Bushfires in Australia

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Looking towards the town Swifts Creek, Victoria, in December 2006 during the Victorian Alpine fires
Intense bushfires can seriously impact the environment, such as here by the Big River, near Anglers Rest, East Gippsland, after the 2003 Victorian fires

Bushfires in Australia are a widespread and regular occurrence that have contributed significantly to moulding the nature of the continent over millions of years. Eastern Australia is one of the most fire-prone regions of the world, and its predominant eucalyptus forests have evolved to thrive on the phenomenon of bushfire.[1] However the blazes can cause significant property damage and loss of both human and animal life. Bushfires have killed approximately 800 people in Australia since 1851,[2] and billions of animals.

The most destructive fires are usually preceded by extreme high temperatures, low relative humidity and strong winds, which combine to create ideal conditions for the rapid spread of fire.[3] Severe fire storms are often named according to the day on which they peaked, including the five most deadly blazes: Black Saturday 2009 in Victoria (173 people killed, 2000 homes lost); Ash Wednesday 1983 in Victoria and South Australia (75 dead, nearly 1900 homes); Black Friday 1939 in Victoria (71 dead, 650 houses destroyed), Black Tuesday 1967 in Tasmania (62 people and almost 1300 homes); and the Gippsland fires and Black Sunday of 1926 in Victoria (60 people killed over a two month period.[4] Other major conflagrations include the 1851 Black Thursday bushfires, the 2006 December bushfires, the 1974-75 fires that burned up 15% of Australia, and the ongoing 2019–20 bushfires.[5] In January 2020, it was estimated that over 1.25 billion animals have died in the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season.[6]

The gradual drying of the Australian continent over the last 15 million years has produced an ecology and environment prone to fire, which has resulted in many specialised adaptations amongst flora and fauna. Some of the country's flora has evolved to rely on bushfires for reproduction. Aboriginal Australians used to use fire to clear grasslands for hunting and to clear tracks through dense vegetation, and European settlers have also had to adapt to using fire to enhance agriculture and forest management since the 19th century. Fire and forest management has evolved again through the 20th and 21st centuries with the spread of national parks and nature reserves, while post-industrial global warming is predicted to continue increasing the frequency of blazes.[7]

History[edit]

Epicormic shoots sprouting vigorously from epicormic buds beneath the thick bushfire damaged bark of a Eucalyptus tree – one of the mechanisms evolved by plants to survive bushfires
Bushfire damage to forests in East Gippsland, Victoria from the 2003 Eastern Victorian alpine bushfires, two years after fires swept through the area, showing the recovery of trees and undergrowth

Before European settlement[edit]

According to Tim Flannery (The Future Eaters), fire is one of the most important forces at work in the Australian environment. Some plants have evolved a variety of mechanisms to survive or even require bushfires (possessing epicormic shoots or lignotubers that sprout after a fire, or developing fire-resistant or fire-triggered seeds), or even encourage fire (eucalypts contain flammable oils in the leaves) as a way to eliminate competition from less fire-tolerant species.[8] Early European explorers of the Australian coastline noted extensive bushfire smoke. Abel Janszoon Tasman's expedition saw smoke drifting over the coast of Tasmania in 1642 and noted blackened trunks and baked earth in the forests. While charting the east coast in 1770, Captain Cook's crew saw autumn fires in the bush burning on most days of the voyage.[9]

The fires would have been caused by both natural phenomenon and human hands. Aborigines in many regions set fire to grasslands in the hope of producing lusher grass to fatten kangaroos and other game and, at certain times of year, burned fire breaks as a precaution against bushfire.[10] Fire-stick farming was also used to facilitate hunting and to promote the growth of bush potatoes and other edible ground-level plants. In central Australia, they used fire in this way to manage their country for thousands of years.[11]

Flannery writes that "The use of fire by Aboriginal people was so widespread and constant that virtually every early explorer in Australia makes mention of it. It was Aboriginal fire that prompted James Cook to call Australia 'This continent of smoke'." However, he goes on to say: "When control was wrested from the Aborigines and placed in the hands of Europeans, disaster resulted."[12] Fire suppression became the dominant paradigm in fire management leading to a significant shift away from traditional burning practices. A 2001 study found that the disruption of traditional burning practices and the introduction of unrestrained logging meant that many areas of Australia were now prone to extensive wildfires especially in the dry season.[13] A similar study in 2017 found that the removal of mature trees by Europeans since they began to settle in Australia may have triggered extensive shrub regeneration which presents a much greater fire fuel hazard.[14] Another factor was the introduction of gamba grass imported into Queensland as a pasture grass in 1942, and planted on a large scale from 1983. This can fuel intense bushfires, leading to loss of tree cover and long-term environmental damage.[15][16]

Colonial era[edit]

A depiction of the 1851 Black Thursday bushfires in Victoria

Australia's hot, arid climate and wind-driven bushfires were a new and frightening phenomenon to the European settlers of the colonial era. The devastating Victorian bushfires of 1851, remembered as the Black Thursday bushfires, burned in a chain from Portland to Gippsland, and sent smoke billowing across the Bass Strait to north west Tasmania, where terrified settlers huddled around candles in their huts under a blackened afternoon sky.[17] The fires covered five million hectares (around one quarter of what is now the state of Victoria). Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts were badly hit, and around 12 lives were recorded lost, along with one million sheep and thousands of cattle.[18]

New arrivals from the wetter climes of Britain and Ireland learned painful lessons in fire management and the European farmers slowly began to adapt - growing green crops around their haystacks and burning fire breaks around their pastures, and becoming cautious about burn offs of wheatfield stubble and ringbarked trees.[19] But major fire events persisted, including South Gippsland's 1898 Red Tuesday bushfires that burned 260,000 hectares and claimed twelve lives and more than 2,000 buildings.[20]

Since Federation[edit]

