Australia burns while politicians fiddle with the leadership


Sophie Lewis, UNSW and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, UNSW

With swathes of New South Wales still smouldering and temperature records tumbling all over the world, Malcolm Turnbull is losing his grip on the prime ministership, partly because of his inability to land a very modest emissions policy. His is the latest failure in a decade-long story of broken climate policy in Australia.

Like most voters, scientists are tired of these political games when clearly so much more is on the line.




Read more:
The too hard basket: a short history of Australia’s aborted climate policies


That’s because what is happening now with extreme weather events and longer fire
seasons is exactly what we forecast a decade ago. This isn’t breaking news. In fact, the science around the role of climate change in extreme temperatures is so solid that the editors of the world-leading Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society have discouraged scientists from researching extreme temperatures in its annual extreme events issue.

Why? Because, according to the journal’s editors, the scientific value of these studies is now “limited”. The climate signal in extreme heat events has become so clear that it is no longer a novel line of investigation. In short, climate change now plays a role in every extreme heat event.

Contrast this with the equivocation of our political leaders. Turnbull claimed in March this year that “you can’t attribute any particular event – whether it’s a flood or fire or a drought or a storm — to climate change”. He made this statement after 69 houses in Tathra in southern NSW were destroyed by an unseasonably late bushfire during a heatwave – and heatwaves are clearly linked to climate change.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott made an almost identical claim back in 2013, after an early season bushfire in the Blue Mountains destroyed 196 homes, during a succession of hot days in a warmer than average October.

Just this month, drought was declared for all of NSW and the bushfire season began two months early. The state had its earliest ever total fire ban, and fires have already burned through large parts of coastal southern NSW.

Australia’s fire season is now so long, it overlaps with California’s, stretching our resources and our ability to prepare for and respond to catastrophic fires.

Clear evidence

In light of the clear evidence, it takes a very special kind of politician to ignore the role of climate change in extreme weather events. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose to play party political games as whole townships are threatened by fire and drought extends through NSW and Queensland.

And yet Turnbull has dumped plans to legislate even the lower boundary of Australia’s Paris Agreement emissions target as part of the National Energy Guarantee. The result is that Australia is once again left without a sensible climate policy.

Turnbull’s backdown also tells us exactly how far his and his colleagues’ political vision extends into the future: as far ahead as the next election. But while our leaders struggle with political myopia, the heart of climate science remains a big-vision, long-term approach.

Decades ago climate scientists told us that the first signs of climate change would appear in the temperature record, and extreme heat events would become more common and more extreme. This is exactly what has happened, only much faster than projected.

The first study to tease out the climate change component in an extreme heat event was an examination by the UK Met Office of the 2003 European heatwave that killed an estimated 70,000 people. It took almost two years to produce that result.

Today, scientific advances mean that researchers can do this kind of attribution study in mere days. As a result of these improvements, the attribution of climate change’s role in many extreme temperatures is now unequivocal. More recent research shows that some 2016 events across the world, including the extended mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, could not conceivably have happened without climate change.




Read more:
It’s official: 2016’s Great Barrier Reef bleaching was unlike anything that went before


Turning our focus to the coming decades, we find that even if the world meets the more generous Paris goal of keeping global warming below 2℃, Sydney and Melbourne could see 50℃ days and 25 more heatwave days every summer. Worryingly, right now we are on track to exceed 3℃ of warming.

Now let’s add some perspective about what we are currently experiencing.
Australia’s supercharged heatwaves and winter bushfires have occurred with just 1℃ of global warming.

Yet even with this small amount the climate signal is so clear that when one of the authors of this article was asked by a reporter if there was likely a climate change influence on our hot April, she confidently replied, “I would bet my house on it”. Four months later, the bet is still on.

It is time to stop dismissing our record-breaking temperatures, droughts and winter bushfires as natural variability. The role of climate change in extreme heat is now so pervasive that it is almost a given.

Asking climate scientists whether global warming plays a role in extreme temperature events is like asking a medical researcher whether a case of the ‘flu might just be linked to the influenza virus. The answer is obvious.

Any politician who ignores the clear link between weather extremes and climate change – choosing instead to trot out platitudes about how Australia’s climate has always been tough, or quote Dorothea Mackellar (who, surprisingly enough, was not a climate scientist) – is effectively saying “let’s do nothing about this growing problem”.

An attitude of “nothing to see here” from our leaders, when all the evidence says otherwise, leaves our health sector, economy, ecosystems and, as we see now, our struggling farmers exposed to climate change impacts.

It may also leave those politicians and industry leaders making such claims wide
open to potential liability for future loss and damages, if recent legal cases are any guide.




