Australia: Unusually early Sydney Bushfires spark debate over climate - bushfire link

Bushfire smoke cloud over Sydney. Image: Maarten Danial / FlickrBushfire smoke cloud over Sydney. Image: Maarten Danial / FlickrWidespread October bushfires in NSW are unusual, but have happened before, such as in 1991. This year there was an Early start to Australian bushfires, record temperatures in early September.

It is now the 7th time this bushfire season a total fire ban has been declared in Sydney. Very Unusual. If the fire weather is this bad so early in the season, it can only get worse over the coming months as Summer heats up, especially if we have extreme summer heatwaves similar to 2013.

Here is the 2013/2014 bushfire outlook from the Bushfire CRC:

2013 Australia Bushfire CRC outlook map2013 Australia Bushfire CRC outlook map

These bushfires today are worse than 1991, the last time a significant fire emergency occurred in mid October.

Here is a comparison of the present event to the 1991 bushfire season taken from the Brief History of Bush Fires in NSW on the NSW Rural Fire Service website. Fire emergencies of this magnitude have been seen before, but usually in December or January, like the 1994 Eastern Seabord fires that started on 27 December 1993 and lasted to 16 January. You need to go back to 1991 to find one comparable in mid October.

  • 16 Oct 1991: 30 blazes, 14 homes lost, 2 deaths.
  • 17 Oct 2013 9.15pm: 98 fires burning, 34 of them uncontained, and seven at emergency warning level, perhaps 100s homes lost. No deaths so far reported...

Professor Ross Bradstock, Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, said they were comparable with the fires in November 1968, “On average there has been one destructive fire a decade in the Blue Mountains, but these appear to be the most destructive fires since 1968, when over 100 houses were also lost in the same area. We are in a very dry situation in the greater Sydney region and when these landscapes dry severely, many of the natural barriers to fire are removed. In these sorts of dry conditions fires can burn for weeks until there is a significant change in the weather.”


David Jones, head of climate analysis at the Bureau of Meteorology said in an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald that will see fire conditions worsen for much of Australia over the longer run:

    "While weather patterns vary from year to year, southern Australia is already seeing springs and summer becoming hotter. As a result, there is a "trend towards more severe fire weather conditions across Australia.”

    "We know from about March-April to around June, things have been drying out across southern Australia," he said.

    "The fact there is less soil moisture increases the fire risk both towards the end of the fire season but also the subsequent fire season," Dr Jones said. "You have a lesser opportunity to really wet up the vegetation.”

    “Global warming exacerbates a number of factors associated with fire," he said, adding that humidity is expected to decline over much of the continent particular in summer.

Justin Leonard, CSIRO’s research leader for Bushfire urban design, said “House loss is highly likely under these conditions, life loss is also likely. History has shown us that on average one life is lost for every 17 houses. The majority of these lives are lost within a few hundred metres of homes. When fires are near, use the home as a refuge rather than fleeing at the last minute. Monitor the home’s condition while you shelter in case you need to exit the house on to burnt ground.”

Here is the media conference this afternoon with NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell and NSW RFS Commissioner Fitzsimmons.

"This is as bad as it gets," said NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, “It’s going to be a long dangerous and difficult evening ahead for firefighters and obviously the communities in the path of these fires," he said. "Some areas will take weeks of firefighting and containment particularly given “the most difficult and arduous terrain that these fires have traversed across.”

The bushfires in the Blue Mountains will be particularly hard to extinguish in the rugged valleys, and may take several weeks.

Although the exact numbers of property and houses burnt isn't known at this stage, O'Farrell made it clear it was likely to be in the hundreds. The Hume Highway has been cut for a number of hours in the Southern Highlands, the Pacific Highway at Doyalson has also been disrupted south of Newcastle. Fires are raging from the Shoalhaven coast up to the north coast of NSW.

Both the Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian had live blog pages covering the bushfires on 17 October.

David Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology at The University of Tasmania, emphasised that the Australian community must understand better the very rapid evolution of bushfire disasters and plan accordingly:


    "To my mind a significant feature of the NSW fires are the short time a hint of troubled spiraled into serious trouble all within 24 hours. A key factor is high wind speeds and hot conditions - again difficult to predict accurately - that drive fires and quickly dry fuels out.

