BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT

 
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT
BE PREPARED:
CLIMATE
CHANGE AND
THE AUSTRALIAN
BUSHFIRE
THREAT

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on climate change to the Australian public.

CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE
AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT

                                      Written by Professor Lesley Hughes and
                                      Professor Will Steffen.

                                      Published by the Climate Council of Australia Limited.
                                      ISBN:     978-0-9924142-0-7 (print)
                                                978-0-9924142-1-4 (web)
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                                      Be prepared: Climate Change and the Australian Bushfire
                                      Threat by Professor Lesley Hughes and Professor Will Steffen
                                      (Climate Council).

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BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT
Preface
This is the first major report of the Climate Council, established in
September 2013 to replace the former Climate Commission. The
Climate Council is an independent, non-profit organization, funded
by donations from the public. Our mission is to provide authoritative,
expert information to the Australian public on climate change.

Over the past year, record-breaking         and their impacts. A reference list is
temperatures have been experienced          provided at the end of this report for
across the country. More than 120           those that would like more information.
weather records were broken last
summer, including the hottest summer,       We are very grateful to our team of
the hottest January, and the hottest day.   expert and community reviewers: Prof.
2013 is on track to become Australia’s      David Bowman (University of Tasmania),
warmest year on record. These trends,       Prof. Ross Bradstock (University of
together with below-average rainfall in     Wollongong), Mr Ron Collins, Dr Ryan
many parts of the country including the     Crompton (Risk Frontiers, Macquarie
southeast, indicated that the coming        University), Mrs Jill Dumsday, Mr David
summer fire season was likely to be a       Harper, Dr Fay Johnston (University
serious one. We thus made the decision      of Tasmania), Assoc. Prof. Michelle
in September to focus our first report      Leishman (Macquarie University), and Dr
on bushfires and their link to climate      Peter Smith. We are also grateful for the
change. This decision was, unfortunately,   contribution of Climate Council staff, in
borne out by the events in NSW in early     particular Katherine Hall, in drafting the
October, where intense and uncontrolled     report.
fires raged across parts of the Central
Coast and the Blue Mountains.               The authors retain sole responsibility for
                                            the content of the report.
The October bushfires focused the
world’s attention on Australia, with
many questions being asked in the
community about the link between
these fires and climate change. We have                   Professor Lesley Hughes
aimed to provide an up-to-date and                        Climate Councillor
comprehensive summary of this link. We
have drawn heavily on the peer-reviewed
scientific literature, as well as on
submissions to several recent enquiries                   Professor Will Steffen
and Royal Commissions into bushfires                      Climate Councillor

CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE
AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT

                                      CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT
Contents
Preface
Key messages

Introduction                                                                                                                            1

1. The nature of bushfires in Australia................................................................................. 2
    In Detail 1: Forest fire danger index                                                                                               7

2. Impacts of bushfires.............................................................................................................. 8
    2.1    Human health                                                                                                               11
    2.2    Built environment and infrastructure                                                                                       13
    2.3    Agriculture                                                                                                                16
    2.4    Water                                                                                                                      17
    2.5    Biodiversity                                                                                                               18

3. What is the link between bushfires and climate change?........................................22
    3.1 Ignition                                                                                                                      24
    3.2 Fuel                                                                                                                          25
    3.3 Weather                                                                                                                       26

4. Observations of changing bushfire danger weather in Australia..........................28
    In Detail 2: Prescribing burning as a management tool                                                                             32

5. Has there already been a trend in bushfire activity?..................................................34
    5.1 Global trends                                                                                                                 35
    5.2 Australian trends                                                                                                             37

6. The impacts of fire on the climate system....................................................................38

7. Fire in the future ..................................................................................................................42
    7.1 General and global projections                                                                                                43
    7.2 Projections for Australia                                                                                                     45
    7.3 Implications of increasing fire activity                                                                                      48

8. This is the Critical Decade ................................................................................................50

References                                                                                                                            53

Fire danger rating / Preparing for a bushfire                                                                                         62

CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE
AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT

                Key findings
                1. Climate change is already                    ›› The fire season will continue to
                   increasing the risk of                          lengthen into the future, further
                   bushfires.                                      reducing the opportunities for safe
                                                                   hazard reduction burning.
                   ›› Extreme fire weather has increased
                      over the last 30 years in southeast       ›› One analysis indicated that under
                      Australia.                                   a relatively modest warming
                                                                   scenario, the area of prescribed
                   ›› Hot, dry conditions have a major             burning in the Sydney region
                      influence on bushfires. Climate              would need to increase two- to
                      change is making hot days                    three-fold to counteract the
                      hotter, and heatwaves longer                 increased fire activity. Under a
                      and more frequent. Some parts                more realistic scenario, the amount
                      of Australia are becoming drier.             of hazard reduction will need to
                      These conditions are driving up              increase five-fold.
                      the likelihood of very high fire
                      danger weather, especially in the       3. Recent severe fires have been
                      southwest and southeast.                   influenced by record hot, dry
                                                                 conditions.
                   ›› Australia is a fire prone country and
                      has always experienced bushfires.         ›› Australia has just experienced
                      All extreme weather events are               its hottest 12 months on record.
                      now being influenced by climate              NSW has experienced the hottest
                      change because they are occurring            September on record, days well
                      in a climate system that is hotter           above average in October and
                      and moister than it was 50 years             exceptionally dry conditions. These
                      ago.                                         conditions mean that fire risk has
                                                                   been extremely high and we have
                2. In southeast Australia the fire                 already seen severe bushfires in
                   season is becoming longer,                      NSW in the Central Coast and the
                   reducing the opportunities for                  Blue Mountains.
                   hazard reduction burning.
                                                                ›› The Black Saturday fires in Victoria
                   ›› These changes have been most                 were preceded by a decade-long
                      marked in spring, with fire weather          drought with a string of record
                      extending into October and March.            hot years, coupled with a severe

                                                                          CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT
heatwave in the preceding week.           ›› As fire risk increases, disaster
    The previous record for the Forest           risk reduction and adaptation
    Fire Danger Index was broken by              policies will play a critical role
    such an extent that it was revised           in reducing risks to people and
    and the category “Catastrophic” or           their assets. Increased resources
    “Code Red” was added.                        for our emergency services and
                                                 fire management agencies will be
  ›› Since 2009 there have been a                required.
     number of subsequent declarations
     of Catastrophic conditions around        ›› One estimate of the future
     southern Australia in step with the         economic costs of bushfires
     hotter and drier climate.                   indicates that with no adaptive
                                                 change, increased damage to the
4. In the future, Australia is                   agricultural industry in Victoria
   very likely to experience an                  by 2050 could add $1.4 billion to
   increased number of days                      existing costs.
   with extreme fire danger.
                                              ›› By 2030, it has been estimated
  ›› Fire frequency and intensity is             that the number of professional
     expected to increase substantially          firefighters will need to
     in coming decades, especially               approximately double (compared to
     in those regions currently most             2010) to keep pace with increased
     affected by bushfires, and where            population, asset value, and fire
     a substantial proportion of the             danger weather.
     Australian population lives.
                                           6. This is the critical decade.
5. It is crucial that communities,
   emergency services, health                 ›› Australia must strive to cut
   services and other authorities                emissions rapidly and deeply to
   prepare for the increasing                    join global efforts to stabilise the
   severity and frequency of                     world’s climate and to reduce the
   extreme fire conditions.                      risk of even more extreme events,
                                                 including bushfires.

CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE
AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT

                                      Introduction
                                       Australians have often
                                       experienced the serious
                                       consequences of bushfires.

                                       Over the past decade alone, large and
                                       uncontrollable fires devastated several
                                       suburbs in Canberra (2003), took 173
                                       lives and destroyed over 2,000 homes
                                       in Victoria and Western Australia (2009),
                                       and destroyed over 200 properties in
                                       Tasmania (2013), forcing the evacuation
                                       of hundreds of people from the Tasman
                                       Peninsula.

                                       Together with the recent bushfire crisis
                                       in NSW that destroyed 200 houses, these
                                       events have drawn the world’s attention
                                       to the risks that fires pose for Australia. Of
                                       course Australians have always lived with
                                       fire and its consequences. But climate
                                       change is increasing fire danger weather
                                       and thus the risk of fires.

                                       We begin this report by describing the
                                       background context of fire in Australia.
                                       We then summarise the observed
                                       changes in climate over the past few
                                       decades as they relate to fire. We explore
                                       the impacts of fire on people, property,
                                       water supply, agriculture, biodiversity
                                       and the climate, and how the incidence
                                       of wildfire globally is changing. Finally,
                                       we summarise the latest projections of
                                       fire weather and activity for the future
                                       and outline the implications of these
                                       projections for fire managers, planners
                                       and emergency services.

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1.
THE NATURE
OF BUSHFIRES
IN AUSTRALIA
 Fire has been a feature of the       A fire regime describes a recurrent
  Australian continent for millions     pattern of fire, with the most
  of years.                             important characteristics being
                                        the frequency, intensity, and
 In the temperate forests of the       seasonality of the fire. Significant
  southeast and southwest, fire         changes in any of these features
  activity is strongly determined       can have a very important
  by weather conditions and the         influence on the ecological and
  moisture content of the fuel.         economic impacts.

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BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE
AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT

     The nature of bushfires
     in Australia
                        Fire has been a feature of the                In the southeast and southwest, fires
                        Australian environment for at least           are common in the heathlands and dry
                        65 million years (Cary et al., 2012).         sclerophyll forests, typically occurring
                        Human management of fires also                about every 5 to 30 years, with spring and
                        has a long history, starting with             summer being peak fire season (Clarke
                        fire use by indigenous Australians
                        (“fire-stick farming”) up to 60,000
                        years ago. European settlement
                        brought changes in fire activity
                        with flow-on effects to Australian
                        landscapes.
                                                                      2003                        2008

     “At any time of the
     year it is fire season
     somewhere in
                                                                      2004                        2009

     Australia”
     Sullivan et al.,   Between 3% and 10% of Australia’s land
     2012, p51                                                        2005                        2010
                        area burns every year (Western Australian
                        Land Information Authority, 2013) (Figs.
                        1 and 2). In the north of the continent,
                        extensive areas of the tropical savanna
                        woodlands and grasslands are burnt
                        every winter during the dry season. High
                                                                      2006                        2011
                        rainfall during the summer followed
                        by a dry warm winter, together with
                        the presence of a highly combustible
                        grass layer, creates a very flammable
                        environment. Fire incidence peaks in
                        the late winter dry season, with intensity    2007                        2012
                        increasing as the season progresses. In
                                                                      Figure 1: Fire burnt areas in Australia (2003-2012).
                        areas that receive more than 1000 mm          Fire burnt areas are calculated by remote satellite
                        of rainfall per year, about 35% of the land   sensing, where the smallest fires recorded are 4km2.
                        can be burnt in a typical year (Russell-      (Source: Western Australian Land Information
                                                                      Authority, 2013)
                        Smith et al., 2007).

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                                                                                          THE NATURE OF BUSHFIRES IN AUSTRALIA

                                     Darwin

                                  Tennant Creek
                                                                                      FIRE SEASONS
                                               Mt Isa
                   Port Hedland   Alice Springs                                              Winter and Spring

                                                                                             Spring
                                                                         Brisbane
     Geraldton
                        Kalgoorlie                                                           Spring and Summer
           Perth                                                Sydney
                                                  Adelaide
                                                     Canberra                                Summer
                                                   Melbourne
                                                                                             Summer and Autumn

                                                                Hobart

Figure 2: Bushfire seasons across Australia. (Source: BoM, 2009)

et al., 2011; Bradstock et al., 2012a). Fires                                 and climatic factors. A fire regime
in the southeast are often associated                                         describes a recurrent pattern of fire, with
with periods of El Niño drought (Murphy                                       the most important characteristics being
et al., 2013) and may be extremely                                            the frequency, intensity, and seasonality
intense (El Niño is the phase of the                                          of the fire. Significant changes in any of
El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO)                                           these features can have a very important
phenomenon characterised by warm dry                                          influence on the regime’s ecological and
conditions, while the La Niña phase is                                        economic impacts (Williams et al., 2009)
characterised by cool, wet conditions).                                       (see section 2).
Fires in wet sclerophyll forests, such as
the mountain ash forests in Victoria,                                         Fire is a complex process that is very
are less frequent but can be of very                                          variable in space and time. A fire needs to
high intensity when they do occur (Gill,                                      be started (ignition), it needs something
1975). Fires are rare in rainforests in the                                   to burn (fuel), and it needs conditions
absence of disturbances such as logging                                       that favour its spread (weather and
or cyclones because of the moist shaded                                       topography) (Fig. 4). The most important
local climate (Little et al., 2012). Arid                                     aspects of weather that affect fire and
central Australia experiences intermittent                                    fuels are temperature, precipitation, wind
fires, typically following periods of                                         and humidity. Once a fire is ignited, very
extremely high rainfall associated with La                                    hot days with low humidity and high
Niña events because these events lead to                                      winds are conducive to its spread. The
increased fuel load (Murphy et al., 2013)                                     type, amount, and moisture level of fuel
(Fig. 3).                                                                     available are also critical determinants
                                                                              of fire behaviour, extent and intensity.
The concept of “fire regimes” is important                                    The relationship between rainfall and
for understanding the nature of bushfires                                     fuel is complex. Wet seasons can lead
in Australia, and for assessing changes                                       to increased plant growth and therefore
in fire behaviour caused by both human                                        increase fuel buildup in the months or