Read more:
Climate change is a financial risk, according to a lawsuit against the CBA


For almost a decade, most of our politicians have been so busy bickering over who gets to be leader that they have failed to show the real leadership required to look at Australia’s future beyond the next election cycle.

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The Conversation

Enough. Most Australian voters surely care less about who is running the country than they do about making sure our country is still a habitable place to live in the future.

Sophie Lewis, ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW and Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Research Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer


Owen Price, University of Wollongong

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service declared the earliest total fire bans in its history this week. The entire state was declared to be in drought on the same day.

The combination of winter drought and hot, dry weather has made dangerous fires increasingly likely.




Read more:
After the firestorm: the health implications of returning to a bushfire zone


Already this week two fires on the south coast have escaped containment lines and destroyed houses. The weather during these fires was 6℃ warmer than the August average, dry and extremely windy. The wind speed peaked at 104 kilometres an hour in Bega and 85km/h in Nowra, two towns close to where fires broke out.

Under these conditions, bushfires will spread quickly, produce large numbers of embers and are hard to stop.

Our fire seasons now start earlier and last longer. This means we’re increasingly likely to see repeats of historically large fires threatening residential areas.

Fire seasons are longer

Current dry conditions are reflected in the maps of live fuel moisture produced by Dr Rachael Nolan of Western Sydney University.


Nolan R.H., Boer M.M., de Dios V.R., Caccamo G., Bradstock R.A. (2016), Large-scale, dynamic transformations in fuel moisture drive wildfire activity across southeastern Australia. Geophysical Research Letters 43, 4229-4238.

This method tracks the weekly moisture content of the forests in southern Australia, as observed by NASA’s MODIS satellite. The latest map shows a patchy distribution of dry areas and a drying trend over recent weeks.

It looks like NSW’s fire season has already started, and it’s likely to be bad. Last year’s fire season also extended well into autumn, with serious bushfires burning in mid-April.

Fire agencies usually enjoy a six-month break from bushfires between April and September, but this year they had only three months’ respite.

This reflects evidence of a trend toward more extreme fire weather over the past 30 years, and lengthening fire seasons.

This problem is being keenly felt in western United States, where fire agencies have warned that the fire season now lasts all year round. Not only that, there is clear evidence climate change is increasing fire activity in the United States; the record for the largest fire in California history has been broken two years in a row.

Alarming precedents

The most damaging fire season for NSW in the past 30 years was in October 2013 when the Linksview fire destroyed 200 houses in the Blue Mountains.

The build-up to that season was eerily similar to this year, with a winter drought and bushfires in September, but the moisture maps show that the forests are drier now than at the same time in 2013, and we have already seen serious bushfires in August.




Read more:
Future bushfires will be worse: we need to adapt now


As we move into September and October, the weather will warm, which means any remaining moisture in the ground and plants will evaporate even faster than at present, and fires will be more intense and spread faster. The only thing that will reduce the risk is soaking rain of at least 100mm.

Whether or not that will occur in the next two months is almost impossible to predict. At the moment it seems unlikely. The Bureau of Meteorology’s latest seasonal forecast, issued on August 16, considers it likely that dry conditions will persist for the next three months.

The heightened risk of bushfire this season should be a wake-up call for residents in bushfire-prone areas. Most people in really risky areas such as the Blue Mountains are well prepared, but many people who are a little more removed from the forests are not aware of the risk.




Read more:
Where to take refuge in your home during a bushfire


For example, many residents of Wollongong probably don’t know this October is the 50th anniversary of the great 1968 fires that swept down the Illawarra Escarpment into the suburbs of Figtree, Bulli, Austinmer and others.

The footprint of the 1968 Illawarra fires, which burned through residential areas.

If the same footprint of fire were to occur again, some 5,000 houses would be affected. The present indicators suggest a repeat of this event is more likely than at any time for decades.

Residents need to prepare a bushfire survival plan, which includes a decision on whether to stay and defend or to leave as soon as they learn about a nearby bushfire.




Read more:
Our deadly bushfire gamble: risk your life or bet your house


Current research at University of Wollongong suggests that the biggest influence on the risk of house loss during a bushfire is the actions that the residents themselves take. This includes ensuring that natural and man-made fuels are kept to a minimum in the garden, especially close to the house, and also defending the house from spot-fires caused by embers.

The Rural Fire Service has a wealth of advice for preparing for bushfires on its website.

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We’re look at a torrid upcoming fire season, dependent on the vagaries of the Australian climate. Either way, now is the time for people to brace themselves and get prepared.