    I am of course worried about the significance of the early start of the NSW fire season for southern Australia. In must be understood more widely that predicting fires’ start, duration and intensity of fire seasons is beyond our current scientific capacities.

    I see the burst of fires in NSW (on the back of some extremely severe fires last year) as a very worrying sign for Tasmania, a community still recovering from the extreme January 4 fires."

We have just endured our hottest September on record, unusually warm winter, and the hottest 12 month period on record. All this is occurring with El Nino/ENSO cycle being neutral.

Fire weather is escalating and one of the factors driving this is long term climate change driving increasing temperatures, drier conditions with reduced soil moisture, and a lengthening of the fire season.

The science is clear that there is a long term trend for increasing fire weather risk, particularly in the elongation of fire seasons in Spring and Autumn. A study by Clarke and Lucas (2012) on Changes in Australian fire weather between 1973 and 2010 says: "These trends suggest increased fire weather conditions at many locations across Australia, due to both increased magnitude of FFDI and a lengthened fire season. Although these trends are consistent with projected impacts of climate change on FFDI, this study cannot separate the influence of climate change, if any, with that of natural variability."

An international study in 2012 lead by Professor Mitchell Power, found that the extent and intensity of wildfires on a continental and global basis is connected to changing temperatures and climate.

Now normally our worst fire seasons occur with El Nino conditions which tend to provide drier and warmer conditions for Australia increasing the Fire weather index, according to the Lucas and Hennessy paper (2007). But at the moment El Nino/ENSO currently is in a neutral phase.

Federal Government's attack on carbon pricing questioned over bushfires and climate change

Adam Bandt, Deputy Leader of the Greens tweeted this yesterday which featured his article published the day before the fires in the Guardian.


This didn't stop Federal Liberal MP Denis Jensen, a member of the Government and who has a scientific background but is known for his climate denial views, responding with this tweet:


Labor Senator Doug Cameron, a resident of the Blue Mountains affected by the fires, made his views known on ABC24 regarding climate change being a factor in increasing bushfire risk:


Sydney climate scientist Sarah Perkins, whose partner is a volunteer in the Rural Fire Service, tweeted this comment:


She followed the tweet up with a link to an opinion piece she had just recently had published in the Sydney Morning Herald called Sydney heat - is it hot enough for you?. She concludes her article saying:


    "If Sydney and NSW does experience such devastation, I don't want us to ignore the role climate change played. There is no doubt in my mind that global warming is significantly contributing to making Australia's fire danger worse than it has ever been.

    "If towns are burning and Australian lives are being put more at risk because of this, we have a responsibility to face the role of climate change, to talk about it and to consider our response to a challenge that will only grow if we do nothing.

    When lives and communities are being devastated it's more than rude not to talk about climate change and fires, it's life threatening."

Adam Bandt's comments were backed up by Senator Christine Milne, Leader of the Greens in a tweet on Friday morning:


Wills Labor MP on Friday also attacked the Government's stance on a blog post saying:

    "At the very time when the signals from our climate are that we need more action on climate change, not less, it is deeply irresponsible of the Liberal Government to abandon measures which are reducing carbon emissions."

One of those people who has suffered with their house razed by the fires is Susan Templeton, who was the Labor candidate for Macquarie at the Federal Election this year. She was happy for Adam Bandt to raise the issue of climate change action in relation to these fires:


David Holmes, Senior Lecturer, Communications and Media Studies at Monash University, has an article at the Conversation discussing media coverage and the political calls, mostly from the conservative side of politics, that now is not the time to discuss climate change in the context of bushfire crisis. Read his analysis: Is the Abbott government fiddling while NSW burns?

Update Monday 21 October: Herald Sun conservative columnist Andrew Bolt waded into the debate on Monday with an article attacking Adam Bandt and cited climate scientist Roger Jones to support his attack. Roger Jones replied to Andrew Bolt to correct the misrepresentations in a blog post. He doubts his response will be printed. Read the background at the Climate Risk blog. This is his letter sent in reply to Andrew Bolt:

    "Andrew Bolt castigates Greens MP Adam Bandt for linking the current NSW fires to climate change (21/10), then says “So Bandt is wrong about the cause of the fire and wrong to pretend these fires are worse. He’s wrong to imply global temperatures have been steadily rising, and wrong to claim Abbott could make the slightest difference.” And suggests asking me, because I estimated reducing Australian emissions by 5% to 2020 would reduce global warming by an “imperceptible” 0.0038 degrees Celsius. Taking the politics out of Bandt’s article and looking at the science and risk I can say that Bandt is largely correct – but he said nothing of the cause and nothing about steady temperature rise – these are Bolt’s inventions.

