Australia Faces ‘Powder Keg’ Bushfire Conditions

A recent report published by the Climate Council warns that ‘powder keg’ conditions in Australia could lead to grassfires on a scale “never-before experienced”. Widespread plant regrowth thanks to our protracted La Niña conditions have experts concerned about an increased bushfire risk.

The report, released in late February, was authored by the Climate Council, in partnership with the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action. Its analysis paints a concerning picture of a dangerous weather cycle likely to lead to a treacherous bushfire season for Australia.

We all remember the horrendous damage wreaked by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020. But over the past three years, fire destruction on that scale hasn’t occurred, thanks largely to the protracted La Niña cycle. We’ve had wetter-than-average weather, record rainfalls and flooding all across the nation’s eastern flank.

As a result, fire risk has largely slipped out of Australia’s public radar. But as the report’s authors note, “very wet periods often make fire services nervous, because they are a double-edged sword.”

Firstly, long wet periods limit our ability to carry out fire hazard reduction measures. And as the report’s main conclusion notes, while rain keeps plant matter wet, reducing fire risk, it also leads to rapid vegetation growth. Areas decimated by the Black Summer fires have seen significant regrowth already, and even ‘desert’ areas normally too dry to grow vegetation could now pose a fire risk.

In some semi-arid areas of inland Australia, fuel loads are usually around 0.5 to 1.5 tons per hectare. Now, after our long La Niña, they’ve ballooned to range from 4.5 to 6 tons per hectare. The greenery in these regions is rapidly drying out as heatwaves sweep the country, priming them to be bushfire ‘powder kegs’.

Grasslands are the quickest to dry out – and while grassfires are popularly seen as less threatening than forest fires, they’re nothing to sneer at. Grassfires can move up to four times faster than forest fires, and can be just as deadly.

The Climate Council report also draws on historical evidence for its warnings. Australia has seen three protracted La Nina periods since 1950: in 1954-57, 1973-76, and 1998-2001. Each of these times, we had wet periods with lots of flooding, and prolific vegetation growth.

And each of these times, this was followed by widespread grassfires across the country, and major forest fires with loss of life and property, especially on the east coast. The 1974-75 cycle saw Australia’s most extensive grassfires on record, with 15% of the country’s land mass burnt.

If the weather cycles into an even hotter and drier El Niño pattern, as some BOM models indicate, catastrophic fire conditions are a near certainty. But even without El Niño, the report’s authors say they’re anticipating a dangerous fire season, given the historical precedent and the influence of climate change.

“If it doesn’t happen this time, it will be the first time it hasn’t,” says firefighter Greg Mullins, one of the authors and the former commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW. Mullins, along with his colleagues, has called for greater and more urgent climate action in the face of Australia’s increasing risks of extreme weather events.

“Our message is this: this is coming, get ready. But if we have a climate change overlay, this could be massive. That’s the worry.”

Cover photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash.

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