Owen Price, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Dry winter primes Sydney Basin for early start of bushfire season


Matthias Boer, Western Sydney University; Rachael Helene Nolan, University of Technology Sydney, and Ross Bradstock, University of Wollongong

It might feel like the depths of winter, but Australian fire services are preparing for an early start to the bushfire season. Sydney has been covered with smoke from hazard reduction burns, and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service has forecast a “horrific” season.

Predicting the severity of a bushfire season isn’t easy, and – much like the near-annual announcements of the “worst flu season on record” – repeated warnings can diminish their urgency.

However, new modelling that combines Bureau of Meteorology data with NASA satellite imaging has found that record-setting July warmth and low rainfall have created conditions very similar to 2013, when highly destructive bushfires burned across NSW and Victoria.

Crucially, this research has found we’re approaching a crucial dryness threshold, past which fires are historically far more dangerous.


Read more: Climate change to blame for Australia’s July heat


How to measure bushfire fuel

On September 10, 2013 several bushfires in Sydney’s West caused havoc well before the official start of the bushfire season. These were a precursor to fires that destroyed more than 200 properties a month later. Warm, dry winter weather had dried out the fuels in Sydney’s forests and bush reserves beyond “normal” levels for the time of year.

The timing and severity of those preseason fires were a reminder that the region’s forests are flammable all year round; they can burn whenever the fuel they contain dries out past a certain threshold.

In most forests, there is an abundance of fuel in the form of leaf litter, dead twigs, branches and logs, lower vegetation such as shrubs and grasses, as well as higher foliage and branches.

The flammability of all these different kinds of fuel depends largely on their moisture content. Leaf litter and fine dead branches on the soil surface can dry out in a matter of days, whereas logs may take weeks or months to lose their moisture. The moisture content of shrubs and tree canopies varies depending on the amount of water in the soil, so they reflect the overall rainfall and temperatures across a whole season.

The flammability of an entire forest is therefore a complex calculation of all these different kinds of fuel (both alive and dead) and their different moisture levels.

Mapping Sydney’s forests

In a recent collaborative study, we combined data from a Bureau of Meteorology project that maps water availability levels across Australia with satellite imagery to develop new tools for mapping and monitoring moisture levels of different fuels in forests and woodlands.

We checked these tools by modelling fuel moisture levels during fires in NSW, Victoria and the ACT between 2000 and 2014, and comparing our predictions to historical bushfires.

Our research has identified critical dryness thresholds associated with significant increases in fire area. Rather than a gradual increase in flammability as forests dry out, when dead fuel moisture drops below 15% subsequent bushfires are larger. Another jump occurs when dead fuel moisture levels fall below 10%. We found similar thresholds in growing plants, although their moisture content is measured differently.

These dryness thresholds are pivotal, because they may represent the breakdown of moist natural barriers in landscapes that prevent fires from spreading. Understanding these mechanisms makes it possible to predict fire risk much more accurately.

As part of this project we compared the fuel moisture in Sydney Basin’s forested areas in 2013 and 2017. As shown in the chart below, currently the live fuel moisture level is tracking well below the 2013 values, and is approaching a crucial threshold (indicated by the dotted line).

The moisture content of dead fuel has been more variable, but it has also dipped below the 2013 curve and, if warm dry weather continues, could reach critical levels before the end of August.


The median predicted dead fuel moisture content and live fuel moisture content in forest areas of the Sydney Basin Bioregion in 2013 and 2017. Black dashed horizontal lines indicate fuel moisture threshold values. The start dates of major fires in 2013 are indicated by orange vertical lines.
Author provided, Author provided

In another worrying sign, mapping shows critically dry live fuel is much more abundant in 2017 than it was in 2013.


Remotely sensed live fuel moisture content in forest areas of the Sydney Basin Bioregion in July 2013 (left) and July 2017 (right). Click to enlarge.
Author provided

It’s clear that much of the Sydney Basin is dangerously primed for major bushfires, at least until it receives major rainfall. Forecasts for windy but largely dry weather in coming weeks may exacerbate this problem.

These new insights into landscape-scale fuel dryness provide a powerful indicator of what might be expected. They also build our capacity for week by week monitoring of fire potential.

The ConversationPreparation by both fire management authorities and exposed homeowners is now an immediate priority, to cope with the strong likelihood of an early and severe fire season.

