Mullins told us.
Fuelling the flames is a drought that’s been described as the worst in living memory. Last winter was Australia’s hottest on record and the driest since 2002, and for large swaths of eastern and southern Australia, there’s been little rain to slake the thirst since. About 60 per cent of Queensland is currently in drought. So is 100 per cent of New South Wales, a state that produces a quarter of the nation’s crops. Many of its fields are looking frighteningly brown.
This winter has also been unusually warm, and that combination of heat and drought is causing landscapes to light up like a tinderbox when something provides the spark. For the most remote fires, the spark is often lightning, but a large number of the blazes are being started by humans as well.
Mullins said farmers often use small, contained fires to burn off weeds or undergrowth outside of fire season, but some of those burns have gotten out of hand this winter. Fire managers, who typically use the winter to conduct prescribed burns that reduce fire fuel, are grappling with a similar issue because of the parched conditions.
“At least some of the fires in New South Wales originated as hazard reduction burns that got out of control because it was so flammable,” Lesley Hughes, an ecologist with the Australian Climate Council, told us.
None of this bodes for the months ahead, especially with the eastern Pacific tipping into an El Niño state, something that normally delivers warmer, drier weather to southern Australia.
“We’re looking down the barrel at this insane fire season,” University of Tasmania fire ecologist David Bowman told us. “It’s difficult to exaggerate just how extreme the whole thing is.”
Bowman, Hughes and Mullins all pointed to climate change as the key driver of longer, more intense fire seasons in Australia, such as the one this year’s lining up to be. A 2015 report by the Australia Climate Council reached a similar conclusion, noting that climate change is upping the likelihood of fire weather by increasing the frequency of heat waves and, in southern Australia, exacerbating drought.
For Mullins, who’s been fighting bushfires since the early 1970s and whose father was a firefighter for over 60 years before him, decades of life experience tell him how profoundly the fire season has changed. He recalled how the onset of dangerous fire weather used to be far more predictable. Today, it isn’t only harder to say when a fire outbreak will occur, but the worst fires are on a scale nobody’s prepared to fight.
“It’s the new normal,” Mullins said. “We can’t handle it.”