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Queensland's 'abnormal' bushfires linked to climate change


December 01, 2018 07:51:40

Both the bushfires and the heatwave ravaging parts of Queensland have been described as extraordinary and abnormal.

Key points

  • Fire ecologist Dr. Philip Stewart says the intensity of Queensland's bushfires is abnormal
  • Heatwave expert Dr. Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick says the heat wave is about
  • Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC CEO Dr. Richard Thornton says people need to recognize the changing nature of risk

Bureau of Meteorology Queensland manager Bruce Gunn said records had been tumbled in a week of widespread and protracted heatwave conditions, combined with catastrophic fire danger.

"On Wednesday, Rockhampton Airport recorded catastrophic [fire] conditions for about three and a half hours, "Mr Gunn said.

"This was the first time this district has recorded catastrophic conditions and the most prolonged event in Queensland since the implementation of the current Fire Danger Rating System in 2010."

Fire ecologist Philip Stewart said Queensland's fires of the past few days were historically unusual.

"When one looks at the charcoal records with Aboriginal burning, we have not seen any indicators that show that there were mass fires or large intense fires like we are seeing today, or 'mega-fires', as I would call them, "Dr Stewart said.

"They're not something that one might expect at this time, but then again, fires of this nature can happen anywhere, provided there's the right climatic conditions and the right fuel and so on."

Dr. Stewart said the intensity and extent of the fires were abnormal, as was the time of year that they occurred.

He said they were "absolutely" a result of climate change.

"Climate is a driver of wildfire and fire full stop," said Dr Stewart.

"So when we begin to see an increase in temperature, we begin to see an increase in energy availability in that atmosphere, and that will obviously increase the potential for high-intensity fires and fast fires."

Will these people become more common in the future?

Dr Stewart said he did not have a crystal ball.

"It's really hard to say yes or no. At the end of the day, if it continues like this, the indication is that, yes we can see more fires like this, absolutely.

"But there's a caveat there that if climate change is so radical that we begin to see massive fires there will be a change in the dynamics of vegetation and a change in the fuels.

"It could be a change in landscape as well, so there could eventually, over time, be so intense fires that they actually cause a change and a die-out of fuel in those areas."

Dr Stewart said fire had the potential to wipe out rainforests.

"From a biological point of view … most of the species within a rainforest are what we call pyrophobic or fire intolerant.

"Eucalyptus and open eucalypt forest, and cetera, are fire tolerant … whereas most rainforest species do not have anything like that," he said.

Do not forget about the heat wave

Heatwaves historically have a higher death toll than fires in Australia.

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, future fellow at UNSW's climate change research center, is an expert on heatwaves in Australia. She said this heatwave was quite unusual.

The humidity is particularly low, the temperatures are particularly high, and it is lasting much longer than a usual heatwave, she said.

The tropics were usually hot, but these conditions were too dry, Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick said.

"Usually the humidity is quite strong at this time of year as we move into the wet season and that really did not happen," she said.

The high humidity would usually counteract the higher temperatures as we move into the summer, but that's not what happened over the past week or so, according to Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick.

She said Australia usually had short, sharp heatwaves that lasted three to four days, but this one was going for at least a week and was forecast to last even longer.

"It may not be as intense for that whole period, but it does not seem to indicate any signs of ending anytime soon," she said.

Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick said that heatwaves were becoming more frequent and longer, no matter where you looked.

She said the tropics in particular could expect a lot more heatwave days in the future than what they used to.

Heatwaves were also expected to get warm, she said.

"Certainly, even in these trends, this particular heatwave that's occurring now is quite related, as it's been much hotter than what we would have expected based on those trends."

The fire offseason is changing

"We have definitely seen over the past 10 to 15 years earlier than burning and a later fire season," Dr Stewart said.

He said the fire seasons began to overlap, within Australia and globally, so sharing resources would become harder.

And the tropics burning this week demonstrated that even areas traditionally considered safe were at risk.

"I would say that wherever you are, you should have a fire plan … even [in] urban areas as we have seen in Greece recently, right down to the coast, and in the californian fires … there's always a possibility that a fire can get in unless it's a concrete jungle, "he said.

"There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we look at fire and the way we think about fire.

"One can not expect the government to take control of any fire management," said Dr Stewart.

Another focus should be to improve bushfire prevention so few people needed to put their lives on the line management fires once they started, he said.

What have we learned?

Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Center (CRC) CEO Richard Thornton said that fires were not necessarily predictive of future bushfires, so people needed to consider the worst-case scenario for them.

"It's about forward planning and getting people to recognize the changing nature of risk," said Dr Thornton.

"I think what we can say more generally and this does not apply just to Queensland … is in the Australian context, if we have days that are in the 40s with very high winds and very low humidity, the chances of fire starting and becoming uncontrollable very quickly, is very likely.

"On those days, communities need to be very vigilant and aware of the environment and what their plans are for those days, and whether it's going to leave early," he said.

Dr. Stewart said he would like to see a rise in funding for fire management and crews.

"There's an absolute need for an increase in funding for fire research, which is really not there.

"There is very little funding available for any proactive fire management and fire mitigation research.

"We need a lot more, especially in Queensland," said Dr. Stewart.





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First posted

December 01, 2018 07:19:53

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