Be Prepared: Climate Change and the NSW Bushfire Threat

Residents of NSW have experienced the serious consequences of bushfires. In 2013, bushfires in January and October burnt 768,000 hectares of land and destroyed 279 homes. Tragically, 2 people lost their lives and damages were in excess of an estimated $180 million.

Australians have always lived with fire and its consequences, but climate change is increasing fire danger weather and thus the risk of fires. It is time to think very seriously about the risks that future fires will pose.

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SIX KEY FINDINGS

1. Climate change is already increasing the risk of bushfires in NSW

  • Extreme fire weather has increased over the last 30 years in NSW.
  • Hot, dry conditions have a major influence on bushfires. Climate change is making hot days hotter, and heatwaves longer and more frequent, with increasing drought conditions in Australia’s southeast. 2013 was Australia’s hottest year on record and in NSW the annual mean temperature was 1.23ºC above average. The summer of 2013/14 was also the driest summer that Sydney has experienced in 27 years. These conditions are driving up the likelihood of very high fire danger weather in the State.
  • Australia is a fire prone country and NSW has always experienced bushfires. Today hotter and drier conditions are increasing the risk of high fire danger weather.

2. In NSW the fire season is starting earlier and lasting longer. Fire weather has been extending into Spring and Autumn.

  • In 2014, the bushfire season has started early in parts of NSW, and 55 Local Government Areas started the season early.
  • The fire season will continue to lengthen into the future.

3. Recent severe fires in NSW have been influenced by record hot, dry conditions.

  • Record-breaking heat and hotter weather over the long term in NSW has worsened fire weather and contributed to an increase in the frequency and severity of bushfires.
  • In October 2013, exceptionally dry conditions contributed to severe bushfires on the Central Coast and in the Blue Mountains, which early estimates suggest caused over $180 million in damages.
  • At the beginning of August 2014 volunteers were fighting 90 fires simultaneously, and properties were destroyed.

4. The total economic costs of NSW bushfires in 2014 are projected to be $43 million. By around the middle of the century these costs will almost triple.

  • Bushfires have caused significant economic damage, estimated at $337 million per year (2011$) in Australia. The total economic cost of bushfires is expected to reach $800 million annually by mid-century.
  • These State and national projects do not incorporate increased bushfire incident rates due to climate change: they could potentially be much higher.

5. In the future, NSW is very likely to experience an increased number of days with extreme fire danger. Communities, emergency services and health services across NSW must prepare.

  • Fire severity and intensity is expected to increase substantially in coming decades, especially in regions most affected by bushfires where a substantial proportion of Australians live, like NSW.
  • As fire risk increases, disaster risk reduction will play a critical role in reducing risks to people and their assets. Increased resources for our emergency services and fire management agencies will be required.

6. This is the critical decade.

  • To reduce the risk of even more extreme events, including bushfires, in the future, Australia must cut greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and deeply to join global efforts to stabilise the world’s climate.

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