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Fire and climate change: fire risk needs to be managed

Recent fires in New South Wales highlight our current vulnerability, remind us about potential future risks and prompt us to think more strategically about risk management. Some key questions have come…

We should be talking about future bushfires. AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

Recent fires in New South Wales highlight our current vulnerability, remind us about potential future risks and prompt us to think more strategically about risk management. Some key questions have come to the fore, such as:

Is climate change to blame for the NSW fires?

Bushfires are influenced by many factors including: warmer and drier conditions in preceding months, days with extreme heat, strong winds and low humidity, urban development patterns, fuel loads and management.

We’ve just experienced Australia’s warmest 12-month period on record, NSW had its warmest January-September on record, and eastern NSW has been very dry.

Together with accumulated fuel loads over the past few years, this provides conditions that increase fire risk. Other parts of Australia need to prepare for an active fire season.

While it’s almost impossible to attribute an individual extreme weather event to climate change, the risk of fire has increased in south-east Australia due to a warming and drying trend that is partly due to increases in greenhouse gases.

What is fire risk?

Fire is a natural part of the Australian landscape. Fire weather risk can be quantified using the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI).

Annual cumulative FFDI, which integrates daily fire weather across the year, increased significantly) at 16 of 38 Australian sites from 1973-2010. The number of significant increases is greatest in the southeast, while the largest trends occurred inland rather than near the coast. The largest increases in seasonal FFDI occurred during spring and autumn, while summer had the fewest significant trends.

This indicates a lengthened fire season.

Fire risk is different to fire weather risk, as fire risk is affected by other factors, such as vegetation and human behaviour, in addition to the weather.

What can we expect in the future?

Climate change over the coming decades is likely to significantly alter fire patterns, their impact and their management in Australia.

An increase in fire-weather risk is likely with warmer and drier conditions in southern and eastern Australia.

The rate of increase depends on whether global greenhouse gases follow a low or high emission scenario. Carbon dioxide emissions have been tracking the high scenario over the past decade.

The number of “extreme” fire danger days in south-east Australia generally increases 5-25% by 2020 for the low scenarios and 15-65% for the high scenarios. By 2050, the increases are generally 10-50% for the low scenarios and 100-300% for the high scenarios. This means more total fire ban days.

Fire danger periods are likely to be more prolonged, so the fire season will lengthen.

What should we do now?

Without adaptation, there will be increased losses associated with the projected increase in fire weather events.

Adaptation in the short-term can lead to greater preparedness, including many well established actions such as fire action plans, vegetation management and evacuations; while adaptation in the long-term can reduce the fire risk experienced by society, through actions such as appropriate building standards and planning regulations in fire-prone areas.

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33 Comments sorted by

  1. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. In reply to John Whelan

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      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to John Whelan

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  2. Richard Moseley

    logged in via Facebook

    A decent piece in the sense that it tries to touch upon factors behind bushfires which are usually ignored, however the evidence presented can be taken a step further. Firstly there's the fact that much of equatorial lands are covered in lush, verdant plantlife, something maintained rather than blighted by the heat. Heat only causes burning when plantlife dries out, so the real question is why has NSW, surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean, become so arid? In recent times, the wind direction…

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    1. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Richard Moseley

      It was reported that Antarctica had record levels of ice, could that be linked to the increase of dry air?

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    2. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Richard Moseley

      @Richard re: "the concept of a warming climate". Such a phrase is a misnomer, it's not an accurate way to present the science as it stands, nor is it anything like what the IPCC reports suggest. The correct way to re-state that is: there is a concept of increasing GHGs and land use changes that has lead to an increase in global avg mean surface (land/sea/air) )temperatures. The latter being usually referred to correctly as 'global warming'. The science shows that this accumulating global warming…

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Richard Moseley

      Moseley's claim is nonsense supplied as is usual with this sort of armchair pseudoscience without any references.

      You really only have to live in southern Australia to know that when the weather comes from the south and it brings the cold and the wet.