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Figure 3: (a) Northern savanna woodlands, such as those in Kakadu National Park, NT, are burnt extensively each dry season. (Photo:
Stephen Swayne) (b) Dry sclerophyll forests, which are found in many areas in southeast Australia, including the Blue Mountains, NSW,
burn approximately every 5 to 30 years. (Photo: Sarah Wuttke) (c) Spinifex grasslands in the arid zone burn rarely but may do so after
exceptionally large rainfall events in the previous season or year and resultant fuel buildup. (Photo: Irwin Reynolds)

             A               years before a fire is ignited (Bradstock              vegetation and thus fuel in most years is
                     B
             C               et al., 2009). Warmer temperatures and                 sparsely distributed and fires, if ignited,
                             low rainfall in the period immediately                 rarely spread far. After heavy rainfall in La
                             preceding an ignition, however, can lead               Niña seasons, however, increased grass
                             to drier vegetation and soil, making the               cover can lead to a surge of fire activity
                             existing fuel more flammable. Warmer                   (Gill et al., 2002; Clarke et al., 2013).
                             temperatures can also be associated
                             with a higher incidence of lightning                   People are an important component of
                             activity (Jayaratne and Kuleshov, 2006),               the fire equation. Many fires are either
                             increasing the risk of ignition.                       deliberately or accidentally lit, and in
                                                                                    places where population density is high,
                             The relative importance of weather and                 the probability of a fire igniting increases
                             fuel varies between different ecosystems               close to roads and settlements (Willis,
                             and regions. During the dry season                     2005; Penman et al., 2013). Some of
                             in northern savannas, for example,                     Australia’s most catastrophic bushfires
                             fire activity is not limited by either the             have been ignited by powerline faults.
                             amount of fuel available or the weather                But people also play an important role
                             in the dry season. In the temperate                    in reducing fire risk, by vegetation
                             forests of the southeast and southwest,                management including prescribed
                             fire activity is strongly determined by                burning to reduce fuel load (see In
                             weather conditions and the moisture                    Detail 2), and targeted fire suppression
                             content of the fuel. As fire weather                   activities. Interventions such as total
                             conditions become more severe, fuel                    fire ban days also play a pivotal role in
                             moisture content declines, making the                  reducing ignitions under dangerous fire
                             fuel more flammable. In arid regions,                  conditions.

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                              THE NATURE OF BUSHFIRES IN AUSTRALIA

                                                 Figure 4. Main factors affecting bushfires

Main factors                                                       3 | People
                                          Fires may be deliberately started
                                          (arson) or be started by accident

affecting                                 (e.g. by powerline fault). Human
                                             activities can also reduce fire,
                                               either by direct suppression

bushfires                                        or by reducing fuel load by
                                                         prescribed burning

1 | Ignition
Fires can be started
by lightning or
people, either
deliberately or
accidentally

2 | Fuel
Fires need fuel of
sufficient quantity &
dryness. A wet year creates
favourable conditions
for vegetation growth. If                                       4 | Weather
this is followed by a dry       Fires are more likely to spread on hot, dry,
season or year, fires are      windy days. Hot weather also dries out fuel,
more likely to spread and               favouring fire spread and intensity
become intense

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    IN DETAIL 1

     Forest Fire Danger Index
     The Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) was              50 are considered to be “severe”—a fire ignited
     developed in the 1960s by CSIRO scientist A.G.       on such a day will likely burn so hot and fast
     MacArthur to measure the degree of risk of           that suppression becomes difficult. For forests, a
     fire in Australian forests (Luke and Macarthur,      rating over 75 is categorised as “Extreme”.
     1978). The Bureau of Meteorology and fire
     management agencies use the FFDI to assess           The FFDI on 7th February 2009 in Victoria,
     fire risk and issue warnings.                        known as “Black Saturday”, ranged from 120 to
                                                          190, the highest FFDI values on record (Karoly,
     The index is calculated in real time by              2009). Following these fires the FFDI in Victoria
     combining a number of meteorological                 was revised and the category “Catastrophic” or
     variables: preceding rainfall and evaporation;       “Code Red” was added (FFDI>100). Consistent
     current wind speed; temperature; and humidity.       with the increasing incidence of hot and
     A related index, the Grassland Fire Danger           dry conditions, there have been a number of
     Index (GFDI), is also used in some regions and       declarations of Catastrophic conditions around
     States, calibrated for more flammable grassland      southern Australia since Black Saturday.
     conditions.
                                                          The FFDI is not only used by management
     The FFDI was originally designed on a scale          agencies to calculate risk, it has also become
     from 0 to 100. MacArthur used the conditions of      an important tool for research. For example,
     the catastrophic Black Friday fires of 1939 to set   the probability of destruction of property in
     the maximum value of 100. These fires burned         the Sydney basin has been found to increase
     5 million hectares and constituted, at the time,     significantly with increasing FFDI (Bradstock
     one of the largest fire events known globally.       and Gill, 2001). The FFDI has also been used
     An index of 12 to 25 describes conditions with a     extensively in projections of fire risk in the
     “high” degree of danger. Days with ratings over      future (see section 7).

                                                                                * In Tasmania, the “Catastrophic”
                                           Forest Fire     Grassland Fire       category is indicated by the
     Category                                                                   colour black
                                           Danger Index    Danger Index
                                                                                (Sources: CFA, 2009, Bureau
     CATASTROPHIC (CODE RED)*                   100 +           150 +           of Meteorology http://www.
                                                                                bom.gov.au/weather-services/
     EXTREME                                   75–99           100–149          bushfire/)

     SEVERE                                    50–74            50–99

     VERY HIGH                                 25–49            25–49

     HIGH                                      12–24            12–24

     LOW TO MODERATE                            0–11             0–11

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2.
IMPACTS OF
BUSHFIRES
 Bushfires can have severe impacts on health, property,
  water, agriculture, livelihoods and biodiversity.

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     Impacts of bushfires
                Bushfires have a very wide range             30 June 2013 the insured losses due to
                of human and environmental                   bushfires in Australia totaled $1.6 billion.
                impacts, including loss of                   This translates to an average annual loss
                life and severe health effects;              of approximately $160 million over the
                damage to property; devastation              period1.
                of communities; and effects on
                water, air quality, agriculture, and         These estimates of economic losses,
                natural ecosystems (Stephenson,              however, do not account for the
                2010).                                       full range of costs associated with
                                                             bushfires—few attempts have been
                The risks to people are especially           made to account for loss of life, social
                acute in southern Australia, where           disruption and trauma, opportunity costs
                large populations live close to highly       for volunteer fire fighters, fixed costs for
                flammable native vegetation that             bushfire fighting services, government
                is exposed to frequent severe fire           contributions for rebuilding and
                weather. Many of the largest bushfires       compensation, impacts on health, and
                that have caused high mortalities and        ecosystem services (King et al., 2013b).
                extensive property losses have triggered
                parliamentary and coronial enquiries,
                court cases and Royal Commissions.
                Several of the fire management agencies
                and activities initiated after the 1939
                “Black Friday” fires in Victoria and New
                South Wales remain in force today (King
                et al., 2013b).

