'Extraordinary' Climate Change Wreaking Havoc On Firefighting Efforts
Fires burning around the world in spring, autumn and even winter could be our new normal, with fears that unprecedented weather conditions are creating a fire risks too difficult to contain.
Devastating blazes have ripped through large parts of California, at the same time as Australia has battled fires in the ACT, Queensland and NSW. This week marks 20 years since the deadly Linton bushfires in Victoria killed a group of firefighters, while crews north of Bundaberg are currently battling flames said to be 12 metres high.
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Normally the fire seasons of Australia and the USA are separate and distinct, meaning firefighting resources -- human personnel, as well as water-bombing aircraft and other tools -- can be shared among the countries.
But the seasons are starting to overlap, with the 'shoulder' or off-season between dangerous fire periods getting much shorter.
A report from Australia's Climate Council in 2015 found there had been a nearly 20 percent increase in global fire seasons between 1978 and 2013. This truncated shoulder period means firefighters have less time to carry out hazard reduction burns, undertake training and community awareness campaigns, or give crews a rest.
It also means firefighting equipment is not as easy to share between countries.
"We have pretty clear evidence that fire weather has gotten worse in the last 30 years, and of course with climate, the science is predicting that is going to continue and get worse," said Owen Price, senior research fellow at the University of Wollongong's Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, told 10 daily.
"We would expect the length of fire seasons to get longer. Last year we had a very long and extended summer season all the way into autumn, with fires in April and then starting again in July. That’s pretty extraordinary."
John Bates, research director at the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Coooperative Research Centre, told 10 daily this prolonged fire danger period was a risk of straining already hardworking resources.
"We're seeing fires at times we don't normally seen them. We're seeing fires earlier and later than we would normally," he said.
"There are challenges here, particularly with a volunteer firefighting workforce. As the period we need them for grows, they become exhausted, which becomes a work management issue for paid and volunteer staff.
"There used to be a period of downtime when they'd put in training, have a rest."
The 2015 Climate Council report forecast that Australian firefighter numbers would need to double by 2030 to cope with increased fire danger.
The lengthening seasons are also partly behind the NSW government's recent purchase of a world-first 737-style firefighting aircraft called Gaia. Both politicians and the Rural Fire Service emphasised that the plane would be based in Australia "year round", and not sent overseas.
“With longer bush fire seasons comes the increasing threat of severe fires, which is why the NSW Government is leading the way by providing our firies with the very best resources to help protect lives and properties," state emergency services minister Troy Grant said.
Price said Australia has so far had to borrow a lot of equipment from overseas to fight summer fires, and as seasons lengthen, that opportunity may not be available in future.
"During our summer, we borrow a lot of equipment and staff from America and other places. Because they're having a long season, we can't do that swap," he told 10 daily.
"Those big aircraft might not be coming. That would make it significantly more difficult."
James Cook University's Distinguished Professor Bill Laurance, an expert in climate change, said shifting weather conditions could force a rethink of how and where Australians live.
"We keep building houses out into bushlands and forested areas, and that’s not very smart from a land use and planning point of view. Those areas are very fire-prone and high-risk strategy," he told 10 daily.
He said people living in rural residential or forested areas have to be ready to wear the risk.
"People get upset, and they're keen to point fingers, but if you're going to live out in rural areas, you’ve got to take on higher risk and higher insurance rate risks," he said.
Bates said governments and fire services are investing time and money into investigating how best to look after their workforces, through promoting people to volunteer for RFS units and how to attract people to become professional firefighters.
Work is also being done to ensure resources are available at the right times of year.
"If the time commitment goes up, there might be issues on whether volunteers want to keep doing it. We’ve got workforces getting tired for longer campaigns," he said.
"Climate change means the way things grow and dry out will change from what they did before. Fuel will change, which may influence how and when fires start and burn."
But while fire crews and governments try to plan for the future, Laurance said the biggest problems may come from issues we can't anticipate yet.
"The scariest things about climate change are the things we don't know, rather than the things we do," he said.
"We’re playing dice with our future."