Large bushfires continued throughout the 20th century. With increasing population and urban spread into bushland came increasing death tolls and property damage during large fires.[21]

1925-6: Gippsland fires and Black Sunday[edit]

During the 1925–26 Victorian bushfire season, large areas of Gippsland in Victoria caught fire, leading to the Black Sunday fires on 14 February, when 31 people were killed in Warburton, near Melbourne. These fires remain the fifth most deadly bushfires recorded, with 60 people killed over two months.[22]

1938-9 season and Black Friday[edit]

Extent of the 1939 Black Friday bushfires in Victoria

The 1939 fire season was one of the worst on record for Australia, peaking with Victoria's devastating Black Friday bushfires of 13 January, but enduring for the full summer, with fires burning the urban fringes of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, and ash falling as far away as New Zealand.[23] The Black Friday fires were the third deadliest on record, with some 71 people killed and 650 houses destroyed.[24] They followed years of drought and a series of extreme heatwaves that were accompanied by strong northerly winds, after a very dry six months. Melbourne hit 45.6 degrees and Adelaide 46.1. In NSW, Bourke suffered 37 consecutive days above 38 degrees and Menindee hit a record 49.7 degrees on 10 January.[25]

New South Wales also lost hundreds of houses, thousands of stock and poultry, and thousands of hectares of grazing land.[26] By 16 January, disastrous fires were burning in Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT at the climax of a terrible heatwave. Sydney was ringed to the north, south and west by fires from Palm Beach and Port Hacking to the Blue Mountains. Fires blazing at Castle Hill, Sylvania, Cronulla and French's Forest in the city.[27][28] Disastrous fires were also reported at Penrose, Wollongong, Nowra, Bathurst, Ulludulla, Mittagong, Trunkey and Nelligen.[29] Meanwhile, Canberra faced the "worst bushfires" it had experienced, with thousands of hectares burned and a 45 mile fire front driven towards the city by a south westerly gale, destroying pine plantations and many homesteads, and threatening Mount Stromlo Observatory, Government House, and Black Mountain. Large numbers of men were sent to stand by government buildings in the line of fire.[30]

Black Friday

The state of Victoria was hardest hit, with an area of almost two million hectares burned, 71 people killed, and whole townships wiped out, along with many sawmills and thousands of sheep, cattle and horses around Black Friday. Fires had been burning through December, but linked up with devastating force on Friday 13 January, plunging many areas of the state into midday blackness.[31] The Stretton Royal Commission later wrote wrote:[32]

"On [13 January] it appeared that the whole State was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Men carrying hurricane lamps, worked to make safe their families and belongings. Travellers on the highways were trapped by fires or blazing fallen trees, and perished. Throughout the land there was daytime darkness... Steel girders and machinery were twisted by heat as if they had been of fine wire. Sleepers of heavy durable timber, set in the soil, their upper surfaces flush with the ground, were burnt through... Where the fire was most intense the soil was burnt to such a depth that it may be many years before it shall have been restored..." - Stretton Royal Commission.

The townships of Warrandyte, Yarra Glen, Omeo and Pomonal were badly damaged, and fires burned to the urban fringe of Melbourne, affecting towns including Toolangi, Warburton and Thomson Valley. In the Victorian Alps, the towns of Bright, Cudgewa and Corryong were also hit, along with vast areas in the west, in particular Portland, the Otway Ranges and the Grampians. Black Range, Rubicon, Acheron, Noojee, Tanjil Bren, Hill End, Woods Point, Matlock, Erica, Omeo, Toombullup and the Black Forest were also affected. Huge amounts of smoke and ash were generated, with reports of ash falling as far away as New Zealand.[33]

Legacy

After the bushfires, Victoria convened a Royal Commission. Judge Leonard Stretton was instructed to inquire into the causes of the fires, and consider the measures taken to prevent the fires and to protect life and property. He made seven major recommendations to improve forest and fire management, and planned burning became an official fire management practice.[34]

1966-7 and Black Tuesday[edit]

Hobart filled with smoke during the 1967 Tasmanian fires.

In the summer of 1967, Tasmania suffered its most destructive fire season, and Australia's fourth most deadly on record. A verdant spring had added higher than usual fuel to the state's forest floors, and strong northerly winds and high temperatures drove at least 80 different fires across the south-east, burning to within 2km of the centre of Hobart, the state capital. The infernos killed 62 people and destroyed almost 1300 homes.[35]

1993-4 Sydney and NSW eastern seaboard bushfires[edit]

A pall of bushfire smoke over Sydney during the 1994 Eastern seaboard fires.

From 27 December 1993 to 16 January 1994, over 800 severe fires burned along the coastal areas of New South Wales, affecting the state's most populous regions. Blazes emerged from the Queensland border down the north and central coast, through the Sydney basin and down the south coast to Batemans Bay. The 800,000 hectare spread of fires were generally contained within less than 100 kilometres from the coast, and many burned through rugged and largely uninhabited country in national parks or nature reserves.[36] Dramatic scenes of the city of Sydney shrouded in thick bushfire smoke, and bushland suburbs on fire were broadcast around the world.[37]

On 29 December, the Dept of Bushfire Services was monitoring more than a dozen fires around the state, and homes were threatened in Turramurra by a fire in the Lane Cove River reserve, and a scrub fire had briefly cut off the holiday village of Bundeena in the Royal National Park south of Sydney.[38] The Age newspaper reported on 7 January that one quarter of NSW was under threat in the worst fires seen in the state for nearly 50 years, as hundreds of firefighters from interstate joined 4000 NSW firefighters battling blazes from Batemans Bay to Grafton. Fires in the Lane Cove River area at Marsfield, Turramurra, West Pymble and Macquarie Park were threatening hundreds of homes, and the fire in the Royal National Park south of Sydney raged toward Bundeena, where rescue boats evacuated 3100 people caught in the path of the fire. With the Prime Minister Paul Keating on leave, Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe, ordered 100 soldiers to join firefighting efforts, and placed a further 100 on standby.[39]