                The economic cost of bushfires—
                including loss of life, livelihoods,
                property damage, and emergency
                services responses—is very high (Table
                1). During the 47-year period from 1
                July 1966 to 30 June 2013 the insured
                loss due to Australian bushfire totaled
                $5.6 billion in year 2011/12 values. This
                translates to an average annual loss of
                approximately $120 million over the
                period and represents about 10% of the        These estimates are based on data from the
                                                             1.

                insured loss of all natural disasters, and   Insurance Council of Australia (ICA 2013), and are
                                                             normalised for 2011/12 values to account for trends
                11% of the insured loss of weather-related   in inflation and property values. (Crompton 2011, R.
                natural disasters. In the decade up to       Crompton personal communication)

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                                                                                                     IMPACTS OF BUSHFIRES
RECORDED LOSSES FROM MAJOR BUSHFIRE
EVENTS IN AUSTRALIA SINCE 1939

 FIRE EVENT           LOSSES (direct                LOSSES (including                         SIGNIFICANT INSURED
                      deaths due to fire)1          residential property, stock)              LOSSES (normalised to
                                                                                              2011 values)2
 Black Friday,
                                  71                        1000+ homes                                       N/A
 January 1939,
                      (AIC 2004, Reuters 2009)              (ABS 2004, AIC 2004)
 Victoria

                                                         1300-1400 homes
 Hobart,                                              (McAneney et al., 2009; TBI 2013)
                                  62                                                                  $610 million
 February 1967,
                      (Reuters 2009, TBI 2013)                                                            (ICA 2013)
 Tasmania                                                    62,000 stock
                                                                  (TBI 2013)

                                                           > 2,300 homes
 Ash                                                 (Ramsay et al., 1996; AIC 2004;
                                                    McAneney et al., 2009; Stephenson
 Wednesday,                       75                          et al., 2013)                          $1.796 billion
 February 1983,       (AIC 2004; Reuters 2009,
                                                                                                          (ICA 2013)
                       Stephenson et al., 2013)
 Victoria and South                                        >200,000 stock
 Australia
                                                     (Ramsay et al. 1996; AIC 2004, CFA
                                                       2012; Stephenson, et al., 2013)

                                   4                         > 200 homes
 Sydney, NSW,         (Ramsay et al., 1996, ABS                                                       $215 million
                                                     (Ramsay et al., 1996; NSW Ministry
                       2001, NSW Ministry for
 January 1994                                         for Police & Emergency Services                     (ICA 2013)
                        Police & Emergency
                                                                     2007)
                           Services 2007)

                        4 in Canberra
                             (McLeod 2003);
                                                          >500 properties
                                                      (McLeod 2003; McAneney et al.,
 Canberra and
 alpine fires,
                             1 in alpine              2009) including the Mt Stromlo
                                                                                                     $660 million
                                                      Observatory (Pitman et al., 2007)
                      (Stephenson et al., 2013)                                                           (ICA 2013)
 2003
                         Major injuries: 52;                >17,000 stock
                         Minor injuries: 338              (Stephenson et al., 2013)
                      (Stephenson et al., 2013)

                                 173                        >2000 houses
 Black                   (Teague et al., 2010,       (CFA 2012; Stephenson et al., 2013)
 Saturday,             Stephenson et al., 2013)                                                      $1.266 billion
 February 2009,          Major injuries: 130            8000-11,800 stock                                 (ICA 2013)
 Victoria                Minor injuries: 670         (Teague et al., 2010; (Stephenson et
                      (Stephenson et al., 2013)                    al., 2013)

                                                              203 homes
 Tasmania,                                                        (TBI 2013)
                                   0
                                                                                                      $89 million
                                                                                                  in 2013 values (ICA 2013)
 Jan 2013                                                    10,000 stock
                                                                  (TBI 2013)

 Blue                                                                                                 $183 million
 Mountains,                        0
                                                           208 properties
                                                                                                 as of 19.11.13, in 2013 values
                                                                (Whyte 2013)
 October 2013                                                                                              (ICA 2013)

Table 1. Recorded losses            Only deaths attributed directly to fires are included, but it should be noted that other deaths
                                   1.

from major bushfire events         associated indirectly with fires have occurred (eg. deaths indirectly associated with NSW Blue
in Australia since 1939            Mountains fires in 2013 include one due to heart attack, and another due to a plane crash).
                                    Insured losses shown have been normalised to 2011 values (taking inflation, and wealth
                                   2.

                                   changes into account) except for 2013 fires (Tasmania and NSW).

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     2.1 Human health
                Fires pose a significant risk to                front, exposing large populations to
                human life and health (Johnston,                its impacts (Spracklen et al., 2009;
                2009). In Australia, bushfires have             Dennekamp and Abramson, 2011;
                accounted for more than 800                     Bernstein and Rice, 2013). Each year,
                deaths since 1850 (Cameron et al.,              smoke from wildfires causes the
                2009; King et al., 2013b).                      deaths of over 300,000 people globally
                                                                (Johnston et al., 2012), with the largest
                The majority of fatalities have occurred        proportion occurring in Africa and
                in Victoria, followed by NSW and                southeast Asia.
                Tasmania (Haynes et al., 2010). The Black
                Saturday bushfires in Victoria in February      Smoke from bushfires has measurable
                2009 alone accounted for 173 deaths,            impacts on human health in several of
                ranking as one of the world’s ten most          Australia’s major cities. For example,
                deadly recorded bushfires (Teague et            smoke from bushfires in the Blue
                al., 2010). A large portion of the fatalities   Mountains regularly affects Sydney’s air
                (44%) were children younger than 12             quality. Days with severe pollution from
                years old, people over 70 years and those       bushfires around Sydney are associated
                with either chronic or acute disabilities       with increases in all-cause mortality of
                (O’Neill and Handmer, 2012).                    around 5% (Johnston et al., 2011). Similar
                                                                research in Melbourne found that cardiac
                                                                arrests outside hospitals increased by
     “…each year, smoke                                         almost 50% on bushfire smoke-affected
                                                                days (Dennekamp et al., 2011).
     from bushfires and
                                                                The impacts of air pollution in the
     forest fires cause                                         community are uneven. The elderly,
                                                                infants, and those with chronic heart
     over 300,000 deaths                                        or lung diseases are at higher risk
                                                                (Morgan et al., 2010). People with asthma
     globally”                                                  can be harmed by smoke pollution at
                                                                concentrations that are well tolerated by
                Smoke from both planned and                     fit and healthy adults (Johnston et al.,
                unplanned fires can have serious                2006), and hospital admissions of people
                impacts on health. Smoke contains               with existing lung conditions such as
                not only respiratory irritants, but also        chronic obstructive lung disease and
                inflammatory and cancer-causing                 asthma rise disproportionately during
                chemicals (Bernstein and Rice, 2013).           bushfire smoke episodes (Henderson
                Smoke can be transported in the                 and Johnston, 2012). Increases in
                atmosphere for hundreds or even                 hospital admissions for asthma and other
                thousands of kilometres from the fire           respiratory diseases in Australian cities,