      "The southern parts of Australia get the usual westerly winds and cold fronts that come with rain when the high pressure systems move towards northern Australian during winter"

      What sort of weather have we been having. Not just a few days…

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    4. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Richard Moseley

      I think you will find Mt Hotham is about 6000 feet not 8000 Richard, Kosciuoscko (sp. ) only a touch over 2000m being Australia's highest peak or 6000 odd feet on the imperial scale, Australia having nothing above even 7000 feet.
      Is not a certain level of moisture required for snow to fall and though a dusting may have occurred in recent days that could have meant minimal moisture.
      NSW may have thousands of kilometres of sea out to the east and likewise Victoria to the south and hence moister winds usually from the south/south west but the problem will be when there is sustained weather from the west, north west and even north without associated monsoonal moisture.
      Such a weather pattern will have a drying effect just as it does in Queensland too.
      I would think that weather and how it has been brought about is far more likely to raise fire dangers than any dry air from the Antarctic.

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  3. Sean Arundell

    Uncommon Common Sense

    Dear Kevin, thank you for your good topical summary of the key issues regarding "fire" in general. I'd like to address the single issue of " vegetation management ", and would appreciate your feedback. Do you at CSIRO have any data on this issue, such has recent historical changes in how much or how often planned 'back-burning' activities have been carried out? My comments revolves sit in the background of public comments over the years that changes in local govt rules, irresponsible land ownrs…

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  4. Lincoln Fung

    Economist

    I am puzzled that why new technologies like the drones have not been used or extensively used in monitoring and fighting bush fires in Australia, given that bush fires occur year after year and so many times even in a year.
    Without using drones, it also means it is unlikely to have researches on how to use drones to design new strategies including new technologies for bush fires fighting.
    This is not only a science and technology, but also strategic thinking and management.
    Australia is probably the world's most bush fires prone country and the costs of bush fires are so high, but it seems we have not led in bush fire fighting technologies.
    As an economist, I would tend to think there is a serious market failure or government policy failure or both. If I were in charge of bush fire management, I would certainly introduce new thinking and new leadership into this area,
    This situation needs to change and must change.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Lincoln Fung

      There are beliefs Lincoln that the Australian bush is such that it should regularly burn to survive through generating new growth.
      That may not sit too well with the people who go and build in bush fire prone regions but before we go and use drones to monitor fires and to start putting out fires as soon as they are detected, we ought to really understand our nature before we kill it with our kindness.
      Given the number of lightning strike fires that could be erupting with the right weather, you could look at the economics of how many drones we will need to spot and extinguish.
      Satellite surveillance may be the way to go for monitoring and then you will still need to have the appropriate decisions made on what should be let burn.

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    2. Jeremy Culberg

      Electrical Asset Manager at Power Generation

      In reply to Lincoln Fung

      I can see one very simple reason why new technologies (or even re-purposing existing technologies) haven't been investigated - funding.
      I can see the fire service putting to the minister "We want to use a technology that has only be used during war, never used to fight fires, to help us fight fires. This will involve extensive R&D, with no guarrantee that it will work. Likely it will, but no certainty."
      At that is about as far as the request will go . . . politicians of all persuasions are so risk averse they couldn't even consider the possibility of taking a risk.

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  5. Sean Arundell

    Uncommon Common Sense

    Kevin, I was wondering if the CSIRO has any reports, data or anecdotal info relating to fire effects upon honey bees / pollination (eg agriculture & natural vegetation recoveries?) due to this most recent series of massive fires here and there in Aus over the last 5+ years? thx curious.

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  6. David Stein

    Businessman

    Thank you Kevin for laying out the facts on what is an emotive issue.
    I wonder how the coalition's plan to plant 20 million trees factors in to vegetation management costs and whether bushfire risk was even considered in the development of the so-called 'direct action' plan?

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to David Stein

      David, seeing as Australia has a pretty enormous area.
      " Australia's area is 7,686,850 sq km (2,967,909 sq mi) 7 686 850 square kilometer = 768 685 000 hectares. "
      Multiply by another 2.5 if you want it in acres, so that being close to 2000 million acres, I reckon we should not have too much of a problem in finding marginal cleared land for tree planting.
      Like, I'm not about to go and count how many trees to an acre there could be but something like 100 could be reasonable enough so we might need…

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  7. Sean Arundell

    Uncommon Common Sense

    The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia - Bill Gammage (Allen & Unwin)
    Across Australia, early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park. With extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked an English country estate. With implications for us today, Bill Gammage explodes the myth that pre-settlement Australia was an untamed wilderness, revealing the complex, country-wide systems of land management used by Aboriginal…

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  8. Wade Macdonald

    Technician

    I here of arrests over these fires, the accidental fire caused by the army and see people driving down rural roads throwing cigarettes and glass bottles out windows etc.