Matthias Boer, Associate Professor, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University; Rachael Helene Nolan, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Technology Sydney, and Ross Bradstock, Professor, Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Where to take refuge in your home during a bushfire



File 20170817 28092 1s4jus6
Fire threatening a house in Pelican Bay in 2006. If you need to shelter from a fire in your house, know where your exits are and be aware of surrounding vegetation.
thinboyfatter/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Douglas Brown, University of Sydney

When you live in a bushfire-prone area you can’t ignore the danger. Most individuals and families address this necessity by preparing a bushfire survival plan. The best way to survive a bushfire is not to be there when it arrives.

For most Australian fire agencies the “leave early” policy has largely replaced the previous “stay and defend or leave early” one. This
reflects an emphasis on preserving human life during a bushfire event – an emphasis that has strengthened since the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.


Read more: How to prepare your home for a bushfire – and when to leave


Even when planning to leave early, unexpected events can occur. Not being able to find a child or family pet may delay departure until it’s no longer safe to travel. Taking refuge in your home then becomes a last resort, a worst-case scenario. But this contingency is worth considering as part of your bushfire survival plan.

If you do need to take refuge inside your home during a bushfire, which parts are likely to be the safest? As part of my PhD research, I asked 252 residents living in bushfire-prone areas which parts of their houses they would shelter in during a bushfire, which parts they would avoid, and why. I then analysed the features of these locations against the known places where people died in their home during bushfires in Australia from 1901 to 2011.

Determining the safer places to shelter is further complicated as all houses are not the same. There are many different types, with large variations in design, construction materials, location and surrounding vegetation. It is therefore not possible to give absolute answers on where people should take shelter in their homes during a bushfire, but some general guidelines can be given.

Where are the safer spaces to shelter?

Upstairs is generally a more dangerous space to seek shelter during a bushfire. Upstairs levels are more difficult to escape from. Often they have large windows and sliding glass doors which are designed to capture views, but due to radiant heat and strong winds can crack and implode. Upper levels are often constructed of lightweight materials that are more flammable and vulnerable to direct flame contact from burning trees.

The ground floor is generally a safer space to shelter. The ground level usually has more external doors from which the occupant can escape. On a sloping block, however, the easiest level from which to exit may be the first floor. The ground level often has smaller windows (except those leading to entertainment areas). From the ground floor it is easier to get to the driveway and closer to an external water source such as a water tank.

People often suggest the bathroom as a good place to shelter during a bushfire. However, the bathroom can also be dangerous. During a bushfire, mains water is often cut or the pressure is reduced to a trickle. Despite having tiled walls, non-combustible fittings and a water supply, bathrooms like other rooms are vulnerable to the collapse of a burning ceiling when embers have ignited in the roof cavity.

Most bathrooms do not have an external door that residents can use to exit the house. In a bathroom it can be difficult to see the progress of a fire. And as bathrooms are small enclosed spaces they may be more vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning.


Read more: Low flammability plants could help our homes survive bushfires


My advice is to look at all the external ground floor doors (while remembering that glass doors can be dangerous because of their vulnerability to radiant heat), and determine which of them provide access to adjoining outside paved, gravel, concrete or other non-combustible areas. You should also see if there is a small window from which you can observe the progress of the bushfire, and if there is a sink close by to store water. Where possible consider installing a fire alarm that has a carbon monoxide sensor with audible and visual alerts.

When you have identified the most suitable place in the house to actively shelter during a bushfire, follow the bushfire preparation activities provided by fire authorities. Some of these will include looking out of a window to follow the progress of the fire and being aware of current bushfire updates on the radio and via mobile phone. There is no such thing as passive sheltering.

Being inside your home as the fire passes offers more protection than being outside. But it should be seen as a last resort, with leaving early the preferred action. Fire agencies work hard to inform residents of days when bushfires are likely, and to provide updates on fires that do break out. Residents in bushfire-prone areas should take these warnings and updates seriously and leave their properties when advised to do so, especially when catastrophic fires are expected.

The ConversationThe advice given in this article is general and may not suit every circumstance.

Douglas Brown, PhD candidate (approved), University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Crews Race to Control South Australia’s Worst Bushfire in 3 Decades


The number of house severely damaged or destroyed now stands at 26 confirmed, plus other buildings. The number may yet rise.

TIME

Thirteen homes have been destroyed in the worst bushfire in South Australia since 1983.

That number is expected to rise to more than 30 homes as specialist crews of firefighters assess the damage in the Adelaide Hills and try to control the blaze, which has been burning since Friday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reports.

But it is a race against time as weather conditions are expected to hamper efforts on Wednesday, with high temperatures and winds expected.

More than 1,100 properties lie in the affected area and authorities say they will have a better idea of the damage as the day goes on.

Fire crews are working to protect pockets of homes from the blaze and will increase their efforts to control the fire from the air.

[ABC]

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