Greg Mullins
Climate change and the fire season ahead

Recently, I tried to help organise hazard reduction burns in my fire-prone local area. For months it was too wet to burn, due to three years of rain. When it finally seemed as if it was dry enough last week, it was too hot, windy and dangerous.

That was the same week Sydney experienced the hottest three consecutive days ever recorded in September. Extreme and catastrophic fire dangers were recorded and the Bureau of Meteorology declared an El Niño weather event and a positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole. We are likely to see a spring supercharged by climate change. Like many other Australians, I am concerned about what summer may bring.

Even before September’s temperatures, many of us were worried as we watched summer unfold in the northern hemisphere. Unprecedented heatwaves seared Europe, China and North America. Record wildfires destroyed homes, lives and vast areas of forest, scrub and grassland in Greece, Canada, Algeria, Maui and many other places. Record floods took thousands of lives in Pakistan, China and Libya.

On each of these disasters are the burning fingerprints of climate change. As half of the world reels from a summer of climate change-fuelled disasters, Australia, amid climbing temperatures across the country, anxiously awaits the arrival of its own.

I have had many conversations already about what to expect. I am almost always asked the same two questions: “Are we in for another Black Summer?” and “Are we better prepared than we were in 2019?”

While we shouldn’t suffer fires this year of the magnitude of Black Summer, and I believe we are better prepared than we were in 2019, we are not out of the woods. In fact, the woods have been primed to burn by our addiction to fossil fuels and we must do more to drive down our emissions and prepare for the blazing summers ahead.

There is no scientific question that the burning of coal, oil and gas has fundamentally changed our world’s climate, resulting in more extreme and unpredictable weather around the globe.

In Australia, fire conditions are already of concern. Emergency and Watch and Act warnings have already occurred in Tasmania, the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, and catastrophic fire weather has been recorded in the Northern Territory, Queensland and NSW.

Even in the unlikely event we dodge a bullet this fire and storm season, the possibility of an El Niño and climate change-fuelled drought means our next two summers could see our landscapes parched, as they were before Australia’s worst-ever fires, the Black Summer conflagration.

During those bushfires, fire services said the only thing that could possibly extinguish the fires that covered more than 24 million hectares of forest was rain, and lots of it.

Those rains, initially welcomed, arrived in torrents in early March 2020, extinguishing the fires. After that, however, they didn’t stop. Massive downpours broke record after record. In Lismore in early 2022, the historic flood record was broken by more than two metres. Residents clung to rooftops and waited for rescue by the overwhelmed emergency services and community volunteers in the “tinny flotilla”. The science tells us that for each degree increase in temperature, the atmosphere can hold 7 per cent more water, increasing the chances of intense downpours.

Fires left our headlines, giving way to a triple La Niña, supercharged by climate change. Rain prevented hazard reduction burning in areas untouched by the Black Summer fires while promoting prolific growth, particularly of grass, across the country. Triple La Niña events are rare, but the largest fires ever recorded in Australia happened as a triple La Niña was waning.

In 1975, 117 million hectares of La Niña-primed grasslands burned across the country. They started in the Barkly Tableland in the Northern Territory, where a fire spanning more than a million hectares has been burning this month. As we came out of triple La Niña events in 1957, 1977 and 2001, we also saw major forest fires and loss of homes.

The conditions now are eerily similar to what we saw back then, with the added concern of a fast-heating climate.

Ahead of Black Summer, together with 22 other former fire chiefs, I tried to warn the government of fires that were about to wreak havoc on Australia. At the time I described the government’s approach as “closed ears and closed minds”. They simply refused to talk about climate change. It was beyond frustrating, as a former fire chief and volunteer firefighter, to know what we were about to face and to be ignored when things could have been done to reduce the impact.

What happened next is seared into our collective memory, and must serve as an urgent reminder of just how critical climate action and community preparedness is.

It is refreshing to have a government in Canberra that accepts the science of climate change. While I’m confident more is being done to improve our response to climate-fuelled disasters, I remain frustrated by the pace of emissions reduction.

Unless we dial down the heating of our planet, many more Black Summers are coming our way. One study shows that, on the current emissions path, the unprecedented weather conditions that drove Black Summer will represent an average summer by 2040, and an exceedingly cool one by 2060.

A recent report by the Climate Council, of which I am a member, warns us of the consequences of continuing on our current trajectory, which will see the world warm by well over two degrees by the end of the century. It affirms that if temperature increases reach three degrees, the number of extreme fire danger days in Australia will double. First responders cannot be everywhere at once, and such an increase in fire risk would see already stretched fire services extended far beyond capacity.

I am mystified as to how our government can continue to approve new and expanded fossil fuel projects – four so far this term – when the science is clear: digging up and selling more fossil fuels recklessly adds fuel to already out-of-control climate change and the associated risk of fire.

We need our leaders to step up the scale and pace of action by drastically reducing our emissions and bolstering the resilience of our communities to climate change – which is with us right now – through more action and funding.

I am buoyed by the Albanese government’s review of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, and the work that they are doing to get the ball rolling on these stalled actions, but it is critical they do so at speed.

The financial contribution the current government has made towards increased disaster preparedness – $400 million – is much better than the abysmal attempt of the last but it’s still a drop in the bucket compared with the $11 billion a year in subsidies for polluting fossil fuels. These billions would be far better spent helping communities to prepare for worsening disasters.

I know many people remain deeply traumatised by the impacts of Black Summer and the record La Niña floods that followed, so I don’t share my concern about the summers to come lightly. I do so in the knowledge it is far better to be prepared and equipped with information than to suddenly be placed in a situation of peril.

Unprepared communities are more likely to suffer losses than the prepared, so it is vital to listen to the detailed advice available from fire and emergency services and local councils, who know best about local conditions.

There are many things we can all do to reduce our risk. There are also many things governments can do to increase readiness and resilience, but this requires a massive injection of funds to tilt the balance towards preparing for disasters and building community capacity and resilience rather than relying solely on emergency services responding when the climate change horse has already bolted.

There is hope to take hold of here, but our leaders must take tangible steps towards it.

We know the cause of worsening extreme weather events and we must act right now to do something about it. Climate change is a wicked problem, but not an unsolvable one.

The same report I mentioned earlier casts a vision for a future where my grandkids won’t have to live with worsening heatwaves, constant catastrophic fire warnings and flood evacuations, and it shows us it is still within reach.

If governments work together to reduce emissions by 75 per cent this decade and get to net zero by 2035, we can stabilise and then start to reduce the chaos climate change is causing across the planet. That is a future worth fighting for, but in the meantime there is a strong likelihood fires will again define this summer – and decades of inadequate action on climate change will be their ultimate cause.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Climate change and the fire season ahead".

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