On Saturday the 8th, the Royal National Park fire swept into the southern Sydney suburbs of Como and Jannali where many homes would be destroyed, along with two schools a church and a kindergarten.[40][41] The Como/Jannali fire burnt 476 hectares and destroyed 101 houses - more than half of the total homes lost in New South Wales during the January emergency period.[42] Also on 8 January, fires had reached to within 1.5km of Gosford city centre, and some 5000 people had been evacuated over that weekend with homes destroyed at Somersby and Peats Ridge.[43]

By 9 January, more than 16,000 people were on standby for evacuation from the Lower Blue Mountains. Thousands of people were sleeping on the football field at the Central Coast Leagues Club, after the evacuation of Kariong, Woy Woy, Umina, Ettalong and Brisbane Waters. Much of Gosford, Kariong and Somersby had been evacuated, along with Terry Hill. Homes at Menai, Sutherland, Chatswood, Lindfield, Turramurra, Macquarie Park and Sydney's northern beaches had been lost. 60 fires were burning on the north coast, as firefighters battled infernos over 30 hectares from Coffs Harbour to the Queensland border. Fires were approaching towns in the Blue Mountains including Blackheath and in the Shoalhaven, including Ulladulla.[44]

Legacy

Some 20,000 firefighters were deployed against around 800 fires mainly along the coast and ranges. The fires caused mass evacuations, claimed four lives, destroyed some 225 homes and burned out 800,000 hectares (2,000,000 acres) of bushland. They were met with amongst the largest firefighting efforts in Australian history. A lengthy Coronial inquest followed the fires, leading to the formation of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.[45] The Rural Fires Act 1997 was proclaimed on 1 September 1997.[46][47]

Northern Australia[edit]

In the last ten years or so, government licenses have been granted to fire-prevention programs on Aboriginal lands in northern Australia. In this area Aboriginal traditions, which reduce the undergrowth that can fuel bigger blazes, revolve around the monsoon. Land is burned patch by patch using "cool" fires in targeted areas during the early dry season, between March and July.[48] These defensive burning programs began in the 1980s and 1990s when Aboriginal groups moved back onto their native lands. Since this process began, destructive bushfires in northern Australia have burned 57% fewer acres in 2019 than they did on average in the years from 2000 to 2010, the decade before the program started.[49]

Oliver Costello from the national Indigenous Firesticks Alliance says that in southern Australia, Aboriginal knowledge systems of fire management are less valued than in the north. In the Kimberley area, the Land council applies local resources and holds community fire planning meetings to ensure the correct people are doing the burning. Burn lines are approved by the group but Indigenous rangers set the fires, backed up by modern technology involving constant weather readings and taking into account the conditions of the day. Costello points out that northern Australia has developed a collaborative infrastructure for 'cultural burning' but notes that: “There’s no investment really outside of northern Australia Indigenous fire management of any significance."[50]

Factors and causes[edit]

Ignition[edit]

In recent times most major bush fires have been started in remote areas by dry lightning[51][52] or by electric power lines being brought down or arcing in high winds. Many fires are as a result of either deliberate arson or carelessness, however these fires normally happen in readily accessible areas and are rapidly brought under control. Man-made events include arcing from overhead power lines, arson, accidental ignition in the course of agricultural clearing, grinding and welding activities, campfires, cigarettes and dropped matches, sparks from machinery, and controlled burn escapes. They spread based on the type and quantity of fuel that is available. Fuel can include everything from trees, underbrush and dry grassy fields to homes. Wind supplies the fire with additional oxygen pushing the fire across the land at a faster rate.

Large, violent wildfires can generate winds of their own, called fire whirls. Fire whirls are like tornadoes and result from the vortices created by the fire's heat. When these vortices are tilted from horizontal to vertical, this creates fire whirls. These whirls have been known to hurl flaming logs and burning debris over considerable distances.[53]

Some reports indicate that a changing climate could also be contributing to the ferocity of the 2019–20 fires with hotter, drier conditions making the country's fire season longer and much more dangerous.[54] Strong winds also promote the rapid spread of fires by lifting burning embers into the air. This is known as spotting and can start a new fire up to 40 km downwind from the fire front.[55] In the Northern Territory fires can also be spread by black kites, whistling kites and brown falcons. These birds have been spotted picking up burning twigs, flying to areas of unburned grass and dropping them to start new fires there. This exposes their prey attempting to flee the blazes: small mammals, birds, lizards, and insects.[56]

Looking towards Dargo, Victoria from Swifts Creek, 11 January 2006

Topography[edit]

A hilly bushfire that charred Prospect Hill, in Sydney.

Bushfires in Australia are generally described as uncontrolled, non-structural fires burning in a grass, scrub, bush, or forested area. The nature of the fire depends somewhat on local topography. Hilly/mountainous fires burn in areas which are usually densely forested. The land is less accessible and not conducive to agriculture, thus many of these densely forested areas have been saved from deforestation and are protected by national, state and other parks. The steep terrain increases the speed and intensity of a firestorm. Where settlements are located in hilly or mountainous areas, bushfires can pose a threat to both life and property. Flat/grassland fires burn along flat plains or areas of small undulation, predominantly covered in grasses or scrubland. These fires can move quickly, fanned by high winds in flat topography, and they quickly consume the small amounts of fuel/vegetation available. These fires pose less of a threat to settlements as they rarely reach the same intensity seen in major firestorms as the land is flat, the fires are easier to map and predict, and the terrain is more accessible for firefighting personnel. Many regions of predominantly flat terrain in Australia have been almost completely deforested for agriculture, reducing the fuel loads which would otherwise facilitate fires in these areas.

