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Climate change and bushfires - you’re missing the point!

Climate change has yet again been blamed for another natural disaster, this time the recent bushfires in NSW. But much more important is the role of poor land-use planning decisions that are increasing…

We should worry less about emissions and more about getting people out of harm’s way. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Climate change has yet again been blamed for another natural disaster, this time the recent bushfires in NSW. But much more important is the role of poor land-use planning decisions that are increasing our nation’s vulnerability to fire, and other natural perils. We examine these issues in the light of Australia’s history of building losses to bushfire over the last century.

Bushfire losses in Australia

Prime Minister Tony Abbott was correct to assert that bushfires are a fact of life in Australia. Conflagrations may occur whenever favourable combinations of fuel, weather and ignition sources exist. When communities are in the way, large losses are always possible.

Back in 1947, James Foley, in his treatise on bushfire risk in Australia, gave descriptions of historic fires in NSW. These were laced with comments such as “the worst in the memory of the oldest residents”; “most disastrous bush fire known”; “most serious fires for years”; “one of the most disastrous fires known”, and so on.

Each fire it seems is always worse than the last.

One way of measuring the severity of a fire is to look at the loss of property. While raw losses from bushfires, as for most other natural disasters, show an increasing trend towards higher costs, the graph below shows what this history looks like after losses have been “normalised” to take into account that we now have more homes in harm’s way.

Losses from bushfires. Bushfire losses prior to 2009 have been normalised. Bushfire losses after 2009 are unnormalised. Risk Frontiers/PerilAUS

There’s no trend in the graph. Bushfire losses can therefore be explained by the increasing exposure of dwellings to fire-prone bushlands. No other influences need be invoked. So even if climate change had played some small role in modulating recent bushfires, and we cannot rule this out, any such effects on risk to property are clearly swamped by the changes in exposure.

The result is unsurprising given that it has been a consistent conclusion from many other studies in different countries and across many different hazards, in fact some 30-odd different peer-reviewed studies to date. And the IPCC (2012) underscored this conclusion.

What about New South Wales?

So much for the national picture. What about NSW: are losses in this state this early in the season unusual?

We answer this question again using Risk Frontiers’ PerilAUS database, which lists natural peril events causing material property damage or loss of life. PerilAUS suggests that since 1926 early season fires (August-September-October) have occurred in about 25% of years. They do not always herald losses later in the season.

And narrowing our focus even further to the Blue Mountains, research shows that destructive bushfires have affected all townships in the Blue Mountains, from Blackheath in the west, to Emu Heights in the east. The most common months for damaging bushfires have been November and December. But October fires are hardly out of the ordinary.

One fire occurred on October 7, 1926, 10 days earlier than the date of the most recent destruction (October 17, 2013). It is likely that this fire (or fires) had been burning even earlier but this was the date on which most of the damage occurred.

So from a historical perspective our recent fires are not at all uncommon and are certainly not unprecedented.

Increasing the risk

So if it’s not earlier fires or more frequent fires, what is causing changes in bushfire losses? The answer lies in exposure.

Some years ago Risk Frontiers was asked by a reporter to prepare the graphic map below. It depicts the vulnerability of homes in the Blue Mountains in respect to distance from bushland. This single factor is demonstrably the most important in determining the likelihood of home destruction given a fire.

Addresses in the Blue Mountains within 200m (in red), 200 – 700m (pink) and greater than 700m of bushland. Only a very small proportion of addresses fall in the latter two risk categories. John McAneney

When we’re mapping fire risk to properties we look at distance from bush. In the Blue Mountains some 38,000 addresses fall within the 200m category, some 30,000 within 100m, and at many of these addresses homes back onto bushland. In many cases trees overhang homes. And just to ensure that embers can be easily carried across to homes on the other side of the road, the council has kindly planted gums down each side of the street.