    Anyone here consider that these fires are more related to human habit/ population rather than climate change?

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Their ignition is more related to human habit/population but the underlying risk and severity of any fires is directly impacted by climate change.

      Nobody has claimed that climate change causes fires to START (unless there is some evidence of more frequent lightning) - this is irrelevant - what this article and all the scientific research indicates is that climate change increases the likelihood of worse fires over a longer fire season.

      So it's never been a question of either/or. Obviously we…

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    2. Wade Macdonald

      Technician

      In reply to Wade Macdonald

      Point taken Felix. I once pulled up to a vacant city block and used the neighbours hose to put out a fire started by bottles thrown into the long grass/bushes adjacent the footpath. Fire department got the shits because I saved two houses and stole their thunder. Makes ya wonder doesn't it?

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  9. Marc Hendrickx

    Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

    Kevin,
    Does CSIRO calculate FFDI prior to 1973?
    Would be nice to see data span more than one climate cycle.

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    1. Nick Fisher

      retiring

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Would be nice to see you present evidence for your 'climate cycle', Marc. More data is always good. How long is this 'cycle', and at what point are we at?

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    2. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Nick,
      Climate is 30 years of weather averaged. 1973 to present provides just one data point to fit to a graph.

      From IPCC TAR:
      Climate
      Climate in a narrow sense is usually defined as the �average weather�, or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years. The classical period is 30 years, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). These quantities are most often surface variables such as temperature, precipitation, and wind. Climate in a wider sense is the state, including a statistical description, of the climate system.

      http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg1/518.htm

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    3. Sean Arundell

      Uncommon Common Sense

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Regarding good data ... apparently WA had been doing systematic planned "controlled burning" (in an earlier comment I used the wrong term back-burning) in forests etc going back to 1962 (according to a retired chap on radio who was involved in that project) for 37 years I think he said. They established that as a rule of thumb "controlled burning" of 10 to 12% of the area each years was enough to not only keep the extreme risk levels down, but it actually improved the entire health of the 'forest…

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    4. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Nothing wrong with the definition. It talks to sample size.

      e.g. The BOM uses the 30 year period 1961-90 as the baseline for temperature anomalies.
      "September 2013 was easily Australia’s warmest September on record. The national average temperature for September was +2.75 °C above the long-term (1961–1990) average, which also sets a record for Australia’s largest positive anomaly for any monthly mean temperature. "

      It is your claim that this represents a "climate cycle" and the implication that each 30 year period needs to be distinct that is nonsense.

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    5. Marc Hendrickx

      Geologist: The Con is a bad Monty Python sketch, for climate sense see: http://www.thegwpf.org/

      In reply to Marc Hendrickx

      Now you confuse weather for climate!

      Original question directed at the author who presumably won't make the same mistake.

      Over to you Kevin Hennessy.

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  10. Sean Arundell

    Uncommon Common Sense

    More about BEES - Fire, climate change & other stressors: "If you could tell their whole story, maybe people would care more about protecting them," she says. Indeed, the findings of this study have important implications for today's concern about the loss in diversity of bees, a pivotal species for agriculture and biodiversity. "Understanding extinctions and the effects of declines in the past can help us understand the pollinator decline and the global crisis in pollinators today," Rehan says. - Stress a key factor in causing bee colonies to fail - More info: "First evidence for a massive extinction event affecting bees close to the K-T boundary," Finders Uni Oct. 23, 2013 edition of PLOS ONE. http://goo.gl/c4ZBdK [http://phys.org/news]

    Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2013-10-bees-underwent-massive-extinction-dinosaurs.html#jCp
    Read more at:

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  11. Watson Z

    Nothing

    I would like to see a study on wind intensity as this can make a small scrub fire a raging inferno. Is wind intensity strengthening and is it happening on greater occasions.

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