Climate change[edit]

Australia's climate has warmed by more than one degree Celsius over the past century, causing an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves and droughts.[57] Eight of Australia's ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2005.[58] A study in 2018 conducted at Melbourne University found that the major droughts of the late 20th century and early 21st century in southern Australia are "likely without precedent over the past 400 years".[59] Across the country, the average summer temperatures have increased leading to record-breaking hot weather,[60] with the early summer of 2019 the hottest on record.[61] 2019 was also Australia's driest ever year since 1900 with rainfall 40% lower than average.[62]

Heatwaves and droughts dry out the undergrowth and create conditions that increase the risk of bushfires. This has become worse in the last 30 years.[63] Since the mid-1990s, southeast Australia has experienced a 15% decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall and a 25% decline in average rainfall in April and May. Rainfall for January to August 2019 was the lowest on record in the Southern Downs (Queensland) and Northern Tablelands (New South Wales) with some areas 77% below the long term average.[64]

In the 2000s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that ongoing anthropogenic climate change was virtually certain to increase in intensity and frequency of fires in Australia – a conclusion that has been endorsed in numerous reports since.[57] In November 2019, the Australian Climate Council published a report titled This is Not Normal[7] which also found the catastrophic bushfire conditions affecting NSW and Queensland in late 2019 have been aggravated by climate change.[64] According to Nerilie Abram writing in Scientific American "the link between the current extremes and anthropogenic climate change is scientifically indisputable".[57]

Carbon emissions[edit]

Until the 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season, the forests in Australia were thought to reabsorb all the carbon released in bushfires across the country. This would mean the forests achieved net-zero emissions. However, scientists now say that global warming is making bushfires burn more intensely and frequently and believe the 2019-2020 fires have already released about 350 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – as much as two-thirds of Australia's average annual carbon dioxide emissions (530 million tonnes in 2017)[65] in just the past three months. David Bowman, professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania warns that so much damage has been done that Australian forests may take more than 100 years to re-absorb the carbon that has been released so far this fire season.[66]

In January 2020, the British Met Office said Australia's bushfires in 2019-2020 were expected to contribute 2% to the increase in the atmospheric concentration of major greenhouse gases which are forecast to hit 417 parts per million, one of the largest annual increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide on record.[67] Climate studies show that conditions which promote extreme bushfires in Australia will only get worse as more greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere.[62]

Seasonality[edit]

Bushfires in Australia can occur all year-round, though the severity and the "bushfire season" varies by region.[68][69][70]

There is no formal definition for a single bushfire season across the whole of Australia. There is no one terminology used for periods of fire activity. The technical terms used for periods of fire risk and fire activity include fire weather season,[71] fire danger season,[71][72] bush fire danger period,[73] fire danger period,[74][75] fire permit period,[76] restricted burning times, and, prohibited burning times,[77] and fire season.[78]

The term "Australian bushfire season", is a colloquialism broadly defined by common usage, from when the first uncontrolled fires start any time from June onwards,[79] typically shortened to "bushfire season", and applies mainly to southern and eastern Australia.[80][81][82] It can continue through to April.[83] Central and northern Australia have two separately defined fire seasons.[78][84] The colloqial term is typically used in conjunction with the technical terms when conveying information to the public.[85][86]

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology defines five "fire danger seasons", being times of peak bushfire activity, roughly corresponding to broad bands of latitude across the Australian continent[71] including winter and spring, across the most northern parts of Australia; spring; spring and summer; summer; and summer and autumn, across the most southern parts of Australia.

Each Australian state and territory jurisdiction defines periods of peak fire risk or fire activity differently. New South Wales has a default statutory "bush fire danger period" defined in law, from 1 October to 31 March.[73] The state government can then declare different start and end dates for bush fire danger periods for each local government area within the state. In 2019 these started 1 August.[87] Victoria declares a "fire danger period" for each local government area. Victorian fire danger periods typically start in October and finish as late as May.[74] The South Australia Government declares a "fire danger season" for each local government area, potentially starting in October and finishing at the end of April.[72] The Tasmanian Government declares "fire permit period"s for local government areas. In 2019 this commenced 31 October.[76] Western Australia requires each local government area to declare its own "restricted burning times" roughly aligned with spring and autumn, and "prohibited burning times" roughly aligned with summer.[88][89][77] The Northern Territory defines two broad "fire season"s, a northern fire season, which can run from April to November, and a central Australian fire season, which can run from October to March.[78] The Government also refers to these as "fire danger period"s.[75]

Bushfire seasons are commonly grouped into years such as "2019–2020 Australian bushfire season" and typically apply to the season for southern and eastern Australia; from 1 June to 31 May annually.

Impact on wildlife[edit]

Bush fires kill animals directly and also destroy local habitats, leaving the survivors vulnerable even once the fires have passed. Professor Chris Dickman at Sydney University estimates that in the first three months of the 2019–2020 bushfires, over 800 million animals died in NSW, and more than 1 billion nationally.[90] This figure includes mammals, birds, and reptiles but does not include insects, bats or frogs. Many of these animals were burnt to death in the fires, with many others dying later due to the depletion of food and shelter resources and predation by feral cats and red foxes. Dickman adds that Australia has the highest rate of species lost of any area in the world,[91] with fears that some of Australia's native species, like the Kangaroo Island dunnart, may even become extinct because of the current fires.[92]

Koalas are perhaps the most vulnerable because they are slow-moving. In extreme fires, koalas tend to climb up to the top of a tree and curl into a ball where they become trapped. In January 2020 it was reported that half of the 50,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island off Australia's southern coast, which are kept separate to those on the mainland as insurance for the species’ future, are thought to have died in the previous few weeks.[93]

