Bushfire outlook update makes for more grim reading for summer ahead
Photo: Areas of above-normal fire conditions for the 2019-20 fire season are marked in red. (Supplied: BNHCRC)
Australia is experiencing horrendous fire weather. Find out why and what to watch out for.
We're already dealing with a fire season for the record books — crews exhausted, millions of hectares burnt, scores of houses destroyed — but an update of the danger ahead paints an even more ominous picture.
The outlook was already bad, with above-normal fire potential for most of the east coast.
Now, the areas considered at greater threat have expanded into northern Victoria, northern Queensland and further along the Tasmanian coast.
Dr Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC), said the update reinforced its outlook from August.
"This is coming on top of what we now have seen, which is a very early start to the fire season and a really severe start across large parts of NSW, Queensland and, more recently, over the weekend in WA," he said.
Where is above normal?
Above-normal fire danger is expected for most of the east coast, eastern Tasmania, northern Victoria, Kangaroo Island and the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, parts of south-west Western Australia and a patch up north.
But that doesn't mean everywhere else is in the clear — for many areas of southern Australia, dangerous fires in summer are normal.
Why is the outlook so bad?
Dr Thornton said eastern-coast forests, in particular, were very, very, dry.
"The soil moisture is very low. That means that any ignition source is likely to create new fires," he said.
"Those fires, once they get established, they're very difficult to control, they will easily spread.
"They'll be difficult to really put out in any substantial way until we get a change in the season or large rainfall events."
Both the Australian year-to-date rainfall and temperature were second worst on record at the end of November.
When will it end?
Not any time soon.
Usually this would just be the beginning of the bushfire season for the south of Australia, but clearly things are well underway.
The fire season traditionally runs through to March or April for southern Australia, so even if it was a normal season, Dr Thornton said we would be in for at least another three months.
"The only thing that will really change this outlook is substantial rainfall events. The outlook from the Bureau of Meteorology is showing that the likelihood of that is not high."
Above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall are on the outlook for large parts of the country this summer.
"It's going to be a challenging season, and given what we've seen at the beginning of the season, that may be an idea of what's to come in the southern states," Dr Thornton said.
How will the week of heat impact the fires?
Unsurprisingly, the forecast week of heat is more bad news for firefighters and will have a number of impacts, Dr Thornton said.
"It will dry out all the vegetation very quickly, which means that fires will start easily."
He said high temperatures usually drove down humidity as well, which was also a factor in the availability of fuel for fires.
"So it will be really imperative that people are careful about potential ignition sources — barbecues, power tools, lawn mowers, all of those types of things which potentially could create sparks.
"And look at where the wind changes are coming."
Sharp wind changes, which often happen at the end of heatwave conditions, are one of the most dangerous times for bushfire behaviour.
"The fire can move very rapidly, particularly grassfires can move very rapidly in response to those wind changes," he said.
This is the time to prepare
Summer still has a long way to go.
Dr Thornton said now was the time, particularly for those near bushland, to really be thinking about:
•What is your plan for the bushfire season?
•Where are you going to go?
•What are the triggers for when you are going to leave?
•What are you going to take with you?
It's not just about the direct impacts.
"Given the events that we've seen in recent weeks, with the smoke impacts in and around our major capital cities, whether it's Canberra or Sydney or Brisbane, have a plan about what you're going to do on those really smoky days as well," he said.
"So if you're asthmatic or have breathing problems, where are you going to go to find clean air? What is the plan for what you're going to do about your health? Because those things will continue."
Keep up to date with warnings from your local fire authority, ABC Radio and ABC Emergency on Facebook.
Australia, you have been warned.