Back in 1977, when fires threatened Springwood at Burns Road where “houses sit like fleas on a camel’s back,” Tim Dare of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote:

Disaster struck in 1957, 1968 and now 1977. Suburbia has pushed into the bush, into the tinderbox, heedless of the fact that the Blue Mountains is one of the most fire-prone settlements in Australia. Cheaper housing, and the lure of the bush which can turn against them with awesome intensity, are stronger than any doubts they might have [SMH 19/11/1977].

Of those affected by the recent fires, many were well aware of the fire risk.

What they were not prepared for last Thursday was the speed of the fire and its ferocity. In other words the reality of fire. There was simply no time to act. And there was no water pressure.

We understand that some did stay and successfully defend their homes, sometimes with the providential interventions by fire services.

These days the resources fire agencies have to deploy are far more numerous and sophisticated than was formerly the case. Nonetheless, under very extreme conditions – very high winds and in difficult terrain, the ability of fire fighting operations to affect outcomes in terms of building losses is limited.

What do we do now?

Some would like to see these latest fires as the climate change tipping point, the harbinger of things to come. But extraordinary claims demand, as they say, extraordinary proof and from the evidence available, this does not seem to be here yet.

Perhaps one day we will have conclusive evidence of a link between climate change and bushfire losses, but even then the suite of policy actions that make sense will continue to focus on land use planning, not emissions reduction, for which there are better arguments for action than bushfires.

We need to get serious about land-use planning. It is not a very sexy topic, it may not constitute the “great moral … challenge of our time”, but reducing our vulnerability to natural disasters is important and stands to benefit all Australians, directly or indirectly, now. Regardless of what you might think about climate change.

Join the conversation

35 Comments sorted by

  1. Jeremy Culberg

    Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

    As I and others have said, given that people already live in these areas, and the political impossibility of closing down those areas / removing the bush that makes the risk, the solution(s) can be along the following lines:
    Homes designed to withstand the conditions. Make it a building code requirement - just like cyclone rating is required in the north, fire rating of houses should be done in fire zones.
    New land - stop it entirely, or insist on the development having fire resistance as an integral…

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Jeremy Culberg

      Despite the political impossibility you raise Jeremy and the same applies to some extent with flood prone developments ( though there was a smallish relocation exercise in the Brisbane Valley region ), the costs associated with all you propose for fire resistance developments, ( if on a user pays principle as it should be ) could make for many more voluntary relocations and as cost/stayer would likely rise, that could see even more and more relocations.
      The only problem is that all you mention for cost resistance developments is likely not to occur in the first place.

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    2. Jeremy Culberg

      Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

      In reply to Jeremy Culberg

      Greg,
      As mentioned in the article above, people have moved here because it is "cheap" to move there. In real terms, it isn't cheap, it is just that people haven't factored in the risk to the move. I am uncomfortable with putting people (fire fighters et al) at risk because of that.
      I cannot see any way other than regulation to ensure that the risk is mitigated. And once that risk is controlled (through house design and development design), the "cheap" will be smashed (which is a true reflection…

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  2. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Getting serious about land use planning is always going to be difficult John as you likely know the connection between local governments, planning and developments is always going to be money and I suspect there would hardly be a single council in Australia that does not love development and the associated population and income it can bring.
    And then because councils will have their greens influence in wanting the place all green and lovely, there will be restrictions on the amount of clearing allowed…

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  3. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    John, what do you think will be achieved by beginning your article with a deceitful and misleading leading sentence that could have been taken directly from The Daily Telegraph?

    Nobody has 'blamed climate change' for a natural disaster - merely pointed out, quite reasonably based on the best available evidence, that these fires will almost certainly have been exacerbated by climate change, including this year's rare very early start to the fire season, and that it could sensibly be viewed as a…

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      By the way, John, you proffered the truism that extraordinary claims require extraorinary evidence. Yet, earlier, you claim that:
      'So from a historical perspective our recent fires are not at all uncommon and are certainly not unprecedented.'
      Then you offer a single historical example from 1926.

