Australia could face its biggest grassfire threat in coming years as former emergency leaders warn the country is under-prepared.
Greg Mullins, former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW and founder of Emergency Leaders for Climate Action, said normal or above-normal bushfire conditions would probably return to Australia next summer.
“The basic message is, brace yourselves, the fires are coming back – not quite on the same scale as the Black Summer ones, but fires are coming back,” Mullins said.
Three years ago, Australia faced the worst bushfire season on record. Now authorities are concerned the grassfire threat could be almost as bad.Credit:Dean Sewell
“What we worry about is the compounding factor of climate change. If we get days like we did in 2019 and 2020 – really strong westerly winds, very high temperatures in the 40s and relatively low humidity – it can transform grass fires from being manageable to something we’ve never really seen before.”
Already, grass fires have popped up in western NSW near towns such as Cobar and Wentworth and in Queensland’s western Darling Downs.
The past three years have been marked by consecutive La Ninas, bringing heavy rainfall and flooding for much of the east coast. While three back-to-back events are uncommon, it’s happened three previous times during the 1950s, 70s and 1998 to 2001.
After each triple event, there was prolific vegetation growth and extensive grass fires across the country, a report by the Climate Council and Emergency Leaders for Climate Action has found.
The report notes that Australia experienced the most widespread grass fires ever recorded in 1974 and 1975, with about 117 million hectares burnt nationally – or about 15 per cent of Australia’s land mass. What makes grass fires so dangerous is how quickly they can spread – at times travelling more than 25km/h.
The wet weather cycle that has deluged the east coast is breaking down but, by next summer, there’s a 50-50 chance the east coast will get the dreaded El Nino cycle. This weather pattern brings colder water to the east coast of Australia, which means lower evaporation, less cloud cover and drier conditions, increasing the risk of drought and bushfires.
Models already show a possible El Nino event occurring in July, and authorities are turning their attention to the increased fire risks.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers said he remained concerned about the coming fire season, with the state facing the worst grassfire threat in 20 years. While the agency was more concerned with areas that had not burnt in the 2019-2020 Black Summer, heavy regeneration across the state means the risk remains high everywhere.
“It made me realise that it’s not quite as safe in those areas as we had thought,” he said.
NSW RFS maps show big grass fuel loads in the west.Credit:NSW RFS
The RFS is also behind in its mitigation efforts following the wet weather. While the agency is doing what it can, Rogers said it’s unlikely they’ll be able to catch up. “We will try to catch up, but in reality, I don’t know how feasible that is.”
Hazard reduction burning is a delicate science: it requires looking at the type of vegetation you are burning, what flora and fauna live in the area and the weather conditions. That’s why fire agencies also rely on other mitigation efforts, including creating fire breaks, manually removing vegetation or using goats to chomp at the overgrown landscape.
Rogers believes that given the heavy grass growth in the state, there’s every chance Australia could see as many fires as burnt in the 2019 to 2020 fires – about 11,400 fires.
Map showing cured grass loads in Victoria.Credit:CFA
“There is a large expansive area in the west that had no fuel back then that now has significant fuel,” he said. “The only positive thing is that we shouldn’t be in the same level as drought [as back then]. We had just come out of a four-year drought and there were towns that were down to weeks’ worth of water.
“We are clearly not in that same position, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t have fires.”
In Victoria, the grassfire threat remains normal, but this could change next week when AFAC provides its updated seasonal outlook. Maps by the state fire agency show the amount of grassland curing – a measure of the amount of dead grassland that has dried out or died – remains higher in the north.
NSW Mid North Coast farmer Josh Gilbert has faced four years of drought, fires, floods and now risks another of grass fires. “They’re the joys of climate change, you don’t know what you are going to get or when and how severe it will be,” he said.
“We’re already starting to see cracks in the ground so we’re having to make decisions now – what could another drought look like? We’re [selling] our stock and that is purely out of having gone through the drought and having to buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of feed. It’s unfeasible for us to keep doing that.”
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