The Burning Issue: Climate Change and the Australian Bushfire Threat

Australia’s bushfire preparedness is under threat from climate change as bushfire seasons here and in the Northern Hemisphere increasingly overlap, putting new demands on critical shared firefighting aircraft.

Our latest report, The Burning Issue: Climate Change and the Australian Bushfire Threat found the length of the fire season increased by almost 19% globally between 1978 and 2013. Longer fire seasons are reducing opportunities for controlled burning and intensifying pressure on firefighting resources.


Key Findings

1. Record-breaking spring temperatures in 2015, exacerbated by climate change, have driven an early start to the bushfire season in Australia.

  • The maximum temperatures in Melbourne on October 5th and 6th were the hottest ever recorded for the first week of October while temperatures were at least 12°C above average for most of southern Australia on at least one day during that week.
  • Globally, seven months this year have broken their monthly temperature records and 2015 is very likely to surpass 2014 as the hottest year on record.
  • Longer, hotter and more intense heatwaves, and more frequent and severe droughts, are driving up the likelihood of very high bushfire risk, particularly in the southwest and southeast of Australia.

2. North America has faced a deadly bushfire season in 2015.

  • The North American bushfires have been driven by years of severe drought in combination with warmer temperatures, a situation Australia is likely to face with increasing frequency in future.
  • Between January and October of 2015, over 50,000 bushfires burned over 38,000 km2 of land – an area more than half the size of Tasmania, making it one of the worst bushfire years on record in the US.

3. Australia’s bushfire preparedness is at risk from climate change as bushfire seasons increasingly lengthen and overlap with fire seasons in the Northern Hemisphere.

  • Large areas of southeast and southwest Australia are facing above-average bushfire potential for the 2015/2016 summer. Most of the southeast coast of Australia is expected to experience above normal bushfire potential due to a long-term rainfall deficit, relatively low soil moisture, and relatively warm conditions predicted for the summer.
  • Globally, the length of the fire weather season increased by nearly 19% between 1979 and 2013. Longer fire seasons will reduce opportunities for controlled burning and increase pressure on firefighting resources.
  • Some of Australia’s key firefighting aircraft are leased from overseas and are contracted to North American firefighting services during their summer. The fire seasons of the two hemispheres – and the demand for these critical shared firefighting aircraft – will increasingly overlap, challenging such arrangements.
  • During the past decade, state fire agencies have increasingly needed to share personnel and other firefighting resources during peak demand periods. This pressure will continue to intensify and the number of firefighters will need to double by 2030 to meet demand.

4. Stronger climate change action is needed to reduce bushfire risk.

  • Australia’s emissions reduction target of 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030 is not sufficient to protect Australians from worsening bushfires and extreme weather events.
  • Australia must cut emissions more rapidly and deeply to join global efforts to stabilise the world’s climate and the vast majority of Australia’s fossil fuel reserves must stay in ground.