      Hardly extensive, let alone extraordinary evidence, is it? Indeed, if that is the only available example, statistically it is just as likely to be a random outlier and therefore pure chance, which would indicate that it has no meaning.

      Maybe you have other examples that constitute evidence to support your claim. I'm sure nobody in the risk analysis business would ever be so statisticaly naive. Assuming that is so, it would be wise to provide that evidence in order to avoid the charge of having made unsubstantiated claims on an important question.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      And, further, the fact that James Foley in 1947 used some rather colourful language about fires is exceptionally weak evidence that people are always saying things like this so they can safely be ignored.

      Again, do you have any more substantial evidence or are you merely cherry-picking a single convenient example to make the rather inane point that because some people in the past have talked about 'worst ever' or predicted disaster that any future claim along these lines is thereby demonstrated to be axiomatically disproven? The single easiest thing in the world is to find somebody - often as not somebody with reasonable qualifications - who has made an extraordinary claim, but that hardly constitutes a meaningful pattern, much less proof that extraordinary claims are intrinsically wrong.

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      John McAneney and Risk Frontiers have form for downplaying the effects of climate change. Not surprising when you consider that Roger Pielke Jr is a member of the group. That is Pielke Jr's schtick - he is notorious for it.

      Here is Pielke Jr in operation - using similar "bait and switch" tactics to attack Chris Field, one of the IPCC SREX authors in testimony to the US Congress.
      http://www.skepticalscience.com/pielke-jr-mcintyre-assist-christy-extreme-weather-obfuscation.html

      Here is John…

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    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Ah yes, I now remember Pielke's hysterical shrieking at Will Steffen's criticism: conflating something to the effect that his comments weren't worthy of a respectable university with 'he should have his tongue cut out and be burned at the stake'. It was the most genuinely embarrassingly absurd piece of arse-about paranoid reasoning I've ever heard from a supposedly senior and well qualified scholar.

      That helps explain why this article actually SAYS nothing beyond the perfectly banal and obvious point that more infrastructure in harm's way will lead to greater losses so, therefore, better land-planning is very important to reduce losses. About as revelatory as being reminded that you will experience less pain if you stop hetting your head against a brick wall...

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    5. Edwina Laginestra
      Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Jack of all trades

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      I agree with Felix re the odd start to this article. There would be few people who disagree that planning is really lacking - and if you tried to get something new through council and fit for our "new" conditions, it would probably be rejected (I suppose a bit like law in it seems to be based on precedent). Anyhow all by the way, what I dropped by to say is that it is all very well commenting that there seems to be no trend in the normalised building damage but I would have though you have missed out considering a GREAT BIG factor: Our improved fire fighting capacity (and planning). We know there is more development, we know we seem not to plan too much for future disaster, but emergency services do look at all these things. They also take on lessons from past disasters. Shouldn't we be getting better? But instead there is no change.

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    6. Grant Burfield

      Dr

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      "Nobody has 'blamed climate change' for a natural disaster".Speaking of natural disasters - "As many as one billion people could lose their homes by 2050 because of the devastating impact of global warming, scientists and political leaders will be warned today" http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/climate-change-could-force-1-billion-from-their-homes-by-2050-817223.html

      Now that is serious. But what about "Global warming is irreversible and billions of people will die over the…

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    7. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Grant, much as you love pedantry, I had assumed you would be able to discern the difference between a present and future tense.

