The bushfires of the future are already here. They burn earlier in the season, and more ferociously, and can interact with extreme weather events to create fires we don’t know how to fight.
By Ben Deacon, Kathleen Ferguson, Meredith Griffiths, Liz Keen, Meghna Bali, Andy Burns, Joanna Woodburn and Scott Mitchell
- The national aerial firefighting centre, which two years ago flagged the need for an $11m funding boost, still has not received a decision from the Federal Government
- The Government has not guaranteed funding for the only national body researching the future of bushfires
- Twenty-three emergency services experts calling on the Government to consider the threat of climate change in fire planning have not received a response
This year, the bushfire season began with the worst September in recorded history, with 55 homes destroyed.
The Australian winter was only just in the rear-view mirror when 130 bushfires ripped through southern Queensland and northern NSW in one day.
Australia’s former chief scientist, Ian Chubb, said it was clear the climate was changing.
“It’s not just some passing phase that it didn’t rain this decade,” he said. “The implications of that for fire are pretty obvious.” Follow this story to get email or text alerts from ABC News when there is a future article following this storyline. Follow this story
Former New South Wales fire and rescue commissioner and Climate Council member Greg Mullins said unprecedented conditions could give rise to so-called Black Swan fire events.
“We’re going to have fires that I can’t comprehend, and I’ve been in the game for nearly half a century,” he said
A Black Swan is something without precedent and thought to be impossible, until it happens.
When it comes to bushfires, these Black Swans happen as our environment changes, creating conditions firefighters have never seen before.
Emergency experts and senior scientists have told a joint ABC investigation that a comprehensive national plan is needed to tackle the fires of the future, and they are concerned about the lack of financial commitment from the Federal Government for resources and research.
“This is a national issue that all people in Australia, regardless of whether they are left or right, have a right to expect that we will face up to challenges that are ahead,” Professor Chubb said.
Inside a Black Swan fire event
When an unprecedented heatwave swept New South Wales in 2017, it set the conditions for a Black Swan fire event.
The Sir Ivan fire began east of Dunedoo and would burn through 55,000 hectares.
By the time Rural Fire Service captain Shane Rawlinson arrived, it had become a maelstrom of flame so powerful it created its own weather system.
“Have you seen the movie Dante’s Inferno? It just looked like hell,” he said.
“It looked like the air itself was burning.”
Clouds of smoke became a firestorm that shot lightning bolts up to 80 kilometres away, which started yet more fires.
“The worst lightning storm that you can imagine, coupled with a dust storm, blocking out everything as it came,” he said.
“The noise was like 10 or 20 big trucks roaring towards you at one time, with all their motors peak revving.”
The blaze was unlike anything the NSW RFS had ever dealt with, according to Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
“It was unprecedented in New South Wales,” he said
Commissioner Fitzsimmons reiterated the need for federal funding to deal with these conditions.
“We have extraordinary support assistance and engage in arrangements with the Commonwealth,” he said. “I would expect that to only grow and improve in the decades ahead.”
‘Asleep at the wheel’
Prepare to burn
Bushfire season is already here. Are we ready for the summer ahead?
“We’re also seeing not just the change in the frequency of those events, we’re seeing a change in the severity, so the worst fire danger days are getting worse,” he said.
An RFS spokesman confirmed firefighters started to see fire thunderstorms during the northern NSW fires in September.
Even though the threat of more unprecedented fire events is bearing down on us, Australia is not sufficiently prepared to fight them, according to Professor David Bowman, who specialises in how fire interacts with the landscape.
“A lot of firefighting has really got to be done five years before the firestorm,” he said. “You’ve got to be doing the prep.”
“Unfortunately, we’re asleep at the wheel — as a community, we’re just not getting it.”
Numbers of volunteer firefighters across Australia are in decline: at least 7,000 have left brigades in the past five years.
Emergency service executives have also told Background Briefing one challenge they’re already facing is that state bushfire seasons are starting to overlap. This means the system of states and territories lending each other resources is increasingly strained.
Currently about 140 aerial firefighting aircraft are leased under a national system that ensures planes and helicopters can be deployed at 15 minutes’ notice.
The locations of these crafts vary, but usually the arrival of the wet season in Queensland means water-bombing planes could then be lent to Western Australia during their season, while Tasmania borrows from Victoria
So far, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) has managed competing needs, but general manager Richard Alder acknowledged overlapping seasons were a risk.