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02
                                                                                              IMPACTS OF BUSHFIRES

Figure 5: Smoke over Bondi beach, Sydney. “Smoke days” are associated with higher hospital admissions and mortality.
(Photo: Andrew Quilty)

including Sydney, Brisbane and Darwin,               Sim, 2002; Whittaker et al., 2012). A study
have occurred on days where high levels              of over 1500 people who experienced
of smoke from bushfires have been                    losses in the 1983 Ash Wednesday
experienced (Chen et al., 2006; Johnston             bushfires found that after 12 months, 42%
et al., 2007, 2011; Martin et al., 2013) (Fig.       were suffering a decline in mental health
5). From 1994-2007, asthma admissions                (“psychiatric morbidity”) (McFarlane et al.,
in Sydney hospitals, for example, were               1997). These problems can be especially
reported to rise by 12% on days of “smoke            acute amongst those who have lost
events” compared to non-smoke days                   loved ones, property and/or livelihoods,
(Martin et al., 2013).                               and may be exacerbated by pre-existing
                                                     stresses caused by droughts and
The trauma and stress of experiencing                associated financial hardship, especially
a bushfire can also increase depression,             in rural communities (Whittaker et al.,
anxiety, and other mental health issues,             2012). Post-traumatic stress can also be
both in the immediate aftermath of                   manifest among firefighters, sometimes
the trauma and for months or years                   only becoming evident many months
afterwards (McFarlane and Raphael, 1984;             after an extreme event (McFarlane, 1988).

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     2.2 Built environment
     and infrastructure
                An analysis of building damage              of less than 100 metres from bushland
                from 1925-2009 shows that on                (Chen and McAneney 2010). In the
                average, the equivalent of around           Blue Mountains, NSW, approximately
                300 houses per year (in 2008/09             38,000 homes are within 200 metres of
                values) were lost due to bushfires          bushland, and 30,000 within 100 metres;
                (Crompton et al., 2010).                    many homes back directly onto bushland
                                                            (McAneney 2013).
                Many Australians, including those
                in communities in outer Melbourne,          A significant portion of properties
                Hobart, and Sydney, enjoy living close      lost in bushfires are either uninsured
                to, or on the fringes of, bushland, and     or underinsured. An analysis by the
                this proximity is an important factor       Insurance Council of Australia published
                in increased bushfire vulnerability         in 2007 indicated that approximately
                (Chen and McAneney, 2010; O’Neill and       23% of Australian households did not
                Handmer, 2012; Price and Bradstock,         have a building or contents insurance
                2013) (Fig. 6). For example, many of        policy (Tooth and Barker, 2007). The
                                                            report also found that households with
                                                            more limited financial reserves were
     “Living close to                                       less likely to have an insurance policy.
                                                            CGU Insurance has estimated that the
     bushland increases                                     average level of deficiency in value of
                                                            Business Interruption coverage is 84%
     risk to life and property                              (EB Economics, 2013). Approximately 13%
                                                            of properties lost in the Black Saturday
     from bushfires”                                        fires were uninsured (Teague et al., 2010),
                                                            and between 27% and 81% of households
                the homes destroyed in Marysville and       affected by the 2003 Canberra fires were
                Kinglake, two communities devastated        either uninsured or underinsured (by
                by the 2009 Victorian bushfires, were       an average of 40% of replacement value)
                either surrounded by or located less        (ASIC, 2005). The lack of insurance is a
                than 10 metres from bushland (Chen          particular issue in rural communities,
                and McAneney 2010; Crompton et              where underinsurance of livelihood-
                al. 2010). In fact, the vast majority of    associated assets such as livestock,
                buildings affected by major bushfires in    farm buildings and fences is common
                Australia have been located at a distance   (Whittaker et al., 2012).

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                                                                                                  IMPACTS OF BUSHFIRES

Figure 6: Many homes and communities in Australia are situated in close proximity to flammable bushland, increasing their vulnerability
to bushfires. (a) Blue Mountains, NSW. (Source: Google Maps, 2013. Springwood, NSW) (b) Destruction in Winmalee, NSW, caused by the
October 2013 Blue Mountain fires. (Photo: AAP) (c) Shops in Marysville, VIC after the Black Saturday bushfires (Photo: Paul Watkins) and
(d) remains of the old service station at Kinglake, VIC, after the Black Saturday bushfires. (Photo: Stephen Kinna photography)

  A       C

 B       D

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                Infrastructure such as powerlines and        warning systems and services, and
                roads can also be damaged in bushfires.      to tailor their bushfire preparations
                In the 2003 alpine fires in Victoria, for    and responses accordingly. It must be
                example, about 4500 km of roads were         emphasised, however, that emergency
                damaged and local businesses reported a      services have limited capacity to reduce
                50-100% economic downturn in the fire        losses in catastrophic fires such as
                aftermath (Stephenson, 2010).                those that occurred on Black Saturday
                                                             (Crompton et al., 2011).
                Several studies have examined the
                question of whether risks of property loss   Bushfires also affect livelihoods in a
                in bushfires in Australia have changed       diverse range of industries, including
                over time. An analysis of insured            farming (section 2.3), small business,
                property losses from 1900 to 2003 found      and tourism (Stephenson, 2010; EB
                no significant change in the annual          Economics, 2013). As noted above,
                probability of building destruction from     however, many of the more intangible
                bushfires once inflation, changes in         costs of bushfires are difficult, if not
                population, and changes in wealth were       impossible, to estimate.
                taken into account (McAneney et al.,
                2009). A further analysis that included
                data from 1925 to 2009 (i.e. including
                the Black Saturday losses) similarly
                showed no statistically significant trend
                (Crompton et al., 2010, 2011).

