It’s Australia’s first big blaze of the fire season. How bad will the summer get?
By Damien Cave
The first major blaze of Australia’s wildfire season has now blackened roughly half of Fraser Island, an idyllic getaway north of Brisbane renowned for its golden beaches and lush biodiversity.
With evacuation orders reaching residents Monday, Australians who had hoped there wasn’t much more to burn after last year’s colossal fires are grappling with a brutal reminder: In a vast country that is fire-prone and especially vulnerable to climate change, the risk of record-breaking infernos never goes away.
In fact, it keeps increasing.
“I’m sure it’s hit home for us, as it has for everyone watching,” said Jack Worcester, 34, whose family owns Cathedrals on Fraser, a campground that was recently evacuated. “There’s no such thing as a normal for a fire season now — any fire season can be a quite serious one.”
By this time last year, dried-out forests outside Sydney had been burning for weeks, blanketing the city with an orange-gray haze. But even though this year feels less overwhelming (so far), one question hovers on the minds of many Australians, and it’s the same question that Californians were asking just a few months ago and will ask again next year: How bad is it going to get?
Fires tend to be measured and remembered with hard statistics — acres burned, houses and lives lost — but before the counting comes an impressionistic mapping of risk shaped by terrain, climate, human activity and chance.
This year’s seasonal outlook maps for Australia show a wide amoeba of red for areas of above-average danger running through the grassy plains of central New South Wales, the state in the country’s southeast whose capital is Sydney. But you have to dig deeper to see that many other areas are also at risk.
Fraser Island, for example, is marked “normal fire potential.” The blaze burning now, drawing firefighters on land and in jumbo jets above to douse the flames and locking down the island to visitors, is believed to have been started by an illegal campfire, lit by tourists Oct. 14.
“In the big picture, fire is a natural part of the Australian landscape, so even when we say that the year has normal or below normal risk, it doesn’t mean there is no risk, said Naomi Benger, a climatologist with the government’s Bureau of Meteorology. “It means there is as much risk as there would be in an average year.”
Because of climate change, she added, the average levels of fire danger are increasing.
“It only takes one or two days to have some catastrophic results,” she said. “People should not be complacent.”
Rain: Friend or Foe?
La Niña, a large-scale change in tropical Pacific Ocean temperatures that affects global weather patterns, is the dominant factor in Australia’s 2020-21 fire season. Bringing cooler water closer to the sea surface in the central and eastern tropical Pacific, La Niña has delivered above-average rainfall to most of the country this year.
Thunderstorms and long weeks of spring rain have filled reservoirs and eased the burden on farmers in New South Wales and Queensland after many years of drought. But the soaking rains have also created fields of grass across the plains west of the Great Dividing Range, the mountain chain that runs up and down Australia’s eastern seaboard.
With just a few hot, dry days, those grasses will turn from green to brown, making them as easy to light as a dry piece of paper, maybe easier. That creates an especially erratic and deadly hazard.
“The main difference is intensity; grass fires are lower intensity than forest fires in general, but they travel very, very quickly,” said Richard Thornton, who runs the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Council, which creates the maps that most of the country relies on to assess each fire season. “They certainly move faster than you can run or walk from them, and they are very much dominated by the wind.”
In 1969, a dozen grass fires near the town of Lara killed 23 people, including 17 who were caught in their cars on the freeway. Some of them tried to outrun the fire and failed.
La Niña is just one factor among many. Other weather forces have produced drier conditions than normal in places like tropical Queensland.
Fraser Island saw fewer thunderstorms in November than usual, and those arid conditions have been exacerbated by heat. Last month was Australia’s hottest November on record.
Forecasts also predict that maximum temperatures from December to February are likely to be above the long-term mean for parts of southeast and far west Australia, as well as along the Queensland coastline.
What that translates to is greater risk. The appearance of a heat wave or two or three this summer could dry out many areas and make whatever fires that do emerge even harder to fight.
“With last year’s Australian fires season, combined with the ones in California last year, you can start to say this is what the future is going to look like because of climate change,” Thornton said. “The fires of last year were unprecedented, but they are no longer that way.
Now that we’ve had those fires, they have to be part of the planning.”
A recent report on last year’s fires from an independent Royal Commission acknowledged that climate change had already significantly increased the risk of natural disasters in Australia. It recommended a wide range of changes to how the country fights fires, calling for more aircraft and better coordination of data and communications equipment.
Very little of what the commission requested has been put into practice or even approved. Prime Minister Scott Morrison continues to maintain that his government’s effort to combat climate change — widely viewed as underwhelming and weak by the country’s climate scientists — is sufficient.
Emergency managers say the broader challenge, whether it’s in the United States or Australia, is getting the general population of fire-prone areas to recognize the changed environment and the risks.
“It’s hard,” Thornton said. “They don’t want to face the fact that where they live is risky.”
Until, that is, they can see the fires and the smoke.
Worcester, the campground owner on Fraser Island, said that at one point, he was confronting flames close enough to reach by throwing a rock.
“I was standing inside the fire break on our property watching it crest less than 100 meters to our north,” he said. “It was 15 meters tall.”
He said he planned to buy his own firefighting equipment “just for peace of mind.” And yet, he already knows the relief will be short-lived.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “if it’s really serious, there is only so much you can do.”