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Fire, climate change and prescribed burning: What do the experts have to say?

Kate Doyle, Wednesday November 13, 2019 - 19:10 EDT
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Fire is a part of life in Australia, but some conditions can signal catastrophic danger. - ABC

As flames destroyed lives and homes in recent days, there's been a lot of debate about past fires, finger-pointing over prescribed burning, questioning the influence of climate change, or if indeed it was the right time to be talking about it at all.

But what do scientists have to say?

Ross Bradstock, a bushfire risk management expert at the University of Wollongong, did not mince words when asked about the current fires.

"We are now in uncharted territory," he said.

"We've gone over the one-million-hectare mark at least for the forests and the plants in the eastern part of NSW — this is unprecedented."

Of course fires have happened before, but Dr Bradstock said the 2019-20 fire season in New South Wales had already exceeded the infamous major fire periods of and .

With summer still to come, and given the current forecast and outlook, things aren't looking good.

What about this week's fires and climate change?

It is widely acknowledged that fire weather is becoming more common as the climate warms, but what about the fires burning now?

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick from the University of NSW completes climate attribution studies that determine if climate change was a factor in extreme events.

"Basically what we do is look at an extreme, define it — so how long the event has gone for and how intense it's been — then use physical model simulations with and without climate change included to see if we can detect whether or not that event now occurs more often due to climate change," she said.

The process takes time, and attributing fires is more complex than attributing something like a heatwave because more factors are at play.

An official attribution report on the current fires has yet to begin, but Dr Perkins-Kirkpatrick said a soon-to-be published study on fires in Queensland last year found that the temperatures associated with the blazes were four times more likely because of climate change.

Could prescribed burning have prevented these fires?

Dr Bradstock acknowledged that not a lot of prescribed burning took place this year.

"Generally speaking, there hasn't been a lot of hazard-reduction work in places like NSW this spring because the fire season was declared early."

David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania, said it was important that media commentary didn't unnecessarily sow seeds of doubt in the community regarding the quality and concern of fire management agencies.

"It's really quite disingenuous to suggest that biodiversity concerns, or the concerns of environment, have substantially changed fuel-management programs," he said.

"I freely acknowledge that among ecologists there is concern and debate about the ecological effects of fuel management.

"There is research and discussion and naturalists hold points of view about fuel management, but frankly, those concerns are really very much to the side and haven't significantly impeded fuel management programs."

Dr Bowman said fuel management had been impeded by a constellation of practical constraints, including that fire can escape, smoke pollution, ill health, resourcing, coordination, legal liability, cost and safety.

"The debate we are having is really the society sort of catching up with the internal trade-offs that fire managers had been thinking through about how they can manage fuel," he said.

"You can't just go into the landscape and start burning it."

Ecological warning signs

Dr Bowman, who literally wrote the book on Australian rainforests, said some recent fires were unheard of.

"I nearly fell off my chair when Binna Burra Lodge got burnt down," he said.

"The fact that multiple versions of these ecosystems right around the country are burning all within the same couple of years, I mean if that isn't telling you something significantly different has happened ...

"This is a really confronting warning light, which is telling us [about] the sheer dryness and the deterioration of the fire season and the extreme bursts of fire weather.

"The way fires are going to move across country is rapidly changing and fits with the scenario that had been painted by climate modellers."

Get used to it and start planning

Being in the new normal presents its challenges.

For starters, under new conditions, surprises pop up — the past is not necessarily an indication of what will happen next.

"It's like a genie taking form before your eyes," Dr Bowman said.

"We're seeing reality coalescing from a whole lot of hypothetical wisps; suddenly there's this thing taking shape before you, and that shape is the shape we have to adapt to."

For example, while the window for prescribed burning had shrunk in recent years, Dr Bradstock said some of his research showed there might be more opportunities for prescribed burning for parts of NSW in the future.

"Part of the reason for that is essentially opportunities may pop up in winter more often," he said.

A positive, if it being so hot that fires can burn over winter can be called a positive.

Dr Bowman said funding needed to be directed towards preventative burning as a priority, as emergency response funding was now.

"We are going to have to see what I hope is a bidding war among all tiers of government to see who can invest into fire management better than the other group."

Society also needed to let go of the idea that there was a correct way of doing anything, he said.

"I really want to reiterate, particularly focusing on the concerns of the younger generation, that this can be a positive and exciting time, that we can do lots of things to make our future better.

"There's opportunity in this to make the world a better place."


© ABC 2019

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