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    8. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Felix, there was another assumption made in this article about fire being dangerous only in forested areas. I've seen a grass fire wipe out everything in its path, fast, building up heat as it went. The other thing is that while property costs are one way of looking at fire history, another is to look at FFDI, which sooner rather than later will have to be acknowledged, because they have been increasing since 1973, and will in the future. There is a GFDI, but it's not as well publicised.
      http://images.smh.com.au/file/2013/09/14/4747251/fires1973.pdf?rand=1379104552400

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    9. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Felix, what John has priovided is a graph of 'losses' over the years normalised, I assume that means to provide constant prices - for which he should provide the index year - not a graph of the frequency of fire events. What he does say is that from his data base - is he providing public access to check his assertion? - early season fires occur in 25% of years, that is, one year in four. Now, there is a question as to whether that is the average over the duration of the database, a modal frquncy of early season fire events, or whether there is any evidence of progressively higher (or lower) frequency of early season fire events. And that is before allowing for any diminishing of the area of bush in which fire events can occur (as bushfires). On the whole, this article raises many more questions than it answers. However, if climate change is affecting the frequency of fire events, then land-use planning certainly needs to take that into account.

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    10. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Exactly! A bit like the past debate between McAneney/Pielke and Will Steffen that Mike Hansen mentions above: insurance losses are at best very tangential ways of measuring fire intensity/frequency/potential which is the real thing that climate change is impacting.

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    11. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Couldn't agree more, Dennis - that was why I wanted him to provide proper evidence for hs claim.

      And I think your final sentence exactly nails what I was trying to suggest should be the real, useful discussion.

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    12. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      By the way - thanks for that reference - as the paper says, you couldn't use that data to prove it was climate change impacts rather than natural variability, but the data are certainly consistent with the (early phase of) the expected impacts of climate change on fires.

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to MItchell Lennard

      Good points, Mitchell but, given we're already about 0.8 degrees hotter than a hundred years ago, I don't think it's a question of 'if Global Warming occurs what the impact wil be over the next 50 years' - more a question of how much worse is it going to get in that timeframe...but I'm nit-picking a bit here, I must confess.

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  4. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Is global warming increasing the likelihood and potential severity of bushfires in the Blue Mountains?

    Well, there is no doubt that increasing CO2 availability leads to more rapid plant growth, and global warming means that growing seasons can be warmer and more moist (dependent on such factors as ENSO phase), with more CO2 available for plant metabolism.

    That is, unless there has been a sequence of poor growing seasons (droughts), bush will grow more profusely.

    Follow these good growing…

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  5. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    John McAneney wrote; "Some would like to see these latest fires as the climate change tipping point, the harbinger of things to come" Interesting sentence. A tipping point is an event that has come, not a harbinger of things to come.
    So far the only mention of a tipping point in our media over these events from my scan is yours. Why?

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  6. Jeff Payne

    PhD in Political Science and Masters in Public Policy

    I have to agree with Felix that the evidence to support particular claims in this article are not well presented. I was disappointed to see that when it came to addressing the argument that this fire was the result of climate change as it was a rare and intense event the most that could be achieved was “But October fires are hardly rare” and then having to reach back to 1926 (interestingly the first year of his data) to support his claims. For such an crucial point I think a source or evidence was…

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  7. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    You can't retropectively impose planning regs to get people out of fire-prone areas.

    Marysville et al are old timber-getting communities that attracted weekenders etc. Many who lost homes are not rebuilding however - but that won't bring the dead back to life.

    In Gippsland near the Loy Yang power stations strata titles were allowed in areas where once only pine planataions and struggling cockies like my father once were . People died there too - but there are still plenty of people living where cows once grazed - mind you my cousin lost all his young stock and a farm house .....

    As for multiple escape routes ....lots of worries about that in the Dandenongs.

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  8. Michelle Bourke

    logged in via Facebook

    How can you normalise a graph for "more homes in fire prone areas" but not normalise it for the fact that we have much better and more efficient fire protection that would also potentially have a major impact on the graph?

    We have much faster emergency responses - so there is the possibility that many fires that could have gotten out of control, have not done so. You need to look at fires prevented, not just building damage.

    As an example, in Israel, over time there has been a reduction in…

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    1. Georgina Byrne

      Farmer

      In reply to Michelle Bourke

      I too find the article frustratingly biased in its conclusions from data so limited and so widely spaced in time. I am also saddened to see yet again that the only measure of damage under discussion appears to be that of built infrastructure and human life.

