ACT News

Climate Council: bushfire season will be more intense and last longer

The ACT faces a greater risk of bushfires this summer as climate change brings longer fire seasons with more extreme risk days, according to a new report released by the Climate Council.

The report, which was prepared by Adjunct Professor Will Steffen and Professor Leslie Hughes, found the concept of a "normal" bushfire season was outdated with bushfires increasing in number, burning for longer, affecting larger areas, and extending into spring and autumn.

Professor Steffen, who is one of six members of the Climate Council, said the increasing bushfire risk was a direct consequence of hotter and drier conditions in the ACT region caused by climate change. 

"Climate change is making hot days hotter and heatwaves longer and more frequent, with increasing drought conditions in Australia's southeast," he said.

"The number of heatwave days in Canberra has doubled since 1950 and the increase in hot weather that was observed in the 2000–2009 decade has already reached the level previously projected for 2030 in Canberra."

His statements match research published by Australian academics in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society on Monday, which found the record-breaking heat waves of 2013 were virtually impossible without the influence of global warming.

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"When it comes to what helped cause our hottest year on record, climate change is no longer a prime suspect, it is the guilty party," said research author Dr Sophie Lewis from the ANU. 

Professor Steffen said climate change in Australia had resulted in an increasing likelihood of "very high danger weather in the ACT" in coming years.

"Climate change has resulted in warmer conditions so we're getting more of those hot and windy days with low humidity that many people in Canberra may remember from 2003," he said.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre's Southern Australia Seasonal Bushfire Outlook for 2014-15 found the ACT faces a greater-than-normal chance of bushfires over summer.

Professor Steffen said the extension of the bushfire season into October and March has complicated the preventative actions rural fire services can take during off-season months.

"We had a good example of this on the weekend where there were 40-odd fires in Tasmania, which is the earliest start to the season there."

Canberra's urban design was also identified as a unique challenge for fire services with more than 9000 homes within 400 to 700 metres  of bushland and the ACT population expected to reach 400,000 by 2017 and 500,000 by 2033.

Professor Steffen was confident the ACT Emergency Service Agency was aware of the limited timeframe for preventative action and had factored these changes into their strategic planning for the coming season.

The report made special reference to the increasing amount of resources and funds being spent on bushfire management and the importance of solving the root cause of climate change.

"The economic, social and environmental costs of increasing bushfire activity in the ACT are potentially immense," he said.

"By 2030, Australia will need to double the number of professional firefighters from 2010 levels to adequately address the greater fire threat that results from an increase in population and vulnerable assets, and a warming climate."

Professor Steffen said the cost of responding to climate change and the threat of bushfires had changed dramatically in recent years thanks to new and more affordable technologies.

"The cost of getting on top of climate change is dropping with renewables becoming cheaper and cheaper while the cost of not dealing with it entails very large costs, from bushfires to coastal floods," he said.

"To reduce the risk of even more frequent and severe extreme weather events, including bushfires in the future, Australia must cut greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and deeply to join the international effort to stabilise the world's climate."