Advertisement

Yes, Climate Change Is Driving These 'Unprecedented' Fires

There's no beating around the bush: climate change is helping drive the catastrophe we are currently seeing in QLD and NSW.

More than 80 fires are blazing across southern Queensland. Low humidity, high temperatures, and winds are creating a perfect storm for fire conditions, and they show no sign of abating. As of early Tuesday afternoon, residents in five areas were told to evacuate immediately or risk losing their lives.

It's the worst start to a QLD bushfire season on record, and experts are warning without significant changes in emissions, land management, and Australia's fire preparedness, it's only going to get worse.

"I've been working in this area for about 20 years, and we used to talk about what was going to happen in the future," Professor Hilary Bambrick, head of the School of Public Health and Social Work at the Queensland University of Technology, told 10 daily.

"We're actually see it happening now."

Homes, sheds and vehicles have been destroyed in the Peregian Springs fire. Photo: Brendan West

In a world of longer fire seasons, there's no downtime for firefighters, putting them at risk of fatigue. There's no safe time to perform control burns, and less sharing of resources between states or countries, because everyone is on alert all the time.

READ MORE: Mother Shields Newborn As Fire Closes In On Home

"Once upon a time, the northern fire season didn't overlap with the southern fire season, but at the moment, we've got fires burning on both sides of the planet," Bambrick said.

It makes sharing global firefighting resources all the more difficult.

What's Happening In Queensland Right Now?

Queensland, like much of Australia, experienced a warmer-than-average winter, and lower-than-average rainfall.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology's Seasonal Climate Summary, released August 2, the state's mean temperature was 0.8 degrees celsius higher than average -- and up to two degrees above average in fire-affected areas.

Average rainfall, meanwhile, was 52 percent lower than average -- maybe not surprising, considering large expanses of the state have been in drought since 2017.

It doesn't take an expert to predict that less rain leads to drier fuel, which will burn like... well, wildfire.

"We've got low humidity, we have very, very low fuel moisture content, extremely dry fuel, these hot, dry winds, and that is pushing these fires," Dr Philip Stewart, a fire ecologist at the University of Queensland, told 10 daily.

It just makes these fires uncontrollable. Anything that severe, you cannot control.

Stewart is reluctant to draw a direct link between climate change and the current bushfires, but said the facts certainly indicate it.

"These fires are climatically driven. There's no doubt about it," he said.

"To say whether or not it's definitely climate change is a bit difficult, but I would say yes, because of what we've been seeing with trends over the last 50 years. We're seeing fire seasons starting earlier and finishing much later."

A fire burning in Illinbah, Queensland, on September 6. Photo: AAP

Lengthening bushfire seasons are being seen around the globe. Australia is no stranger to bushfires, and it's not unheard of to see blazes this early in the season.

However, the intensity and scale of these current fires are unprecedented.

The thing to remember, said Dr Richard Thornton  -- CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre -- is that what drives fires isn't the average temperature over a season, but the odd days of extreme high temperature. Right now, we're seeing more of those extreme days than in the past.

"The last few days in Queensland, we've had single-digit humidity and high temperatures, meaning more fuel in the forest is available," Thornton said.

"As with the Black Saturday bushfires, we saw really high temperatures and low humidity. You have normal peaks and troughs, but the likelihood of these really hot days is increasing, because you're sitting on top of a higher-than-average temperature."

Think it's bad now? Without change, it's only going to get worse.

Bambrick warns that, on our current emission trajectory, the planet is set for at least four degrees of warming in coming decades, calling such conditions "unimaginable".

"Given at what we're seeing at only one degree of warming... as the planet continues to warm, those extremes are going to become catastrophic," she said.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Climate change is already being considered in firefighting strategies. Plans to rebuild the heritage Binna Burra Lodge, which burnt down over the weekend, will take the increased threat of fire from climate change into new designs, the Courier Mail reported.

Binna Burra before and after. Photo: supplied/ABC News.

In the immediate term, Australians need to be on even higher alert than usual for fire risk. Thornton warns what we're seeing in Queensland is only a sign of things to come, and being prepared is key, particularly for people who don't believe the fire will affect them.

READ MORE: Binna Burra Was An Escape From The Real World. Until Now.

But it's the longer term plans which are worrying Australians, with 76 percent concerned that climate change will result in more bushfires, according to the annual Climate of the Nation survey.

Notably, only about half believe the government is doing enough about climate change, with 70 percent wanting a plan to close old coal plants and replace them with clean energy options.

Photo: Climate of the Nation, The Australia Institute.

Bambrick says such a plan is crucial.

"The number one thing we need to do [to prevent more bushfires] is to phase out fossil fuels urgently," she said.

"The last thing we should be doing is building new coal mines and coal-fired power stations."

These fires should serve as "yet another wake up call" to the looking climate catastrophe, she said. It's happening faster than any of us would like to think.

"The time we need to take action is shrinking. Best guess? In the next year to year and a half, if we haven't taken serious action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, it's looking pretty catastrophic for the future."

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au