The bushfires experienced in Australia in 2019-20 have so far blistered more than 10 million hectares of land in southern Australia, larger than the combined area burned in the Black Saturday 2009 and Ash Wednesday 1983 bushfires in Australia. But what was the cause of these bushfires and why has this bushfire season considered so significant? Scroll through the article to get an insight about 2019 – 20 Australian Bushfire Season Overview.
Total area burnt in Australia bushfire 2019 – 20.
|State / Territory
|Area Burned (estimated in hectares)
|Australian Capital Territory
|New South Wales
According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Australia has always been a victim of bushfires due to climate change, particularly in the southeast. The level of winter rainfall has been decreasing in the southeast, and it has been becoming hotter with more extreme heatwaves. The country has suffered a devastating early bushfire season with fires burning across several states, blazing through hundreds of thousands of hectares and damaging hundreds of properties with the loss of six lives.
According to stats, New South Wales has experienced the most amount of damage, near about 1.65m hectares burnt, which is larger than suburban Sydney. More than 600 homes were destroyed, and 6 people lost their lives. In Queensland, 180,000 hectares were burned, and 20 homes were destroyed. In Victoria, 100km/h winds created more than 60 blazes during an unprecedented heatwave.
Causes of Bushfire
Bushfires are ignited by a combination of weather and vegetation, which acts as a fuel for the fire. Based on weather conditions, sparks can be transported by wind from one location to another, causing new fires or spotting. Bushfires can even generate local weather impacts, if large enough, for example, lightning, tornadoes and fire-storms. The intensity of the fire is also determined by the terrain of an area or the landscape, which contributes to the spread of a bushfire.
Why has this fire season been so destructive?
Weather and vegetation play an important role in the intensity of the fire. Let’s discuss them in detail:
During the ‘fire weather’ (strong winds, low humidity and high temperature), the risk of bushfires starting or advancing out of control is on its peak. In the previous year, Southern and eastern Australia experienced low rainfall and high temperatures, which have contributed to increased frequency of fire weather days in Australia.
Vegetation like trees, grasses, bushes and leaves serves as fuel for a bushfire. The more left-out and drier the fuel, the stronger the fire will burn. 2019 was considered as the driest year since 1900 since the nationally-averaged rainfall was 40 per cent below average for the year.
Drought in Australia
Australia has been facing rainfall deficiency from January 2017 to August 2019. The drought has been there in Australia over 32 months with rainfall percentiles showing a severe deficiency in rainfall. David Bowman, the director of the fire centre at the University of Tasmania, says that the unexpected nature of the fires this spring can be seen through their concentration and geographical spread across the country.
Winter bushfire weather conditions
The extraordinary nature of the 2019 fire season was determined by the extent of area burned, and the primary dryness and poor air quality affecting people across the nation. The smoke in NSW and Queensland caused respiratory problems for the citizens. Talking about the stats, the most striking numbers of the extreme fire conditions in the past month were those of a wrecked banana plantation at Taylors Arm, in northern NSW. Other landscapes, including Gondwana-era vegetation in the Tasmanian area that in some cases had not burned for more than 1,000 years, have seen major loss due to the bushfire.
Twenty-three former fire and emergency services chiefs from Australia have mutually warned climate crisis is making bushfires deadlier and the fire season longer. They made a strong statement in the news, calling the government to act. The former chief executive of Victoria’s Country Fire Authority, Neil Bibby, says that it has been the last couple of years where they realized that things have started to change and this is the new future or even worse future. Stuart Ellis, the chief executive of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, declares that the 2019 bushfire season already has a harmful effect in the environment and climate. A research study on building losses from bushfire seasons suggests this season is already the third-worst season in NSW.
The Indian Ocean Dipole
Scientists have seen an opening of exceptionally positive Indian Ocean Dipole. This has caused severe weather not only in Australia but in Africa too. The event is recorded to be the strongest in 60 years. This event is relevant to the extreme fires in south-east Australia because there is a systematic linkage between positive Indian Dipole opening and severe fires in southeast Australia.
The role of climate change
Fire cannot be blamed on climate change alone, but the rise in higher temperatures, life-threatening dryness, extreme bursts of fire weather, worsening fire seasons, and the spread of fire across the country; all align with scenarios supporting the climate change phenomena. A clear impact on rising temperature can be seen by greenhouse gas emissions. The growing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are increasing the risk of the type of fires affecting Australia’s forests.
This fire season depicted that the risk of bushfires was significantly higher during the summers, but opportunities for hazard reduction burning had been restricted in some parts of the country.
Living with bushfires and minimizing the risk
Bushfires are natural phenomena in Australia, but preparing for the destruction and managing bushfires is necessary to reduce the risk and potential damage of bushfires. Fire prevention measures include:
- Fuel management before the fire season
- Ignition prevention before the onset of the fire season
- Use of fire suppression tools, including active fire-fighting with water and fire retardants.
To help Australia get through the challenges bushfires present, CSIRO and the science community provides a wide range of expertise, like fire prediction, fire behaviour, fire monitoring, fire suppression, fire testing, bushfire modelling tools, greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, fire impacts and recovery planning, disaster management, Indigenous fire knowledge, risk and resilience science, environmental rehabilitation, and climate research. CSIRO will also provide references to Australian Governments on how they can better prepare for and manage bushfires when they occur, including new tools and technology.