                These analyses could not, however, take
                into account several other factors that
                may have reduced vulnerability over
                the period (Nicholls, 2011, see also reply
                from Crompton et al., 2011). Significant
                improvements have been made in the
                management of emergency services, and
                the ability of these services to respond
                effectively to bushfires (Handmer et
                al., 2012; Senate Environment and
                Communications Committee, 2013).
                Weather forecasting has also improved
                in the past few decades, enabling
                emergency services to access more
                reliable information, to create weather

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                                                                                                  IMPACTS OF BUSHFIRES

2.3 Agriculture

Figure 7: Livestock that survive bushfires may face starvation or attack from predators. (Photo: Jason Lam)

Uncontrolled bushfires can cause                       A study by Keating and Handmer
significant losses in farming areas.                   (2013) provides one of the few full
                                                       economic assessments of bushfire
Livestock losses were estimated at 13,000              impacts on primary industry. This study
in the 2003 alpine fires in Victoria, 65,000           conservatively estimated that bushfires
in the 2005-6 Grampians fire, and more                 directly cost the Victorian agricultural
than 11,000 in the Black Saturday fires                industry around $42 million per year.
(Stephenson, 2010, Teague et al., 2010).               When business disruption was included
Stock that survive direct effects of the fire          more broadly, the costs to the entire
can face starvation in the post-fire period            Victorian economy from this impact
(Fig. 7), as well as threats from predators            were estimated to be $92 million per year.
due to loss of fences—over 8000 km of                  A similar analysis for the Victorian timber
fences were lost in the Black Saturday                 industry estimated direct costs at $74
fires (Stephenson, 2010). Smoke damage                 million per year, and state-wide costs at
can also taint fruit and vegetable crops,              $185 million (Keating and Handmer 2013).
with wine grapes particularly susceptible
(Stephenson, 2010).

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     2.4 Water
                Fire can affect the quality and                        replaced (Langford 1976, Feikema et al.,
                quantity of water in catchments,                       2013). Seven years after the 2003 fires in
                both immediately following the                         the mountain ash forests of Victoria, for
                event and for many years after                         example, the regrowth was still using
                (Fig. 8).                                              twice the water of adjacent mature forest
                                                                       (Buckley et al., 2012). This pattern, known
                Large-scale high intensity fires that                  as the “Kuczera effect”, can last for several
                remove vegetation expose topsoils                      decades after a fire, with water yields
                to erosion and increased runoff after                  from forested catchments being reduced
                subsequent rainfall (Shakesby et al.,                  by up to 50% (Kuczera, 1985; Brookhouse
                2007). This can increase sediment                      et al., 2013).
                and nutrient concentrations in nearby
                waterways, potentially making water                    Fires can also effect water infrastructure.
                supplies unfit for human consumption                   Fires in the Sydney region in 2002,
                (Smith et al., 2011). Following the 2003               for example, affected the Woronora
                Canberra fires, for example, there was                 pumping station and water filtration
                severe disruption to supplies of drinking              plants, resulting in a community alert
                water from reservoirs within the Cotter                to boil drinking water (WRF, 2013).
                River catchment (White et al., 2006).                  Significant costs can be associated with
                                                                       these disruptions. The Black Saturday
                Fire also has longer-term affects on water             bushfires in 2009 affected about 30% of
                flow in forested catchments. Immediately               the catchments that supply Melbourne’s
                after the fire there may be an increase in             drinking water. Melbourne Water
                water flow. But as the forests regenerate,             estimated the post-fire recovery costs,
                the new growth usually uses more                       including water-monitoring programs,
                water than the mature trees they have                  to be over $2 billion (WRF, 2013).

                Figure 8: The lower Cotter catchment area was burnt extensively in the 2003 ACT fires, affecting the
                availability of clean drinking water for Canberra. (Photo: Micheal Schultz)

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                                                                                                  IMPACTS OF BUSHFIRES

2.5 Biodiversity
Fire is a regular occurrence in                        Even within a single fire, some parts
many Australian ecosystems,                            of the landscape will be burnt more
and many species have evolved                          intensely than others, creating a mosaic
strategies over millions of years                      of impacts (Bradstock, 2008). The
to not only withstand fire, but to                     complexity of the interactions between
benefit from it (Crisp et al., 2011,                   different species and aspects of fire
Bowman et al., 2012).                                  regimes means that there is no “optimal”
                                                       fire regime that conserves all biodiversity
Fire does not “destroy” bushland, as is                in a landscape. This is a particular
often reported; rather, it acts as a major             challenge for fire managers (see In Detail
disturbance with a range of complex                    2 on Prescribed burning).
impacts on different species and
communities.                                           Some plant species in fire-prone
                                                       environments are capable of resprouting
Nevertheless, particular fire regimes                  from buds in their trunks, or from
(especially specific combinations of fire              underground woody structures called
frequency and intensity) can favour                    lignotubers, even after very intense fire                 A    B    C
some species and disadvantage others.                  (Fig. 9). Many plant species, especially

Figure 9: Australian plant species display many different strategies to cope with fire. (a) Many plant species have seeds with hard seed
coats that crack in the high heat of fires, letting in water and beginning the germination process. (Photo: Ron Oldfield) (b) Epicormic
buds on tree trunks resprouting after a fire. (Photo: Lesley Hughes) (c) Stems sprouting from woody lignotubers. (Photo: Lesley Hughes)

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Figure 10: Arboreal (tree-dwelling) mammals are particularly vulnerable in bushfires. (a) The Black Saturday 2009 bushfires devastated
communities of the already endangered Leadbeater’s possum. (Photo: D. Harley) (b) Koala. (Photo: Jemma Cripps) (c) Brushtail possum.
(Photo: Mark Jekabsons)

                             those in eucalypt forests, have adults that            Invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians and
             A     B   C     are killed by fire but produce hard seeds              birds tend to be more resilient to fire
                             that need fire to germinate or be released.            impacts. On the other hand, birds with
                             These ‘obligate seeder’ plants require                 poor flight capacity and tree-dwelling
                             sufficient time between successive                     mammals can be particularly vulnerable
                             fires to become reproductively mature                  (Bradstock, 2008) (Fig. 10).
                             (Whelan et al., 2002). If fires are too
                             frequent, species can become vulnerable                Fire regimes are such important drivers
                             to local extinction as the supply of seeds             of ecosystems that changes in their
                             in the soil declines. Conversely, if the               frequency or intensity can shift an
                             interval between fires is too long, plant              ecosystem from one state to another—
                             species that rely on fire for reproduction             sometimes called a “tipping point”.
                             may be eliminated from an ecological                   As one example, successive fires at
                             community.                                             short intervals can drive vegetation
                                                                                    from one type to another because
                             Animals that are restricted to localised               previously dominant plants do not
                             habitats, cannot move quickly, and/or                  have time to mature and set seed,
                             reproduce slowly, may be at risk from                  thus becoming locally scarce or even
                             intense large-scale fires that occur                   eliminated. In the moist mountainous
                             at short intervals (Yates et al., 2008).               areas of the southeast, dense forests

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                                                                                       IMPACTS OF BUSHFIRES

could be converted into open woodlands
if the interval between severe fires is
reduced due to a hotter and drier climate
(Williams et al., 2009). Another example
may be found in northern savannas
where particular fire regimes, combined
with establishment of invasive plant
species (see below), can trigger shifts
from vegetation dominated by trees to
one dominated by grasses (Rossiter et al.,
2003, Yates et al., 2008) (Fig. 11).