Wildlife ecologist Professor Euan Ritchie from Deakin University says that when fires have passed, frogs and skinks are left vulnerable when their habitats have been destroyed. Loss of habitat also affects already endangered species such as the western ground parrot, the Leadbeater's possum, the Mallee emu-wren (a bird which cannot fly very far), and Gilbert's potoroo. Beekeepers have also lost hives in bushfires.[56]

Kangaroos and wallabies can move quickly trying to escape from fires. However, the Guardian reported in January 2020 that dozens, maybe hundreds of kangaroos "perished in their droves" as they tried to outrun the flames near Batlow in NSW.[93] The most resilient animals are those that can burrow or fly. Possums often get singed, but can sometimes hide in tree hollows. Wombats and snakes tend to go underground.[56]

Goannas can benefit from bushfires. Dickman says: "In central Australia, we've seen goannas coming out from their burrows after a fire and picking off injured animals – singed birds, young birds, small mammals, surface-dwelling lizards, and snakes."[56]

Impact on humans[edit]

The most devastating impact on humans is that bushfires have killed over 800 people since 1851.[94] In addition to loss of life, homes, properties, and livestock are destroyed potentially leaving people homeless, traumatised, and without access to electricity, telecommunications and, in some cases, to drinking water.[95]

Health[edit]

Bushfires produce particulate-matter pollution – airborne particles that are small enough to enter and damage human lung tissue. Following the Hazelwood fire in 2014, Fay Johnston, an associate professor of public health at the University of Tasmania's Menzies Institute for Medical Research, says young children exposed to smoke either as infants, toddlers or in the womb develop changes to their lung function. She says: "Unborn babies exposed to the Hazelwood smoke were more likely to experience coughs or colds two to four years after the fires."[96] Other studies conducted in Australia show an increase in respiratory diseases among adults stemming from air pollution caused by bushfires.[97]

As a result of intense smoke and air pollution stemming from the fires, in January 2020 Canberra measured the worst air quality index of any major city in the world. The orange-tinged smoke entered homes and offices buildings across the capital making breathing outside very difficult, forcing businesses and institutions to shut their doors.[98] Studies show that residents of highly polluted cities also have an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. Professor Jalaluddin, a chief investigator with the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Policy Research, says: "There is increasing evidence around air pollution and (the development of) neurological conditions, for example, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's."[96]

Prof David Bowman, director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania, refers to the 2019–2020 fires as "absolutely transformative and unprecedented" in scale and says: "It's pretty much a third of the Australian population that has been impacted, with prolonged, episodic exposure and sometimes extreme health impacts." Since September 2019, close to 3,000 firefighters have been out every day in NSW battling blazes. The NSW RFS says close to 90% of those are unpaid volunteers.[99] David McBride, associate professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Otago says: "They push themselves to the limit – they can suffer heat stress, which is a life-threatening injury, and end up with chronic bronchitis and asthma".[100]

Psychological problems[edit]

Psychological problems following a major bushfire appear to develop when people have a chance to stop and reflect on their experience. A study of 1,526 people who experienced significant losses in the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires found that after 12 months, 42% met the criteria for a psychiatric problem which is double the prevalence in an unaffected community. After twenty months this figure had dropped to 23%.[101]

A typical example of how people are affected is described by the 2016 fire at Yarloop in Western Australia. It virtually destroyed the town (population 395) including 180 homes, historic timber workshops, factories, an old church, the old hospital, shops, the hotel, the fire station and a part of the school. Two people died. Damage to infrastructure included the Samson Brook Bridge, Salmon River Bridge and power infrastructure supplying thousands of homes in the area.[102]

Two years later, local people were still suffering from trauma distress from the fire. Apart from the economic losses suffered by those who lived there, the dislocation to their lives was so great that many in the community were doubtful that the town would be rebuilt.[103] The State Government subsequently spent $64 million rebuilding the town and the surrounding communities.[104]

Economic impact[edit]

Economic damage from 2009's Black Saturday fires, the costliest in Australia's history, reached an estimated $4.4 billion. Moody's Analytics says the cost of the 2019–2020 bushfires is likely to exceed even that figure and will cripple consumer confidence and harm industries such as farming and tourism.[105] Medical bills from the current fires and smoke haze are expected to reach hundreds of millions of dollars with one analysis suggesting disruptions caused by the fire and smoke haze could cost Sydney as much as A$50 million a day.[106] The Insurance Council of Australia estimates that claims for damage from the fires would be more than A$700 million, with claims expected to jump when more fire-hit areas become accessible. In January 2020, the ANZ gauge of consumer confidence fell last week to its lowest level in more than four years.[95]

In response to the current fires, the federal government announced that compensation would be paid to volunteer firefighters, military personnel would be deployed to assist, and an A$2 billion bush fire recovery fund would be established. New South Wales, which has been hardest hit by the crisis, has pledged A$1 billion focused on repairing infrastructure.[107]

Official inquiries[edit]

After many major bushfires, state and federal governments in Australia have initiated inquiries to see what could be done to address the problem. A parliamentary report from 2010 says that between 1939 and 2010, there have been at least 18 major bushfire inquiries including state and federal parliamentary committee inquiries, COAG reports, coronial inquiries and Royal Commissions.[108] Another report published in 2015 says there have been 51 inquiries into wildfires and wildfire management since 1939. The authors note that: "The fact that catastrophic events continue to recur is evidence either that the community is failing to learn the lessons from the past, or the inquiries fail to identify the true learning – that catastrophic events may be inevitable, or that Royal Commissions are not the most effective way to identify relevant lessons from past events".[109]

In January 2020, in the middle of the 2019–2020 bushfire season, Prime Minister Scott Morrison raised the prospect of establishing another royal commission. Morrison told Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that any inquiry into the crisis would need to be comprehensive and investigate climate change as well as other possible causes.[110]

Warnings[edit]

During the fire season, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) provides fire weather forecasts. Fire agencies determine the appropriate Fire Danger Rating by considering the predicted weather including temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and dryness of vegetation. These Fire Danger Ratings are a feature of weather forecasts and alert the community to the actions they should take in preparation for the day. Ratings are broadcast via newspapers, radio, TV, and the internet.[111]

In 2009, a standardised Fire Danger Rating (FDR) was adopted by all Australian states. This included a whole new level – catastrophic fire danger. The first time this level of danger was forecast for Sydney was in November 2019 during the 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season.[112] In 2010, following a national review of the bush fire danger ratings, new trigger points for each rating were introduced for grassland areas in most jurisdictions.

