Australia must prepare for worst as fires return after La Niña summers

Black Friday, Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday … the dire epithets litter Australian lives, reminders only of loss and suffering, and the cruel reality that bushfire is an existential threat that never goes away. Three years after the catastrophic Black Summer, experts warn the fires are poised to return. Further, they believe Australia is nowhere near adequately prepared.

Firefighters fear the spring and the summer of 2023-24 will see widespread grass fires, and caution there is currently an increased risk which will last up to and possibly including this April.

The bush is already primed, but the flames have not waited in some states. Despite a mild, wet summer, grass fires have flared in western NSW near towns such as Cobar and Wentworth and in Queensland’s western Darling Downs. Last Tuesday a blaze broke out near Flowerdale in the foothills north of Melbourne, burning some 1000 hectares before being brought under control on Friday.

Australia has just experienced three years of cooler and wetter-than-average conditions, due to a protracted La Niña event. The wet has led to prolific growth of grass and bushland, including rapid regrowth in areas scorched by the Black Summer bushfires.

A report by the Climate Council and Emergency Leaders for Climate warned governments at all levels to prepare for a potentially devastating fire season in 2023. It called for more funding to agencies, full-time staff and volunteers and was critical that emergency services and state and local governments lacked permanent arrangements while still struggling with ad hoc solutions to manage long-term disaster recovery.

Greg Mullins, former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and founder of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, predicted more misery due to Australia’s failure to move away from fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Just as we did before the Black Summer fires, we are issuing a warning now: unlike last time, we now have a government that just might listen,” he said.

History shows grass fires follow floods. There have been three protracted La Niña episodes since 1950: 1954-1957, 1973-1976, and 1998-2001. During each of these periods there was prolific vegetation growth, followed by extensive grass fires across Australia, then major bushfires causing loss of life and property on the east coast, particularly in NSW. Australia recorded its most widespread grass fires in 1974-75, with about 117 million hectares burnt nationally – roughly 15 per cent of Australia’s land mass. Since then, climate change has worsened and is intensifying extreme weather. Because of this, firefighters fear that extensive grass fires that break out in hotter, drier, windier weather conditions than those experienced in 1974-75 could be far more destructive and deadly, not unlike those experienced in the United States in December 2021.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers is worried about the coming fire season with the state facing the worst grass-fire threat in 20 years. While the agency was more concerned with areas that had not burnt in the 2019-20 Black Summer, heavy regeneration across the state means the risk remains high everywhere. Rogers believes that given the heavy grass growth, Australia could see as many fires burnt in 2019-20 – about 11,400.

In Victoria, the grass-fire threat remains normal, but this could change next week when the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council updates its seasonal outlook. Maps by the state fire agency show the amount of grassland curing – a measure of the amount of dead grassland that has dried out or died – remains higher in the north.

Government funding since 2019-20 understandably has focused on recovery rather than preparation and prevention. The cost of the Black Summer fires was enormous: it burned more than 24 million hectares, directly caused 33 deaths and up to 450 more through smoke inhalation, destroyed 3000 homes, and wiped out an estimated three billion animals.

The fires also laid to rest much opposition to the idea of climate change. While the federal parliament continues to argue the toss about action to mitigate its effects, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements following Black Summer left no doubt. Climate change, it found, propelled Australia into a new era of compounding disasters: “As the events of 2019-2020 bushfire season show, what was unprecedented is now our future”.

Given the years of rainfall since Black Summer, the bushfires may have slipped from the Australian public’s consciousness but state and federal governments must assure communities they will be protected. Other than setting distant carbon emissions targets, governments need to review disaster planning strategies to protect lives and ensure emergency services are not left scrambling. There is no time for delay.

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