Ecosystems in which the natural fire
interval is very long (>100 years) can
undergo substantial change if the fire
frequency increases. After successive
fires in 2003 and 2006/7 in Victoria,
Acacia shrublands have replaced
some mountain and alpine ash forests
because there was insufficient time
between fires for the ash trees to become
reproductively mature (Lindenmayer
et al., 2011; Bowman et al., 2013b). This
change in vegetation has important
flow-on effects for other species,
especially the ~40 vertebrate species that
rely on the hollows of 120-150 year old
mountain ash trees for habitat, such as
the Leadbeater’s possum (Fig. 10a).

Changing fire regimes, due to a
constellation of factors including climate    Figure 11: Changes in fire regimes can shift vegetation from one type to another.
                                              For example, savannas in the Northern Territory can shift between vegetation
change, are already affecting ecosystems in   dominated by trees (a) to one dominated by grasses (b). (Photos: Stephen Swayne)
many parts of the world (see section 5) and
will continue to do so. Indeed, changed
fire regimes, driven by climatic changes,     the Greater Yellowstone Region of the
may have greater impacts on some species      eastern United States. This region has been
                                                                                                           A
and ecosystems in the future than the         dominated by conifer species for over
direct impacts of warming and rainfall        11,000 years. Projected increases in fire
change (Battlori et al., 2013; Bowman         frequency due to the changing climate
                                                                                                           B
et al., 2013c). Some of the world’s most      could shift the vegetation substantially
iconic ecosystems could change beyond         to either woodlands or “non-forest”
all recognition within a few decades.         vegetation by the middle of the century
One such example is the landscape of          (Westerling et al., 2011b).

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                                                                                       To complicate matters even further,
                                                                                       changing fire regimes will interact
                                                                                       with other pressures on ecosystems.
                                                                                       One of the most important of these
                                                                                       interactions is how fire and climate
                                                                                       change will affect the impacts of invasive
                                                                                       species, and vice versa. For example,
                                                                                       the introduced African species gamba
                                                                                       grass (Andropogon gayanus) has now
                                                                                       colonised substantial areas in the Top
                                                                                       End (Fig. 12). This grass grows extremely
                                                                                       quickly, up to 4 metres in height in
                                                                                       a single year, providing enormous
                                                                                       quantities of highly flammable fuel in the
                                                                                       dry season (up to 30 tonnes per ha). Fire
Figure 12: Gamba grass is an invasive grass from Africa that has colonised large       intensity in gamba-invaded areas can
areas in the Top End. It grows very rapidly, up to four metres in height in a single
                                                                                       be 16 times that of native grassland, and
year, providing enormous amounts of flammable material that significantly
increases fire risk and intensity. (a) (Photo: Russell Cumming) (b) (Photo: Invasive   increase the number of days of severe
Species Council)                                                                       fire risk by at least six times (Setterfield
                                                                                       et al., 2013). The way in which climate
                   A                                                                   change and invasive species like this will
                                                                                       affect future fire regimes is an active area
               B                                                                       of research.

      Page 21                                                                                        CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
3.
WHAT IS THE
LINK BETWEEN
BUSHFIRES
AND CLIMATE
CHANGE?
 The most direct link between        Changes in temperature and
  bushfires and climate change         rainfall may also affect the
  comes from the long-term             amount and condition of fuel
  trend towards a hotter climate.      and the probability of lightning
  Climate change is increasing         strikes.
  the frequency and severity of
  very hot days and driving up
  the likelihood of very high fire
  danger weather.

                                                                          Page 22
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                                          As outlined in Section 1, a fire needs to be started (ignition), it needs
                                          something to burn (fuel) and it needs conditions that are conducive to
                                          its spread (weather). Climate change can affect all of these factors in
                                          both straightforward and more complex ways (Fig. 13).

                           Fire
                           activity
       Decrease Increase

                           Ignitions Fuel Load                                             Fuel Condition                        Weather
                           Increased    Increased    Increased     Increased   Decreased   Increased     Increased   Decreased   Temperature
                           incidence    atmos-       temperature   rainfall    rainfall    temperature   rainfall    rainfall    increase, more
                           of lightning pheric CO2                                                                               extreme hot
                           as climate                                                                                            days
                           warms

Figure 13: Potential impacts of atmospheric and climatic change on factors that affect fire. Increased temperatures may increase the
incidence of lightning and thus increase the probability of ignitions. Increased temperatures may either increase or decrease vegetation
productivity, depending on the region. Changes in rainfall may also have complex impacts via changes in fuel load and fuel condition.
Increases in extreme hot days will increase the probability that fires, once started, will spread and become more intense.

     Page 23                                                                                                 CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
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                                     WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN BUSHFIRES AND CLIMATE CHANGE?

3.1 Ignition
The role of climate change in                         and Adams, 2011). Similarly, lightning
ignition is likely to be relatively                   accounts for ~27% of the ignitions in
small compared to the fuel                            the Sydney region (Bradstock, 2008).
and weather, but may still be                         The incidence of lightning is sensitive
significant.                                          to weather conditions, including
                                                      temperature (Jayaratne and Kuleshov
The majority of fires are started by                  2006). It has been estimated that a 5-6%
humans (Willis, 2005; Bradstock, 2010),               increase in global lightning activity could
although lightning is responsible for                 occur for every 1°C warming (Price and
some ignitions. Lightning accounts                    Rind, 1994). Analysis of a 16-year dataset
for about 25% of ignitions in Victoria,               (1995-2010) for continental USA shows
but these fires account for ~50% of area              significantly increased lightning activity
burnt each year because they often burn               in some regions over the period (Villarini
uncontrolled in remote areas (Attiwill                and Smith, 2013).

Figure 14: The incidence of lightning may increase in a warmer climate and increase ignitions. (Photo: Louise Denton)

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     3.2 Fuel
                      The potential impacts of climate               Conversely, periods of drought and
                      change on fuel are complex                     excessively high temperatures can
                      (Fig. 13) and it is not possible               stunt vegetation growth, reducing fuel
                      to determine how—or in what                    load. The increasing concentration
                      direction—a changing climate will              of carbon dioxide in the air can
                      affect the amount and condition                also stimulate vegetation growth by
                      of the fuel in a particular region.            promoting photosynthesis (the “CO2
                                                                     fertilisation effect”) (Hovenden and
                      The amount of fuel (fuel load) is affected     Williams 2010), as well as potentially
                      by vegetation growth and decomposition         increasing flammability of plants and
                      (see also section 1). These processes          affecting resprouting ability (Hoffmann
                      are in turn influenced by several              et al., 2000). Rising CO2 may also
                      atmospheric and climate-related factors        alter the relative competitiveness of
                      (Williams et al., 2009; Bradstock, 2010;       woody species over grasses, changing
                      Cary et al., 2012). Periods of high rainfall   vegetation structure in ways that
                      can spur growth in ecosystems that are         influence fire behavior (Hovenden and
                      water-limited, which is the case for much      Williams 2010).
                      of Australia. Rising temperatures may
                      also increase growth in vegetation in          Weather also affects the condition of the
                      some regions, such as the mountainous          fuel. Lack of rainfall can dry out the soil
                      forests of the southeast and Tasmania.         and vegetation, making the fuel more
                      Low rainfall can reduce decomposition,         combustible, whereas periods of wet, cool
                      resulting in faster build up of fuel loads.    weather make it less prone to burning.

