Forest fires in Australia are burning more land across more of the year than ever before, as climate-linked fire weather worsens.

The Black Summer forest fires of 2019–2020 burned more than 24 million hectares, directly causing 33 deaths and almost 450 more from smoke inhalation.

But were these fires unprecedented? You might remember sceptics questioning the idea that the Black Summer fires really were worse than conflagrations like the 1939 Black Friday fires in Victoria.

We can now confidently say that these fires were far from normal. Our new analysis of Australian forest fire trends just published in Nature Communications confirms for the first time the Black Summer fires are part of a clear trend of worsening fire weather and ever-larger forest areas burned by fires.

What did we find?

Our study found that the annual area burned by fire across Australia’s forests has been increasing by about 48,000 ha per year over the last three decades. After five years, that would be roughly the size of the entire Australian Capital Territory (235,000 hectares).

We found three out of four extreme forest fire years since states started keeping records 90 years ago have occurred since 2002.

And we found that the fire season is growing, moving out of spring and summer into autumn and winter.

These trends are almost entirely due to Australia’s increasingly severe fire weather and are consistent with predicted human-induced climate change.

Our study is based on satellite and ground-based estimates of burnt forest area, and trends of nine wildfire risk factors and indices that relate to characteristics of fuel loads, fire weather, extreme fire behaviour, and ignition.

We have focused here only on the most dangerous forest fires, not the fires affecting Australia’s savanna across the tropical north.

A graph showing burnt area of forest by year
Burnt area of forest by year. Data derived from satellite data (NOAA-AVHRR burned area) Author provided

Fire burns much more land than 25 years ago

Before the 1990s, Australia’s forest fires were infrequent, though damaging. A given area would burn at an interval between 20 to over 100 years.

The exception were rare summers which would see severe and extensive fires, such as 1939. Overall, only a small fraction of the total forest area burned in any year.

This pattern of fire behaviour no longer exists.

A graph showing years since the last forest fire from 1980-2019. The 2010-2019 time frame has less years between fires.
Years since the last forest fire (decadal mean). Data derived from satellite data (NASA-MODIS burned area) and ground/air-based data from states and territories. Author provided

Over the last 30 years, the areas affected by fire have grown enormously.

If we compare the satellite records from 1988–2001 to the period from 2002–2018, the annual average fire area has shot up by 350%.

If we include the 2019–20 Black Summer fires, that figure soars to 800% – an enormous leap.

We are seeing fires growing the most in areas once less likely to be affected by fire, such as cool wet Tasmanian forests unaccustomed to large fires as well as the warmest forests in Queensland previously kept safe from fire by rainfall and a humid microclimate. This includes ancient Gondwanan rainforests not adapted for fire.

More extreme fire years and longer fire seasons

Before 2002, there was just one megafire year in the 90 years Australian states have been keeping records – and that was 1939.

Since 2001, there have been three megafire years, defined as a year in which more than one million hectares burn.

Our fire seasons are also getting longer. Spring and summer used to be the time most forest fires would start. That’s no longer guaranteed.

Since 2001 winter fires have soared five-fold compared to 1988–2001 and autumn fires three-fold.

Overall, fires in the cooler months of March to August are growing exponentially at 14% a year.

Graph showing trends in autumn and winter burned areas increasing from 1990 to 2020.
Trends in autumn and winter burned areas over time. Data derived from satellite data (NOAA-AVHRR and NASA-MODIS burned area) Author provided

What’s driving these changes?

Imagine a forest fire starts from a lightning strike in remote bushland. What are the factors which would make it grow, spread and intensify?

A fire will get larger and more dangerous if it has access to more fuel (dry grass, fallen limbs and bark), and if the fire starts when the weather is hotter, drier and windier. Topography also plays a role, with fire able to move much faster uphill.

To get a sense of the overall risk of forest fire, temperature, humidity, windspeed and soil moisture are combined into a single figure, the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI).

As you might expect, this index has been steadily worsening over the past 40 years. The number of very high fire danger days in forest zones has been increasing by 1.6 days per decade.

So what does this mean for fire behaviour and spread?

In what we believe is a first, we have used 32 years of fire index data across Australia’s forest zones and compared the number of very high or severe fire danger days with areas subsequently burnt by fire.

We found a clear link, with a 300 to 500% increase in burnt area for every extra day of severe fire danger, and a 21% increase in burnt area for every extra day of very high fire danger.

Could fuel loads or prescribed burning be to blame? No. We looked for trends in these factors, and found nothing to explain the rise in burnt areas.

The main driver for the growing areas burnt by fire is Australia’s increasingly severe fire weather, accounting for 75% of the variation observed in the total annual area of forest fires. This is consistent with predictions from climate change scenarios that severe fire weather conditions will intensify due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Satellite image of New South Wales coast with red dots highlighting fires and the smoke from them.
Satellite imagery of the 2019 forest fires and smoke in New South Wales from November 9th. Joint Polar Satellite System/AAP

Other fire weather risks are also growing. We’re seeing more higher atmospheric conditions which can lead to the formation of fire-generated thunderstorms (known as pyrocumulonimbus clouds).

These thunderstorms emerging out of fire plumes can spread burning embers further and whip up more dangerous winds for unpredictable fire behaviour on the ground, as well as generate lightning in the fire plume that can ignite new fires far ahead of the fire front.

