One of the country’s leading bushfire experts warns Australia needs to prepare for the threat of year-round bushfires.
Drought is crippling New South Wales and large parts of Queensland, setting the stage for a bad fire season in Australia with blazes already burning large tracts of land in recent weeks.
Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre CEO Richard Thornton said with the devastating drought expected to continue, Australia was heading into uncharted territory for bushfire threat.
“We need to think about being prepared all year round for fires — rather than wait for the fire season to be declared, people need to be prepared for a fire at any time of the year,” Dr Thornton said.
There are currently two fire seasons in Australia, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
The dry summer months are the danger time for southern Australia, while winter is the risky time for northern Australia.
But Dr Thornton said he believed the future would look very different.
“Any day in an environment where it is dry, where you have high winds, warmer temperatures, low humidity, will be a day that a fire can start that could potentially impact on communities,” he said.
“There is evidence from around the world that fire seasons are starting earlier and finishing later and we are also seeing the potential overlap of fire seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres.”
Bushfire danger period brought forward in NSW
NSW fire authorities this year brought forward by two months their official bushfire danger period for a wide area of the state.
Dr Thornton said it was also time for Australians to consider where they lived and what sort of houses they were living in to protect themselves from future bushfire threat.
“We must question whether building in some areas is wise,” he said.
“It may be best not to build in some areas because the risk is unacceptably high — this means that some locations may be too dangerous, such as on the tops of ridges surrounded by bush with only one road out.
“There is a critical need for discussion around land-use planning and land management, and how and where we develop new areas with roads, bridges and other infrastructure.”
Dr Thornton said people living in high-risk bushfire areas were still under prepared and ill informed about the dangers and the preparations they needed to make.
“We know from our studies after major bushfires that many people are still not prepared for a bushfire and make hasty last-minute decisions, endangering their lives and the lives of emergency services,” he said.
Pressure to rethink emergency planning
Dr Thornton said studies showed that only about 5 per cent of people had a bushfire plan, which placed them at much more risk should a fire occur.
“It will be hot, windy, loud, dark and incredibly stressful — having a plan in place ahead is vital,” he said.
Dr Thornton said it was also time for Australia to reconsider emergency management planning.
“The policies and settlement patterns of the past are proving inadequate for the challenges of the future.
“We need to start thinking about these things now because even if this isn’t the potential of disaster into the future, we really need to start looking at what we do about emergency management, what we do about co-ordination between the states, what we do around preparation for houses and management of vegetation.”
Desperate need for further research
He said weather records were being routinely broken and all indications were that Australia was on a trajectory that would see these temperatures increase.
Asked what this meant for extreme events in the future, Dr Thornton said this was an area in desperate need of further research.
“The future is not just an extension of our past — there is no silver bullet for bushfire safety, or indeed for all natural hazards,” he said.
The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC will release its seasonal bushfire outlook for this summer at a forum in Perth on September 6.
By Shelley Lloyd