Introductory note: The Climate Council will publish a report on bushfire risk in Queensland in early 2019. This builds on a significant body of published work by the Council, including a 2016 report entitled Be Prepared: Climate Change and the Queensland Bushfire Threat. With devastating and unprecedented bushfires currently burning in Queensland, the Council believes it is important to release the Interim Findings of the upcoming report to provide information for the Australian community.
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Climate change has increased the risk of bushfires in Queensland.
- Bushfire risk is increased by fuel dryness and hot, dry, windy conditions.
- Climate change has increased the incidence of extreme heat, making heatwaves longer and more frequent. Eight of the state’s ten hottest years on record have occurred since 1998. Since the 1970s, the number of days with maximum temperatures over 35°C in most of Queensland has increased by about 10-45 days above the historical average, depending on the region.
- Tropical and sub-tropical Queensland is often associated in people’s minds with warm, humid conditions and moist vegetation not conducive to major bushfires. This is changing. More frequent heatwave events typified by hot, dry air masses coming from the interior result in higher temperatures accompanied by lower humidity. This increases evaporation and rapidly dries out fuels, even in rainforests, making conditions more conducive to major bushfires. Major bushfires were burning as far north as Cairns in August and September 2018.
- Weekly bushfire frequencies in Australia have increased by 40% between 2008 and 2013, with tropical and subtropical Queensland the most severely affected.
- Extreme fire weather and longer fire seasons have been observed since the 1970s across much of Australia including Queensland, particularly along the east coast.
The devastating bushfires burning across Queensland in November 2018 have been made worse by climate change.
In late November 2018, maximum temperature records were smashed at numerous locations including at Cairns (42.6°C), Innisfail (42°C), and Mackay (39.7°C) on Monday 26 November and at Townsville (41.7°C) and Cooktown (43.9°C) on Tuesday 27 November (see Table 1).
Strong, gusting winds, low humidity and record high temperatures fanned devastating bushfires over the past two weeks, affecting property, infrastructure, ecosystems and farming land. Climate change is driving a higher incidence of these conditions. Around 130 fires are still burning across the state as of 29 November.
On 29 November several areas of Queensland experienced “Catastrophic” fire weather conditions for the first time ever recorded. In these conditions fires are uncontrollable and loss of life and property is expected unless large-scale evacuations take place.
Communities, emergency services and health services across Queensland need to be adequately resourced to cope with increasing bushfire risk.
- Bushfires in Queensland over the years have caused numerous deaths and losses of property and infrastructure, and have negatively affected agricultural and forestry production, and ecosystems.
- The average annual economic cost of bushfires in Australia is $1.1 billion per year (Deloitte 2017).
- Inhalation of smoke and gases from bushfires can affect human health, especially in the elderly, young or those with heart or respiratory conditions.
- Increasing severity, intensity and frequency of fires, coupled with increasing length of bushfire seasons throughout Australia, is straining Queensland’s existing resources and capacity for fighting and managing fires.
- During the current fires other states and territories have sent firefighters, fire trucks and aircraft to Queensland to assist. Queensland’s bushfire season usually does not extend this long, and fortuitously, NSW and the ACT, which normally would be experiencing heightened bushfire threats now, have experienced some rain allowing them to release resources.
- Overlapping fire seasons will increasingly restrict the ability of states and territories, and of other countries such as the USA, Canada and New Zealand, to send firefighting assistance. This will drive increased costs for state and territory governments, or alternatively, increased losses.
Stronger climate change action is needed to reduce bushfire risk.
Australia must reduce its greenhouse gas pollution rapidly and deeply to reduce the risk of exposure to extreme events, including bushfires. Burning fossil fuels, like coal, oil and gas, must be phased out.
So-called ‘clean coal’ or any new fossil fuel projects, such as Adani’s Carmichael mine, are not compatible with effectively tackling climate change.
We have the solutions at our disposal to tackle climate change, we need to accelerate the transition to renewables and storage technologies, and non-polluting transport, infrastructure, and food production.
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