Australian Bushfires: Extreme Weather, Climate Change or Both?

Australian bushfires

In the debate about climate change, a common misconception is that weather and climate are the same things. They are not the same, but they are definitely linked together. Evidence is growing to support the belief that extreme weather events are increasing due to human-induced climate change. This chart defines and gives examples of both weather and climate, for those of you that still require clarification…

Social media is wonderful for keeping us aware of what is going on in the rest of the world, but sometimes it is hard to decipher the facts from the fiction and fake news. For example, we in Canada are horrified reading, hearing about, and viewing pictures of the wildfires currently ravaging Australia. To put this catastrophe into perspective, I asked a Canadian friend living in Adelaide Hills, South Australia to put into words the harrowing experience she is living….

For many people around the world summer conjures imagines of fun in the sun. And it does for me too. Here in South Australia we have beautiful, sandy beaches. We’re known as the Festival State and our summers are jam packed with activities. World renowned wine regions are on our door step. Our hot, sunny summers mean we can schedule and attend lots of barbecues and other backyard get-togethers. There’s so much to enjoy and look forward to.

But what many of my overseas family and friends don’t ask when I post the latest forecast of the upcoming heatwave is the question in the back of my mind, ‘Have we done enough?’ While hot dry days sound great when you’re faced with shovelling your driveway for the third time in less than two weeks, for me these days cause concern. I live in the Adelaide Hills—a gorgeous wildlife and nature filled area. It’s also prone to bushfires. I watch the weather and the warnings like a hawk. Each day the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) and the Country Fire Service (CFS) issue fire danger ratings for the various regions within our state. These range from low, high, very high, severe, extreme, up to catastrophic. These ratings are based partially on temperature, but also factor in humidity, fuel loads and their moisture content, wind velocity (speed and direction), if there’s a weather change due and if there’s any associated thunderstorm activity.

Throughout summer it’s typical for any day to have a very high fire danger rating associated with it. We worry when it goes beyond that. Everyone living or travelling through a potential bushfire area is encouraged to have a Bushfire Survival Plan. These plans are different for everyone and are dependent on individual circumstances and requirements. Mine is divided into four stages and takes up the entirety of two single spaced, A4 pages. It’s posted on the inside of my pantry door and everyone knows what’s in it. We’ve practiced our plans and can be out the door and heading up our driveway in less than 10 minutes if an evacuation order is issued. Fires don’t only start on extreme or catastrophic days, and they don’t only start during waking hours. Most importantly, our plan covers what to do if we’re trapped and can’t leave.

However, being bushfire ready isn’t only about loading up the car and heading off to someplace safe. We spend considerable effort during the rest of the year making sure we’re prepared. We have a large 3000 square meter property that lots of trees and wildlife call their home too. In preparation for the “big day,” we move all our important documents and photos to a secure offsite location before the fire season starts. We routinely collect and dispose of deadfall, trim trees and bushes, and keep our eaves troughs/guttering clear of debris. We have lists of things to do in the days and hours before a catastrophic day to try and minimize the threat of ember attack. On bad days we pack up early and leave before anything starts. It’s quite sobering to look at your family huddled in the car and think that this is all that will be left if the worse happens.

The Friday before Christmas this year was a catastrophic day. Fortunately, we had a couple of days warning, but the rating for the next day can come in as late as 4:00pm. We were well on our way when the first fire of the day broke out. It was caused by a tree branch, weakened by drought, falling on some power lines. After that ~190 new fires spawned. These were started by high winds blowing embers many kilometers from the ignition point, and by dry lightning strikes that accompanied a weather change later in the day. The Watch and Act zone was a half hour from my house and embers were starting fires in nearby communities. The family of my middle son’s girlfriend was evacuated. A friend of mine’s home was razed to the ground when a sudden wind change drove the fire across her farm. She and her family were safe, having left early like we did, but for a while they didn’t know the fate of the farm animals they were forced to leave behind. Miraculously, the animals survived unscathed, despite the scorched and blackened ground surrounding them.

2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Our fire season has slowly but surely lengthened. Typically it would run from December to April, but over the years we’ve seen bad fires start in late winter and early spring. Australia is the land of bushfires and flash flooding, but these fires are not what we’ve previously experienced. I hope they don’t become the new normal.

Nancy Leinweber, freelance writer, Adelaide Hills, South Australia

Residents within the bushfire regions rely heavily on the 13,000 volunteers of CFS (South Australia Country Fire Service) for information, warnings, condition updates, advice and help. The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), phone apps and Facebook groups of additional volunteers also provide local updates. It truly sounds like survival of the most informed and prepared.

I will be the first to admit that social media is wonderful for keeping in touch with family and friends around the world. However, it also permits the rampant spread of false information and distortions of the truth. For example, we read here in Canada that the fires in Australia were started by arsonists. Nancy had this to say about the arson stories we heard/read about…

Australia fires

A fire started within my watch zone (a 7km diameter area around my house) yesterday. The wind was blowing away from our property. The CFS dispatched 15 appliances and 3 aircraft (who dropped 12 loads of water). The cause is not suspicious.

In our own area we had ~190 fires start on one day. Zero were attributed to arson. We did have one person arrested for attempting to start fires (I think 4 fires) several days after the day I wrote about in the above comment. I think some of these things are taken out of context. The police released figures stating that 180+ people had been caught starting fires. This included 23 that were arrested and charged with arson. The rest were idiots ignoring common sense and fire-bans. They were warned for doing things like tossing a cigarette butt out of a car window, having a BBQ, using a chainsaw, angle grinder, etc. during total fire-bans. Apparently ~1% or so of bushfires are started by arson and this year is no exception.

An article written by the President of the Australian Academy of Science sums up just how devastating these unprecedented bushfires (as well as other extreme weather events) are, and will continue to be, without science-based consideration and adaptations moving forward…

The scientific evidence base shows that as the world warms due to human induced climate change, we experience an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

Bushfires, along with other weather and climate challenges, pose complex and wide-ranging problems. Population growth, climate change, temperature extremes, droughts, storms, wind and floods are intersecting in ways that are difficult to untangle and address.

Professor John Shine, President of Australian Academy of Science

To learn more about the link between climate change and extreme weather events such as the Australian bushfires, do your research before you spread damaging information. Search for reliable, trustworthy, evidence-based information and ignore the rest.