    There is a global warming component adding to the severity of these current fires. In Victoria, the fire danger index is more than one-third greater after 1997 than it was before then. This is equivalent to CSIRO and BoM’s projected worse case for 2050. Bolt ignores the fact that I also calculated if Australia’s emissions were reduced by 80% in 2050, warming would be reduced by 0.02 degrees Celsius. Spread across the globe, the value of this benefit would be substantial. Even 0.0038 degrees is worth it. Bolt also claims the 2013 fire season in the US was the quietest in a decade – instead the US fire service has spent the entire $600 million earmarked for fire suppression and emergency, having to dip into other funds, and the Pacific Rim fire was the 6th worst in California’s history.

    I think the fire services better keep an eye on Andrew’s pants. They are dangerous and it’s all due to global warming."

The ABC 7.30 Report detailed this debate in a report by Tracey Bowden on Monday night (21 October): Scientists say climate change link to bushfires demands action (Video and transcript)


Firies campaign against Rural Fire Service funding cuts at by-election

It is not only Federal politics and climate action that is at stake. The State Liberal Government cut funding to the Rural Fires services last year, even with the forecast of a bad fire season.


A by-election on Saturday in the southern Sydney Sate seat of Miranda resulted in a 26 percent 2 party preferred swing against the Liberal candidate to Labor. Firies had been prominent at polling booths during the day urging people to put the Liberals last. The Barry O'Farrell Liberal Government had cut funding on the rural fire service from $307m in 2010-11 to $287m in 2011-12, with a reduction in staff.


Image: Fires around Sydney, Australia - The Sydney Bushfires as seen from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite on Thursday 17 October. Photo Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory


Update Monday 21 October:

Mega bushfire feared as State of Emergency declared in NSW

After two days of milder weather temperature and wind conditions are again worsening over the next few days. The fear is that the multiple fires through the Blue Mountains could link up to form a mega conflagration imperiling all the mountain communities that nest along the Great Western Highway. The fire could funnel down the Grose Valley joining the Springwood fire and crossing the Hawkesbury River to threaten the Richmond and Penrith districts of Western Sydney.

The Premier of NSW Barry O'Farrell on Sunday declared a 30 day State of Emergency which will give additional powers to emergency personnel in ordering evacuations and combatting the bushfires. An indefinite total fire ban has also been declared for Sydney, Hunter, Illawarra/Shoalhaven & Central Ranges.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says they are dealing with 'unparalleled conditions' and are 'in unchartered territory'


    We've seen fires that big but as I said this morning, you've got to go back decades and decades before you see any fires of this parallel and what I mean by that is the sorts of damage, destruction, loss and devastation, that we've witnessed in the last 48 hours is typically aligned to what you would see in December or January.

    I don't recall... any parallel and even then you can't draw a true parallel, you've got to go back to '68 fires where you've got anything of an equivalent order.

    What is fundamentally different today to all those decades past is there is a hell of a lot more people settled across these at risk areas than there was back in the 50s or 60s... so it is in my view unchartered territory, we are dealing with unparalleled conditions which is why we're taking this extremely seriously.

The Mayor of the Blue Mountains City Council Mark Greenhill says the region is looking at a difficult few days ahead. The fire has now jumped the ridge at Mount Victoria and is now burning in the Grose Valley. The Grose valley could funnel the fire to Springwood and the Hawkesbury with a fire front from east to west across the Blue Mountains.

The major towns of Katoomba, Leura, Blackheath could be threatened from the north. Another danger may be spot fires starting in the Megalong Valley. Mark Greenhill said:


    For the city of Blue Mountains, our big concern over the next few days is the fire near Springwood and Winmalee which is sitting in the valley and every time the wind blows it comes out and is a danger to homes.

