Morning after: Reg Hyde among the ruins of his building sheds in Salt Ash. Photo: Max Mason Hubers
Australia would be better off with a string of many small bushfires this summer to forestall even worse fires in the following years as conditions turn drier and hotter, researchers say.
Much of NSW and Victoria is forecast to face above-average fire activity this summer after several relatively wet years have been followed by this year's exceptionally warm winter and early spring.
It’s called hazard reduction, not hazard elimination. We will never eliminate the risk
Many regions of NSW have already faced severe and extreme fire danger days in recent weeks because of soaring temperatures and high winds.
Aftermath: Shane Vichie inspects his damaged sheds in Salt Ash. Photo: Max Mason Hubers
As of Sunday, average maximums in Sydney were running above the 1988 record of 26.2 degrees for October - warmer than a typical January or summer for the city.
"We actually want lots of little fires this summer but the way it's panning out, it's not looking promising in that regard," the director of the University of NSW centre of excellence for climate system science, Andy Pitman, said.
An El Nino weather system - when warming waters in the eastern Pacific often trigger drought conditions over eastern Australia - superimposed on current fuel loads could lead to conditions similar to those before the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009, Professor Pitman said. Those fires burnt out 4500 square kilometres and caused 173 deaths.
Burnt vehicles at Homebush Aquatic Centre. Photo: Wolter Peeters
"Those [fires] are not controllable however much confidence we have in the bushfire brigades," he said. "They get too big and fast moving."
Katharine Haynes, a Melbourne-based senior research fellow with Risk Frontiers, who made a submission to the 2009 bushfires royal commission, said the warm early spring had limited fuel-reduction burns this year, and the fire season had begun early.
Fire risks "are certainly elevated compared with recent years," Dr Haynes said.
El Ninos are irregular events, arriving every three to eight years, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. The US's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last week that it sees no indication of an El Nino forming in its projections out until next spring in the northern hemisphere.
Deputy Commissioner of NSW's Rural Fire Service Rob Rogers warned that even small fires "can cause great damage to property and risk lives."
Mr Rogers outlined the scale of the challenge for the state's fire authorities, with more than 20 million hectares of bushfire-prone land in the state, excluding grassland.
"Given that so far this financial year, only 19,100 hectares of land has been burnt in 3119 bush, grass and scrub fires, a large portion of the state will remain vulnerable to the impact of bush fire," Mr Rogers said.
He said RFS backs hazard reduction, along with an "appropriate development control standards and bushfire hazard complaint mechanisms supported by community engagement" as the best solution to reduce the impact of fires.
"It’s called hazard reduction, not hazard elimination," Mr Rogers said. "We will never eliminate the risk."
As of Monday, NSW had 61 fires, 22 of them uncontained.
Roger Jones, a professorial research fellow at Victoria University and an author on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, said Victoria's forest-fuel danger index had risen by about a third since 1996-97.
"Already with the warming we've seen, we're seeing extremes in some areas that [analysts] were projecting for 2030," Dr Jones said.
For instance, Melbourne has seen the number of days of 35 degrees or warmer rising from a long-run average of eight to about 12 since 1997, a level the 2007 Garnaut report forecast would be the average by 2030.
"It's the extremes that we need to worry about," Dr Jones said, since they bring the heaviest toll on humans, agriculture and eco-systems.
Dr Jones is a coordinating lead author of the chapter on decision-making for the panel's second working group examining likely impacts and vulnerabilities from global warming, due out next March.
A leaked draft version of that report dated from March this year argues climate change will increase the likelihood of deaths from heat stress and bushfires, and potentially place more than a quarter of a million Australian homes at risk from rising sea levels.
''Climate change is expected to increase the number of days with very high and extreme fire weather," a copy of the document circulating on the internet says.
Fire management in Australia "will become increasingly challenging", it says. "We've built properties in areas that are too vulnerable to fire but we've done the same with sea-level, we've done the same with houses on flood plains," Professor Pitman said. "We haven't taken the Australian environment sufficiently into account where we've built."
Power lines, cigarette butt blamed for fires
A bushfire that destroyed homes in the Port Stephens area was started by sparking power lines, firefighters say. Six homes were burned when fire tore through more than 50 hectares of bushland between Salt Ash and Tanilba Bay in Port Stephens on Sunday.
Investigators are still trying to determine what started fires at Fingal Bay and the Heatherbrae area, also in Port Stephens. More than 177 hectares were burned out near Fingal Bay.
Meanwhile, police are examining CCTV footage to determine who started a fire at Sydney Olympic Park that destroyed 47 cars and damaged more than 30.
Fire and Rescue NSW superintendent Ian Krimmer said the cause of Sunday's fire had not been determined, however a cigarette butt was the likely source. ''We've pinpointed [the source] to the area beside a vehicle,'' he said.