Dry lightning is the primary natural cause of fire ignitions. Here too, the trends are worsening in southeast Australia. We are now seeing 50% more dry lightning in forest areas in recent decades (2000–2016) compared to the previous two (1980–1999).

Under most climate change scenarios, fire weather is predicted to keep on worsening.

Can we predict our next megafire?

So could we have predicted how bad and how widespread the Black Summer fires would have been, if we had examined fire danger index forecasts in mid-2019?

In short, yes.

The huge amount of bush that burned is entirely consistent with the 34 days of very high forest fire danger across the forest zones that summer. That’s in line with the long-range bushfire weather forecasts provided to fire agencies earlier in 2019.

This means that in future years, we will be able to broadly predict the area likely to burn each fire season by examining fire index forecasts.

We can also safely – and sadly – predict that more and more of Australia will burn in years to come, with increasing numbers of megafire years.

While many factors contribute to catastrophic fire events, our Black Summer was not an aberration.

Rather, it was the continuation of fire trends beginning more than two decades ago. It is now clear that human-induced climate change is creating ever more dangerous conditions for fires in Australia.

We need to be ready for more Black Summers – and worse.

Garry Cook, Honorary Fellow, CSIRO; Andrew Dowdy, Principal Research Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Juergen Knauer, Research fellow, CSIRO; Mick Meyer, Post Retirement Fellow, CSIRO; Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO, and Peter Briggs, Scientific Programmer and Data Analyst, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

25 comments

  1. So the article seems to suggest that fuel reduction burning has no influence on fire intensity? That contradicts a massive amount of research undertaken over many decades and quite frankly doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    1. Hi Phil,

      Hazard reduction burning is complex. Used alongside other fire management approaches, hazard reduction burning can reduce the impact of bushfire on property and loss of life. By reducing the availability of the fuel that feeds bushfires we can reduce the risk of their impacts. But it can only be done under certain conditions, before or after bushfire season depending on location. Its effects on fuel are not consistent and there’s always residual fire risk. Learn more here: https://ecos.csiro.au/hazard-reduction-burn/

      Thanks,
      Team CSIRO

  2. Where has the CSIRO assessed the impact of human intervention on the bushfire? It’s well known that NSW heavily cut funding to our fire fighters in the last several years.

    This report doesn’t allow us to assess whether fire fighting through back burning and other measures has a positive or negative impact.

    Discussing the impact of active prevention techniques would allow us to come away from this with an action plan, Australia alone can not prevent global warming.

  3. Yo you havent explained the triangles vs circles in the exponential burned area figure. I can hear my old science professors berating you 🙁

  4. we should be looking to develop North to south canal infrastructure near or over potential fire regions to put out fires more quickly

  5. “Can we predict our next megafire?” If state govt authorities undertook the prescribed burning needed to reduce large accumulations of fuel on the forest floor, no, you would not be able to predict the next megafire.
    Were the 2019/20 fires unprecedented? Not as important a question to answer than should we be doing more to reduce fuel loads in areas of native vegetation.
    As Australia and Australians grow richer and older, more and more of us (in part thanks to Covid) will be living outside of the large capital cities and choosing new lifestyles in fire=prone environments, so the impacts of fire – catastrophic or otherwise – will only grow worse if we don’t act to reduce fuel loads on an on-going basis.

    1. thanks for the unreferenced follow up opinion Bernie. Looking at the top graph, which months of the year do you suggest we carry out the backburning of vast amounts of bushland? and how many resources do we need to complete this task in allotted safe period of time?

      1. Fuel loads are the only variable we have any control over.
        Preventative burns cannot be dictated by a centralised control system with its lag periods of many months between lodging an application to burn, and receiving a permit (if the latter happe n s at all) The window to burn safely in an area may only be for a week or two eg, after rain, cool evenings, a slow breeze..

        Similarly with forestry and national park burns; by the time permission is received, the opportunity has usually passed, and if it hasn’t, then coordinating onerous requirements of having other brigades and police attend ensures ensures the final agreed date and time is not safe, and everyone goes home.

        It is the current system which reduces burning opportunities, and if the weather is getting hotter and drier, someone needs to come up with a way to manage the only tool available to us…. because all of the current net zero planning is still aiming at a 1.5 C temperature increase by the end of the century.

        It is all very interesting to blame it all on climate change, but what is the plan?

    2. I feel like if you’re going to leave a comment like this trying to dismantle the detailed researched data, you should at least read the full article first. It clearly states “Could fuel loads or prescribed burning be to blame? No. We looked for trends in these factors, and found nothing to explain the rise in burnt areas.”

      As stated, the issue is not an increase in fuel loads, it’s that the number of extreme fire danger days exponentially increases the number of severe fires, regardless of the fuel load.

    3. As the article states, fuel loads aren’t driving the increase in fire behaviour. Climate change is the driver. Increasing fuel reduction burns (even if possible given the reduced timeframes available to do them) just increases atmospheric carbon thus increasing climate change and making it even more dangerous.

      Your second point is valid. We need to review and more actively manage people living in high risk environments. Made more difficult as the environment changes and more areas become higher risk.

    4. The next megafire will happen when we have the next El Nino preceded by dry weather (low humidity). 2019-20 had 3 years of drought followed by an El Nino, drying out even rainforests, and making it extremely dangerous for hazard reductions over shorter and shorter periods. The lightning did the rest.

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