     “Bushfire threat is typically associated
     with high temperatures, low humidity,
     strong winds and high fuel load.
     Bushfires become catastrophic when all
     these things occur in combination”
     Bureau of Meteorology submission to Senate Enquiry into
     Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events

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                               WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN BUSHFIRES AND CLIMATE CHANGE?

3.3 Weather
“Climate change is increasing the
frequency and severity of very hot days
and driving up the likelihood of very high
fire danger weather”
In many regions local weather                preceded by a decade-long drought with
conditions are the most important            a string of record hot years, coupled with
influence on fire activity (Fig. 13).        a severe heatwave in the preceding week.
                                             The weather conditions on February 7th
Very hot, dry and windy days create very     broke temperature and humidity records,
high bushfire risk (see In Detail 1 Forest   with the FFDI ranging from 120 to 190,
Fire Danger Index). The most direct link     the highest values ever recorded (Karoly
between bushfires and climate change         2009) (In Detail 1).
therefore comes from the relationship
between the long-term trend towards
a warmer climate (see section 4) due to      “There is a clear
increasing greenhouse gas emissions—
that is, the increasing amount of heat in    observed association
the atmosphere—and the incidence of
very hot days. Put simply, climate change    between extreme
is increasing the frequency and severity
of very hot days (IPCC, 2012; 2013), and     heat and catastrophic
driving up the likelihood of very high
fire danger weather. Any future changes      bushfires”
in surface wind direction and strength
                                             Submission by the Australian Academy of Sciences to the Senate Enquiry
will also be important, but unfortunately
                                             into Recent trends in and preparedness for extreme weather events
there are few reliable data or modeling
projections available as yet.
                                             The recent fires in NSW were preceded
The Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 and     by the warmest September on record
the recent fires in the Blue Mountains       for that state, the warmest 12 months on
of NSW illustrate the role of weather        record for Australia (Fig. 15), and below
conditions in affecting fire severity. In    average rainfall in forested areas, leading
the case of Black Saturday, the fires were   to dry fuels (Bushfire CRC, 2013).

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                                                                                  TEMPERATURE
                                                                                  DECILE RANGES
                                                                                             Highest on record
             A                                                                               Very much
                                                                                 10
                                                                                             above average
                                                                               8–9           Above average
                                                                               4–7           Average

                                                                               2–3           Below average
                                                                                             Very much
                                                                                  1          below average
                                                                                             Lowest on record

                                                                                  RAINFALL
                                                                                  PERCENTILE
             B                                                                    RANKING
                                                                                  10
                                                                                             Serious deficiency
                                                                                      5
                                                                                             Severe deficiency
                                                                                             Lowest on record

                 Figure 15: (a) Average temperature deciles and (b) rainfall deficiencies for the three months from 1 August
                 to 31 October 2013. Mean temperature deciles represent 10 categories of average temperature across
                 a range above and below the long-term average. Rainfall deficiency, or drought, is measured as areas
                 when rainfall is in the lowest 10% or 5% of records for three months or more. High temperatures and dry
                 vegetation and soil increase the bushfire risk. (Sources: Redrawn from BoM, 2013a and 2013b)

                 The relative influence of weather factors               and resultant increased fuel loads (Harris
                 versus fuel factors on fire regimes                     et al., 2008).
                 varies between different vegetation
                 types and different regions. In the                     In other regions and vegetation types,
                 northern savannas and the arid zone,                    such as the dry sclerophyll woodlands and
                 fire activity is mainly limited by fuel                 forests of the southeast and southwest,
                 dryness (Bradstock, 2010; King et al.,                  fire activity is strongly associated with
                 2013a, Murphy et al., 2013). Any future                 weather, although fuel dryness remains
                 changes in fire activity will therefore be              important (Price and Bradstock, 2011).
                 largely determined by changes in rainfall.              It is in these ecosystems that rising
                 Rainy years—such as those associated                    temperatures may have the most
                 with strong La Niña periods—can result                  influence in the future (see section 7).
                 in enhanced fire danger in the following                Further, it is in these areas where the
                 year(s) due to enhanced plant growth                    majority of the Australian population lives.

 Page 27                                                                                  CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
4.
OBSERVATIONS
OF CHANGING
BUSHFIRE
DANGER
WEATHER IN
AUSTRALIA
 All extreme weather events         Parts of southeast Australia
  are now being influenced by         have already experienced a
  climate change because they are     significant increase in extreme
  occurring in a climate system       fire weather since the 1970s.
  that is warmer and moister than
  it was 50 years ago.               The fire season has lengthened
                                      across southern Australia,
 While hot weather has always        with fire weather extending
  been common in Australia,           into October and March. The
  it has become more severe           lengthening fire season means
  over the past few decades.          that opportunities for fuel
  The annual number of record         reduction burning are reducing.
  hot days across Australia has
  doubled since 1960.

                                                                        Page 28
BE PREPARED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE
AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRE THREAT

     Observations of changing
     bushfire danger weather
     in Australia
                       Climate change is already                   risen by 0.9°C since 1910, with most
                       increasing the intensity and                of that rise occurring in the post-1950
                       frequency of some extreme events            period (CSIRO and BoM, 2012). This
                       such as very hot days, heavy                is consistent with the increase in hot
                       rainfall, droughts and floods.              weather globally. A small increase
                                                                   in average temperature can have a
                       The strength of trends and the              disproportionately large effect on the
                       confidence in their attribution, however,   number of hot days and record hot days
                       varies between regions and between          (Fig. 16). When the average temperature
                       different types of event (IPCC, 2012;       increases, the hot and cold extremes shift
                       2013). All extreme weather events are       too. There is a greater likelihood of very
                       now being influenced, to some degree,       hot weather and a much lower likelihood
                       by climate change because they are          of very cold weather.
                       occurring in a climate system that is
                       hotter and moister than it was 50 years     The annual number of record hot days
                       ago (Trenberth, 2012).                      across Australia has doubled since 1960
                                                                   and the number of record cold days has
                       While hot weather has always been           decreased (CSIRO and BoM, 2012; Fig.
                       common in Australia, it has become          17). In fact, the frequency of record hot
                       more severe over the past few decades.      days has been more than three times the
                       Australia’s average air temperature has     frequency of record cold days during

     “All extreme weather events are now
     being influenced by climate change
     because they are occurring in a climate
     system that is warmer and moister than it
     was 50 years ago”
     Trenberth, 2012

 Page 29                                                                        CLIMATECOUNCIL.ORG.AU
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