Fire Danger Rating
Category Fire Danger Index
Catastrophic / Code Red Forest 100+ Grass 150+
Extreme Forest 75–100 Grass 100–150
Severe Forest 50–75 Grass 50–100
Very high 25–50
High 12–25
Low to moderate 0–12

Remote monitoring[edit]

Remote monitoring of wildfires is done in Australia. Geoscience Australia developed the (real-time) Sentinel bushfire monitoring system. It uses data from satellites to help fire-fighting agencies assess and manage risks.[113][114][115] There is also MyFireWatch, which is a program based on an existing Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) program, redeveloped by Landgate and Edith Cowan University (ECU) for use by the general public.[116][117] Besides the use of satellites, Australian firefighters also make use of UAV's as a tool for combating fire.[118]

Regional management[edit]

The Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) is the peak body responsible for representing fire, emergency services, and land management agencies in the Australasian region.

Queensland[edit]

The Rural Fire Service (RFS) is a volunteer-based firefighting agency and operates as part of the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services.[119]

New South Wales[edit]

Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW), the Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW), the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) work together to manage and respond to fires across New South Wales.

South Australia[edit]

The Country Fire Service is a volunteer-based fire service in the state of South Australia. The CFS operates as a part of the South Australian Fire and Emergency Services Commission (SAFECOM).

Victoria[edit]

Major bushfires in Victoria in the 2000s

In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) provides firefighting and other emergency services to country areas and regional townships within the state, as well as large portions of the outer suburban areas and growth corridors of Melbourne not covered by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.[120]

Responsibility for fire suppression and management, including planned burning on public land such as State Forests and National Parks, which makes up about 7.1 million hectares or about one-third of the State, sits with the Department of Environment, Land, Water, and Planning (DELWP).

Western Australia[edit]

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) and the Department of Parks and Wildlife (P&W) have joint responsibility for bushfire management in Western Australia.[121] DFES is an umbrella organisation supporting the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), Bush Fire Service (BFS), Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service (VFRS), State Emergency Service (SES), Volunteer Fire and Emergency Service (VFES), Emergency Services Cadets and the Volunteer Marine Rescue Service (VMR).

Tasmania[edit]

The Tasmania Fire Service manages bushfires in Tasmania with the help of Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service and Forestry Tasmania.[122][123]

Guidelines for survival[edit]

Local authorities provide education and information for residents in bushfire-prone regions regarding the location of current fires,[124] preservation of life and property[125] and when to escape by car.[126]

Major bushfires in Australia[edit]

Bushfires have accounted for over 800 deaths in Australia since 1851 and, in 2012, the total accumulated cost was estimated at $1.6 billion.[127] In terms of monetary cost however, they rate behind the damage caused by drought, severe storms, hail, and cyclones,[128] perhaps because they most commonly occur outside highly populated urban areas. However, the severe fires of the summer of 2019–2020 affected densely populated areas including holiday destinations leading NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, to claim it was "absolutely" the worst bushfire season on record.[129]

Some of the most severe Australian bushfires (single fires and fire seasons), in chronological order, have included: (note the 1974/1975 and 2019/2020 bushfires have a combined total of hectares burned)

Name or description State(s) /
territories
Area burned
(approx.)
Date Fatalities Properties damaged Notes
ha acres
Black Thursday bushfires Victoria 5,000,000 12,000,000 6 February 1851 about 12 1 million sheep; thousands of cattle [130][131]
Red Tuesday bushfires Victoria 260,000 640,000 1 February 1898 12 2,000 buildings [131]
1926 bushfires Victoria 390,000 960,000 February–March 1926 60 1,000 [132]
Black Friday bushfires Victoria 2,000,000 4,900,000 December 1938 – January 1939 71 3,700
1944 bushfires Victoria 1,000,000 2,500,000 14 January – 14 February 1944 15–20 more than 500 houses [131]
Woodford/Springwood Bushfire 1944, Blue Mountains New South Wales 18 November 1944 Nil 27 homes
1951–52 bushfires Victoria 4,000,000 9,900,000 November 1951 – January 1952 11 [133]
Black Sunday bushfires South Australia 39,000–160,000 96,000–395,000 2 January 1955 2 40 dwellings including the Governor's summer residence at Marble Hill
Grose Valley bushfire, Blue Mountains 1957 New South Wales 30 November 1957 4 4 boys were killed on a bush walk out to Perrys Lookdown. 5 others survived. The leader of the group got help at Blackheath[citation needed]
1957 Leura bushfire, Blue Mountains New South Wales 2 December 1957 Nil 170 homes in parts of Katoomba, Leura and Wentworth falls One building that was destroyed was the Chateau Napier.[citation needed]
1961 Western Australian bushfires Western Australia 1,800,000 4,400,000 January–March 1961 Nil 160 homes [134]
1962 bushfires Victoria 14–16 January 1962 32 450 houses [132]
1965 Gippsland bushfires Victoria 315,000 780,000 21 Feb –

13 March 1965

Nil 60 buildings, 4000 stock [135]
Southern Highlands bushfires New South Wales 251,000 620,000 5–14 March 1965 3 59 homes
Tasmanian "Black Tuesday" bushfires Tasmania 264,000 650,000 7 February 1967 62 1,293 homes [131]
Dandenong Ranges bushfire Victoria 1,920 4,700 19 February 1968 53 homes; 10 other buildings
1968-69 Killarney Top Springs bushfires Northern Territory 40,000,000 99,000,000 1968–69 [136]
1968 Blue Mountains Bushfire New South Wales 29 November 1968 4 over 120 homes
1969 bushfires Victoria 8 January 1969 23 230 houses [132]
1969-70 Dry River-Victoria River fire Northern Territory 45,000,000 110,000,000 1969–70 [136]
1974–75 Australian bushfire season[a] Nationwide 117,000,000 290,000,000 1974–1975 season 3 15% of Australia burned up. The damage was mostly in central Australia and so it did not impact many communities.