      Many people are attracted to life adjacent to bush-land because they prefer closeness to nature to the nature depleted environments to be found in suburbs especially the new, virtually tree free housing estates being built on the outskirts…

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    2. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Michelle Bourke

      Michelle

      Your claim that "we have much better and more efficient fire protection" is not borne out in reality, and reflects a common misconception that embracing technology, principally through bigger fire-bombing aircraft, equates to better outcomes.

      In truth, we've been waterbombing fires since the 1970s, but the move to bigger aircraft that can carry more water has increased its efficiency and is particularly beneficial in protecting houses when they are under immediate attack by fire. However…

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    3. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Michelle Bourke

      Georgina, another point not mentioned in the article was that many of the streets that burned in the blue mountains recently were "60's" lots. As one of the firies noted, "they wouldn't get permission today"

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    4. Michelle Bourke

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bourke

      Hey Mark,

      I'm sure you know a lot more about this topic than me on the specifics. The point I was making was about what seemed to be, to me, a rather one sided source of information (i.e. houses lost) - normalising for population movements without accounting for other potential improvement factors (whatever those factors might, or might not be).

      There is no data that I can find which compares number of fires against the variety of different prevention programs in place by government and councils…

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    5. Sundance

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Michelle Bourke

      "I am unconvinced that building damage is the best way to make a point about there being no upward trend based on climate change."

      No one suggested that loss damage was the best way it is just one of several ways that allow us to choose the best course of action and plan for the future. There are several other data sets that lead the IPCC to having low confidence that human CO2 is a contributing much of anything to fires.

      Here's the IPCC AR5 conclusion on drought.
      “In summary, the current…

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    6. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Michelle Bourke

      @Sundance.

      Plenty of misdirection in that contribution.

      Your claim "There are several other data sets that lead the IPCC to having low confidence that human CO2 is a contributing much of anything to fires." is not supported by any reference.

      According to the Daily Telegraph who have a leaked copy of the AR5 WG2 report

      "As bushfires raged across the state yesterday, the report warns very high and extreme fire danger days will increase by up to 30 per cent by 2020 - and up to 100 per cent…

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  9. Ken Fabian

    Mr

    A dry winter that is warmer will see the bushfire "season" start earlier. It's not rocket science to figure that. Arguing that it's irrelevant takes... imagination.

    Rather than focus on hotter summers and heatwaves - others can do that - I like to point out the increase risks that arise from warmer winters and warmer overnight minimums; they reduce the window of opportunity to do hazard reduction burning safely and add to the minimum equipment and people requirements to do so. Hazard reduction that is not done, because opportunity to do so safely is reduced, ultimately increases the risks during the hotter summers and stronger heatwaves that are expected as the global climate system gains heat.

    With a trend of warming already unmistakeable the fire risks have already risen.

    There are other elements of fire risk and none should be ignored. Climate change is such an element; it should not be ignored.

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  10. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    I would have thought you would measure the severity of a bush fire by its size and the rapidity with which it is spreading irrespective of the number of homes destroyed. A severe fire can obviously occur in an uninhabited area of bush with no loss of homes. On a time basis your graph, if the figures are correct, shows an increased rate of fire occurrences in last half of the time line compared to the first half; not quite a doubling. Is this a reasonable reading of the graph?
    Either way climate science shows that global warming has occurred since about the middle of last century and that this cannot be explained by natural variations alone .The trend in Australia has been towards a warmer and drier south eastern part of the continent resulting in drier ground fuel and trees, all conducive to more frequent and fiercer fires.

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  11. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

    "Climate change has yet again been blamed for another natural disaster,"

    The link on this claim is to Adam Bandt's Twitter comment, but this is precisely not what Mr Bandt did.

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    1. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Even if it is what Mr Abbott and Mr Hunt and Mr Murdoch's editors claimed that he did. Please read the tweet again (including the linked article). This framing misses the point.

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