Two years ago, the NAFC sent a proposal on behalf of all states and territories to Canberra for an annual increase of $11 million above its existing $15 million funding, which would contribute to contracting large water-bombing aircraft from countries such as the US.
They still haven’t received a decision from the Federal Government.
Background Briefing has obtained documents that show the proportion of federal funding for NAFC has more than halved since 2003.
Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management David Littleproud said he would raise the business case at the next Ministerial Council meeting.
“We haven’t made a decision around the aerial assets,” he told Background Briefing. “We’ll continue to work with the states in a mature way.”
He said the Government was cognisant firefighting resources were going to be needed for longer periods in more jurisdictions than before and was committed to finding solutions.
The cost of natural disasters is projected to reach an average of $39 billion by 2050
In Australia, states and territories are responsible for disaster management, but the Federal Government does play a role in coordinating resources.
“The Federal Government is missing in action,” said Mr Mullins. “What I’ve heard from a number of sectors is that this Government fundamentally doesn’t believe in climate change, doesn’t think that anything needs to be done.”
Mr Mullins is one of 23 emergency services experts from every state and territory who have written to the Government, asking for strategic national firefighting resources to cope with climate change.
They have not received a response.
Black Swans put pressure on firefighters
When RFS Captain Mike Gorman arrived at the Sir Ivan firestorm, he said his crew was given an order that left him baffled. They were told not to battle the fires.
“Property owners had their utes in the paddocks trying to put out the fires,” he said. “We had a lady approach our truck who literally banged on the side of my driver’s door and asked why weren’t we helping.”
He didn’t have an answer for the woman. Captain Gorman and his crew had driven more than 400 kilometres inland to reach the town of Leadsville, but had then been told the fire was too dangerous to fight
As the fire reached the town, Captain Gorman said he received another set of disturbing orders.
“We were ordered to leave the village, even though the village hadn’t been evacuated,” he said. “Literally, in front of our fire truck there were a couple of families on a house veranda.”
Instead, Captain Gorman said his crew defied orders, forced commanding officers on the radio to relent, and returned to the town to fight the fires with residents.
Today, he still doesn’t know who made the decision to tell crews not to fight the fires.
“I’ve always had the feeling that the RFS weren’t interested in acknowledging that anything was wrong,” he said. “They haven’t welcomed any internal criticism.”
In response, Commissioner Fitzsimmons said the day presented complex challenges.
“You’re talking about a very significant, rapidly unfolding fire ground,” he told Background Briefing. “There could be all manner of reasons why a particular team might have been given a specific direction.”
He said fire seasons were getting longer and volunteer numbers were dropping, but that the RFS was ready for the future.
“We are very mindful that it’s going to be potentially a long, hot and difficult fire season ahead,” he said.
Predicting Black Swans
One organisation trying to understand how we can better respond to unprecedented fires is the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.
It contributed to research that helped predict the Sir Ivan fire would develop into a fire thunderstorm 24 hours before it did, allowing firefighters to prepare.
The centre received funding after the Black Saturday royal commission recommended long-term funding for a national centre for bushfire research.
But 10 years on from Black Saturday, Richard Thornton, CEO of the organisation, confirmed the Federal Government had not guaranteed its funding past 2021.
“Ideally, we would like to be able to see at least some level of ongoing sustainable funding, because it allows some of those longer term issues to be addressed,” he said
Mr Littleproud said a final decision has not yet been made.
“We’ve definitely made no decision about not funding it, and we’ll continue to look at that,” he told Background Briefing.
The Government’s refusal to commit to the long-term future of the centre was disappointing to Professor Chubb.
“There should be a strategy for the nation,” he said. “Government should be held to account for not using the evidence and letting some ideological position get in the way of developing good public policy based on evidence.”
Mr Littleproud said the Government did acknowledge the role climate change had played in escalating fire risks.
“I haven’t seen this in my life before and I don’t know where it’s going to end,” he said. “I think it would be remiss of anybody not to suggest that it is not climate change that has caused a lot of this.”
When asked on September 9 if he believed climate change caused by human activities contributed to worsening fire conditions, Mr Littleproud told Hamish Macdonald on RN Breakfast: “We’re adapting to it as the climate continues to change and we’ll continue to equip our service workers, whether it’s man-made or not is irrelevant.”
First published by The ABC Background Briefing Team. October 7 2019. See: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-10-04/the-bushfires-of-the-future-are-here-black-swan/11559930