    The other concern is the State Mine fire, which at the moment is sitting to the north-west of us. If that fire gets into the Gross Valley and it is already spotting in that area, and comes down the Gross Valley and jumps the highway at Falconbridge we have a problem with the whole city.

    We have predictions of wind speeds increasing from 50km/h through to Wednesday it may be 100km/h. We have a significantly difficult couple of days ahead. difficult couple of days ahead.

On Monday morning there were 56 fires burning, 12 uncontained. The Lithgow State Mine Fire, with a 300km perimeter, is still at the top emergency warning level. The NSW Rural Fire Service is focusing on the Blue Mountains, with concerns the Lithgow and Mt Victoria blazes could merge, according to Jessica Dietrich from Seven News (@jessdietrich7).


Prime Minister plays politics with bushfires

In these extraordinary times we have our Prime Minister Tony Abbott working a 14 hour shift over Saturday night helping back-burn around Bilpin in New South Wales. He volunteers with the Davidson Rural Fire Service who were part of the Warringah-Pittwater strike team.

This is really playing politics with the bushfires, distracting from the work of the NSW Rural Fire Service containing the fires, and also drawing the Prime Minister, his security detail and any media into dangerous situations.

We don't need a Prime Minister using the bushfire to raise his macho self-esteem. Rather, he needs to lead the Federal Government on disaster assistance and Federal support to NSW and institute policies that reduce the long term risk factors associated with bushfires. That certainly does mean dealing with climate change through multiple mechanisms including putting a price on carbon.






Cartoonist Cathy Wilcox has a definite view on our new Prime Minister:



NSW Government cut funding to climate science and climate adaptation as well as fire services

In September the Barry O'Farrell NSW State Liberal Government reduced funding for the State's Fire Services. A by-election for the seat of Miranda on Saturday in which Firies handed out how to vote cards asking people to put the Liberals last resulted in a 27 per cent swing to Labor, setting a new post-war record for 2 party preferred swings. Of course multiple issues were involved, such as the change in public transport services and timetables, reduced funding to TAFE, and the fire station closures at a time when fire risks are increasing driven by climate change factors, new development and land use changes.

Significantly, the O'Farrell Government also made deep cuts to staff and funding to two in-house Government teams focused on investigating and preparing for the effects of climate change and climate adaptation. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald by Peter Hannam, NSW's former chief scientist Dr Peter Smith said that both these teams had been slashed from 10 staff to 3 staff.


    "There's been more than a 50 per cent cut in the numbers of staff whose primary focus was climate change," Dr Smith said in his first media comments since leaving the role. "The [Office of Environment and Heritage] was being downgraded anyway from a super department under the previous government to being an office attached to the premier's [department]. The reduction in the climate change [section] was even more significant than the general reduction."

According to research that Dr Smith has participated in, the climate trends indicate that the Blue Mountains and Central Coast regions of NSW could expect to have a 20 per cent to 84 per cent increase in days with potential large fire ignition risk by 2050. The number of days when the Forest Fire Danger Index is most extreme is likely to triple across south eastern Australia.

Dr Smith accused Governments, both Federal and State, of adopting easy actions such as addressing energy efficiency while the difficult decisions on substantial cuts to carbon emissions and climate adaptation measures were deferred.

"When you really see governments are going to take climate change seriously is when you see them spending money on adaptation," Dr Smith told Peter Hannam.

Climate Institute: climate change is impacting Australia now and will only drive more risks

John Conner, CEO of the Climate Institute said in a media release on Friday:

    “The evidence and analysis is clear: climate change is impacting Australia now and will only drive more risks, unless we engage in global efforts to avoid global warming of 2ºC above the pre-industrial average.”

    “With just 2ºC warming, south-east Australia can expect up to five times the number of days of very extreme fire danger by mid-century, according to work The Climate Institute facilitated through the CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology, and Bushfire CRC. And that is just a taste of what is in store.”

    “Our thoughts are with the firefighters, emergency personnel and families at the front line today. But we treat them and countless others in future with reckless disregard if we don’t face up to the reality and costs of climate change.”

The Climate Council outlined the basic facts connecting bushfires with climate change in a Facebook post on 19 October: