In New South Wales in 2013, bushfires in January and October collectively burned 768,000 hectares of bushland and destroyed 279 homes. Tragically, two people lost their lives and the damage was estimated at more than A$180 million.
NSW has been affected by bushfires throughout its history, but the frequency of these events is expected to grow. Just over a year on from the devastating Blue Mountains bushfires, the community and local fire services are paying close attention to the potential for worsening bushfire weather.
The Climate Council’s latest report, Be Prepared: climate change and the NSW bushfire threat, emphasises that climate change has created a hotter Australia, and is already influencing all types of extreme weather events, including the risk of bushfires in NSW.
Setting new records
Hot, dry weather creates ideal conditions for bushfires, and temperatures have climbed in NSW over the past several decades. The summer of 2012/13 was the hottest on record nationally, with two intense and prolonged heatwaves in early January and March setting all time-high maximum temperatures in Sydney.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts with virtual certainty that warming in Australia will continue throughout this century. This will have implications for the nature of bushfires in NSW, as fire severity and intensity is expected to increase in the areas that are home to a substantial proportion of the state’s population.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has said that more than a million homes in the state may be at risk this bushfire season.
Residents remember well the exceptionally dry conditions that heralded last year’s deadly Blue Mountains fires. They were preceded by the warmest September on record for the state, the warmest 12 months on record for Australia, and below-average rainfall in forested areas, leading to very dry fuels.
Looking to the future
Such high fire danger weather has already increased in southeast Australia over the past 40 years, driven by the warming climate. With the ongoing increase in hot weather, coupled with the likelihood that NSW will experience prolonged dry spells, high fire danger weather is set to become even more frequent.
Bushfires damage properties, harm residents’ health, and claim lives. A report from Deloitte Access Economics has projected that the total economic costs of NSW bushfires in 2014 will be A$43 million (in 2011 dollars). By the middle of the century these costs are set to almost triple.
These projections only take increased population and assets into account, not climate change, so must be considered very conservative.
Substantially greater resources will also be needed to fight fires in the future. By 2030, it has been estimated that the number of professional firefighters in Australia will need to more than double, compared with 2010 numbers, if we are to keep up with the increase in fire danger weather, alongside population and asset growth.
It is vital that NSW residents prepare for the bushfire season by making a survival plan and using the resources available on the NSW Rural Fire Service website.
This is the critical decade for action on climate change. We must act rapidly to cut our emissions to stabilise the climate, and to reduce the risk of bushfires destroying homes and claiming lives, both in NSW and across southeast Australia.
My thanks to the Climate Council staff for their assistance and especially to Alix Pearce for her assistance in preparing the report and co-authoring this article.