This is not normal: what’s different about the NSW mega fires

11.11.19 By
This article is more than 4 years old

The following article was written by Greg Mullins and published in Fairfax newspapers on Monday, 11 November 2019.

Greg Mullins is a Climate Councillor, member of the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action and Former NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner. He has decades of frontline experience and has witnessed firsthand how climate change has exacerbated fire conditions in Australia and lengthened fire seasons in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

If you are in an area that is at high risk of fire danger, it’s critical you stay up-to-date with official emergency warnings and safety messages.

This is not normal: What’s different about the NSW mega fires – Greg Mullins, Monday, 11 November 2019.

I write this piece reluctantly, because there are still possible fire victims unaccounted for; people have lost loved ones; and hundreds of families have lost their homes. My heart goes out to them. 

I don’t want to detract in any way from the vital safety messages that our fire commissioners and Premier will be making about Tuesday’s fire potential.

Everyone needs to heed the fire service warnings to prepare, to have a plan, and to leave early if you’re not properly prepared. Know that the best firefighters in the world – volunteer and paid – will be out in force from NSW agencies and interstate to do battle with the worst that an angry Mother Nature can throw at us. But as we saw on Friday, the sheer scale and ferocity of mega fires can defy even the best efforts.

In the past I’ve heard some federal politicians dodge the question of the influence of climate change on extreme weather and fires by saying, “It’s terrible that this matter is being raised while the fires are still burning.” But if not now, then when?

“Unprecedented” is a word that we are hearing a lot: from fire chiefs, politicians, and the weather bureau. I have just returned from California where I spoke to fire chiefs still battling unseasonal fires. The same word, “unprecedented”, came up.

Unprecedented dryness; reductions in long-term rainfall; low humidity; high temperatures; wind velocities; fire danger indices; fire spread and ferocity; instances of pyro-convective fires (fire storms – making their own weather); early starts and late finishes to bushfire seasons. An established long-term trend driven by a warming, drying climate. The numbers don’t lie, and the science is clear.

If anyone tells you, “This is part of a normal cycle” or “We’ve had fires like this before”, smile politely and walk away, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Firefighter battles blaze in Old Bar, NSW – Photo: Darren Pateman / AAP

In NSW, our worst fire years were almost always during an El Nino event, and major property losses generally occurred from late November to February. Based on more than a century of weather observations our official fire danger season is legislated from October 1 to March 31. 

During the 2000’s though, major fires have regularly started in August and September, and sometimes go through to April.

The October 2013 fires that destroyed more than 200 homes were the earliest large-loss fires in NSW history – again, not during an El Nino.

This year, by the beginning of November, we had already lost about as many homes as during the disastrous 2001-2002 bushfire season. We’ve now eclipsed 1994 fire losses.

Fires are burning in places and at intensities never before experienced – rainforests in northern NSW, tropical Queensland, and the formerly wet old-growth forests in Tasmania.

On Friday, the NSW Rural Fire Service sent out an alert that fires were creating thunderstorms – pyro-convective events. In my 47 years of fighting fires I don’t remember this happening much. 

Now it happens quite regularly. On Friday, the atmosphere was relatively stable and therefore shouldn’t have been conducive to these wildly unpredictable and dangerous events. Yet it happened. Unprecedented.

The drought we are facing is more intense than the Millennium Drought, with higher levels of evaporation due to higher temperatures. This has dried out the bush and made it easier for fires to start, easier for them to spread quickly, and as we saw on Friday, enabling spot fires to start twice as far ahead of the main fires as we would normally expect.

Warmer, drier conditions with higher fire danger are preventing agencies from conducting as much hazard reduction burning – it is often either too wet, or too dry and windy to burn safely. 

Blaming “greenies” for stopping these important measures is a familiar, populist, but basically untrue claim.

Together with 22 other retired fire and emergency service chiefs, I spoke out earlier this year. 

We felt we had a duty to tell people how climate change is super-charging our natural disaster risks. I wish we were wrong, but we’re not.

I’m confident that our national government, when the smoke and dust settles, will finally see the obvious and understand the word “unprecedented”. I’m sure it will then start to take decisive action to tackle the base cause – greenhouse emissions – then use the high moral ground to lean on other countries to also do the right thing.

In the meantime, please, please play it safe, and act on the vital fire service warnings.

Greg Mullins AO, AFSM
Climate Councillor
Former Commissioner of Fire and Rescue NSW, former President of the Australasian Fire & Emergency Service Authorities’ Council.

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Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) is an initiative of the Climate Council. The group is comprised of 23 former senior Australian fire and emergency service leaders, who have observed how Australia is experiencing increasingly catastrophic extreme weather events that are putting lives, properties and livelihoods at greater risk and overwhelming our emergency services. To support the work of ELCA and the Climate Council, click here. To learn more about ELCA and to read the joint statement, head to the ELCA website here.