"The 1974/75 fires had almost no impact and much of the damage was found by satellite after the fact”[139]

[137][140][141]
1974 Moolah-Corinya bushfires, Far West NSW New South Wales 1,117,000 2,760,000 Mid-December 1974 3 40 homes, 10,170 kilometres (6,320 mi) of fencing, 50,000 livestock [142][143][144][145]
1974 Cobar bushfire New South Wales 1,500,000 3,700,000 Mid-December 1974 [142][143][144][145]
1974 Balranald bushfire New South Wales 340,000 840,000 Mid December 1974 [143][144][145]
1974–75 New South Wales bushfires New South Wales 4,500,000 11,000,000 1974–1975 season 6 [146][147][148]
1974–1975 Northern Territory bushfires Northern Territory 45,000,000 110,000,000 1974–1975 season [136]
1974–1975 Queensland bushfires Queensland 7,500,000 19,000,000 1974–1975 season [136]
1974–1975 South Australia bushfires South Australia 17,000,000 42,000,000 1974–1975 season [136]
1974–1975 Western Australia bushfires Western Australia 29,000,000 72,000,000 1974–1975 season [136]
Western Districts bushfires Victoria 103,000 250,000 12 February 1977 4 116 houses, 340 buildings
Blue Mountains Fires 1977 New South Wales 54,000 130,000 17 December 1977 2 49 houses
1978 Western Australian bushfires Western Australia 114,000 280,000 4 April 1978 2 6 buildings (drop in wind in early evening is said to have saved the towns of Donnybrook, Boyup Brook, Manjimup, and Bridgetown.)
1979 Sydney bushfires New South Wales December 1979 5 28 homes destroyed, 20 homes damaged [149]
1980 Waterfall bushfire New South Wales 1,000,000 2,500,000 3 November 1980 5 firefighters 14 homes [150]
Grays Point bushfire New South Wales 9 January 1983 3 volunteer firefighters [41]
Ash Wednesday bushfires
  • South Australia
  • Victoria
418,000 1,030,000 16 February 1983 75 about 2,400 houses
1984 Western New South Wales grasslands bushfires New South Wales 500,000 1,200,000 25 December 1984 40,000 livestock, $40 million damage [143][144][145]
1985 Cobar bushfire New South Wales 516,000 1,280,000 Mid January 1985 Nil [143][144]
1984/85 New South Wales bushfires New South Wales 3,500,000 8,600,000 1984–1985 season 5 [143][144][145][146][147][148]
Central Victoria bushfires Victoria 50,800 126,000 14 January 1985 3 180+ houses
1994 Eastern seaboard fires New South Wales 400,000 990,000 27 December 1993 –

16 January 1994

4 225 homes [151]
Wooroloo bushfire Western Australia 10,500 26,000 8 January 1997 Nil 16 homes
Dandenongs bushfire Victoria 400 990 21 January 1997 3 41 homes [152]
Lithgow bushfire New South Wales 2 December 1997 2 firefighters [152]
Menai bushfire New South Wales 2 December 1997 1 firefighter 11 homes destroyed, 30 homes damaged [153]
Perth and SW Region bushfires Western Australia 23,000 57,000 2 December 1997 2 1 home lost
Linton bushfire Victoria 2 December 1998 5 firefighters [154]
Black Christmas bushfires New South Wales 300,000 740,000 25 December 2001 – 2002 Nil 121 homes
2002 NT bushfires Northern Territory 38,000,000 94,000,000 August–November 2002 [136]
2003 Canberra bushfires Australian Capital Territory 160,000 400,000 18–22 January 2003 4 almost 500 homes [152]
2003 Eastern Victorian alpine bushfires Victoria 1,300,000 3,200,000 8 January – 8 March 2003 3 41 homes
Tenterden Western Australia 2,110,000 5,200,000 December 2003 2 [citation needed]
2005 Eyre Peninsula bushfire South Australia 77,964 192,650 10–12 January 2005 9 93 homes
2006 Central Coast bushfire New South Wales New Years Day, 2006
Jail Break Inn Fire, Junee New South Wales 30,000 74,000 New Years Day 2006 Nil Livestock losses estimated to be over 20,000. Seven homes, seven headers and four shearing sheds destroyed. 1,500 kilometres (930 mi) of fencing damaged. [155][156]
2005 Victorian bushfires Victoria 160,000 400,000 December 2005 –

January 2006

4 57 houses, 359 farm buildings, 65,000 stock losses, fires occurred in the Stawell, Moondarra, Anakie, Yea, and Kinglake regions. [157]
Grampians bushfire Victoria 184,000 450,000 January 2006 2
Pulletop bushfire, Wagga Wagga New South Wales 9,000 22,000 6 February 2006 Nil 2,500 sheep and 6 cattle killed, 3 vehicles and 2 hay sheds destroyed as well as 50 kilometres (31 mi) of fencing.
The Great Divides bushfire Victoria 1,048,000 2,590,000 1 December 2006 –

March 2007

1 51 homes
2006–07 Australian bushfire season
  • New South Wales
  • South Australia
  • Tasmania
  • Victoria
  • Western Australia
1,360,000 3,400,000 September 2006 –

January 2007

5 Over 100 structures including 83 houses; numerous non-residential structures [158][159][160][161][162][163][164]
Dwellingup bushfire Western Australia 12,000 30,000 4 February 2007 Nil 16
2007 Kangaroo Island bushfires South Australia 95,000 230,000 6–14 December 2007 1
Boorabbin National Park Western Australia 40,000 99,000 30 December 2007 3 Powerlines and Great Eastern Highway, forced to close for 2 weeks.
Black Saturday bushfires Victoria 450,000 1,100,000 7 February 2009 –

14 March 2009

173 2,029+ houses, 2,000 other structures.
Toodyay bushfire Western Australia 3,000 7,400 29 December 2009 Nil 38
Lake Clifton bushfire Western Australia 2,000 4,900 11 January 2011 Nil 10 homes destroyed.
Roleystone Kelmscott bushfire Western Australia 1,500 3,700 6–8 February 2011 Nil 72 homes destroyed, 32 damaged, Buckingham Bridge on Brookton Highway collapsed and closed for 3 weeks whilst a temporary bridge was constructed and opened a month after the fires.
Margaret River bushfire Western Australia 4,000 9,900 24 November 2011 Nil 34 homes destroyed including the historic Wallcliffe House. [165]
Tasmanian bushfires Tasmania 20,000 49,000 4 January 2013 1 At least 170 buildings
Warrumbungle bushfire New South Wales 54,000 130,000 18 January 2013 Nil At least 53 homes, 118 sheds, agricultural machinery and livestock. Infrastructure destroyed at Siding Spring Observatory. [166]
2013 New South Wales bushfires New South Wales 100,000 250,000 17–28 October 2013 1 As of 19 October 2013 at least 248 buildings destroyed statewide (inc. 208 dwellings), another 109 damaged in Springwood, Winmalee and Yellow Rock. Major fires also occurred in the Hunter, Central Coast, Macarthur and Port Stephens regions causing significant damage. [167][168][169]
Carnarvon bushfire complex Western Australia 800,000 2,000,000 27 December 2011 –

3 February 2012

Nil 11 pastoral stations (fences, watering systems, water points, stock feed).
2014 Parkerville bushfire Western Australia 386 950 12 January 2014 Nil 56 homes.
2015 Sampson Flat bushfires South Australia 20,000 49,000 2–9 January 2015 Nil 27 homes, 140 outbuildings
2015 O'Sullivan bushfire (NorthcliffeWindy Harbour) Western Australia 98,923 244,440 29 January – 20 February 2015 Nil 1 home and 1 inhabited shed, 5 farm sheds and thousands of hectares of production forests (karri and jarrah) or national parks.
2015 Lower Hotham bushfire (Boddington) Western Australia 52,373 129,420 January 2015 Nil 1 house, 1 farm shed, 1 bridge and thousands of hectares of production forest (jarrah) or national parks.
2015 Esperance bushfires Western Australia 200,000 490,000 October–November 2015 4 About 10 houses and public buildings (Scaddan), 15,000 stock losses, 5 Nature Reserves et most area of Cape Arid national park. [170][171]
Perth Hills bushfire complex – Solus Group Western Australia 10,016 24,750 15–24 November 2015 Nil Jarrah production forest and Conservation Park.
2015 Pinery bushfire South Australia 85,000 210,000 25 November – 2 December 2015 2 91 dwellings.
2016 Murray Road bushfire (Waroona and Harvey) Western Australia 69,165 170,910 January 2016 2 181 dwellings (166 only in Yarloop), historical Yarloop Workshops and thousands of hectares of Lane Poole Reserve and production forest (jarrah). [172]
2017 New South Wales bushfires New South Wales 52,000 130,000 11–14 February 2017 Nil 35 dwellings. [173]
2017 Carwoola bushfire New South Wales 3,500 8,600 17–18 February 2017 Nil 11 dwellings destroyed; 12 damaged. [174]
2018 Tathra bushfire New South Wales 1,200 3,000 18–19 March 2018 Nil 69 houses and 30 caravans/cabins destroyed; 39 damaged. [175]
Tabulam bushfire New South Wales 4,000 9,900 early February 2019 Nil 10 homes and 23 outbuildings destroyed.
Tingha bushfire New South Wales 17,000 42,000 early February 2019 Nil 8 homes and 18 outbuildings destroyed.
2019–20 Australian bushfire season
  • New South Wales
  • Queensland
  • South Australia
  • Tasmania
  • Victoria
  • Western Australia
  • Northern Territory
  • Australian Capital Territory
18,626,000 46,030,000 5 September 2019 – present 34 (including 3 NSW firefighters, 1 Victorian firefighter, and 3 US firefighters who were killed in a Lockheed C-130 Hercules water bomber crash in the Snowy Monaro region)[176] 2600+ homes currently confirmed destroyed (as of 13 January 2020)
  • NSW 2162+ homes destroyed
  • SA 100+ homes destroyed
  • Vic 54+ homes destroyed
  • Qld 40+ homes destroyed
  • NT 5 homes destroyed
  • Tas 1 home destroyed
  • ACT recycling tip impacted
  • WA unknown homes destroyed
  • in total roughly over 8000 buildings have been lost nationwide (includes homes, out buildings and businesses/facilities)
Area[177] Other[178][179][180][181][182][183][184][185][186][187][188][189]
At least 1,000,000,000 wild animals are estimated to have died (not including frogs and insects) with some species thought to be facing extinction.[190]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The 1974–75 bushfire season burnt over 100 Mha, but there are different figures reported:
    • In 1995, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported 117 Mha[137]
    • The 2004 National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management reports a total of 102 Mha[138]
    The extent of the 1974–75 bushfire season was not known until after the event when satellite images were analysed, due to the fires being mostly located in very remote areas of the continent.[139]

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