Busy bushfire season predicted for Australia’s most populous regions

Published September 1 2015, The Sydney Morning Herald.

The most populous regions of Australia can expect another year of above-average fire risk as the long-term decline in cool season rainfall combines with the strengthening El Nino in the Pacific.

A swath of land stretching from south-eastern South Australia to the north of Rockhampton in Queensland, and the south-western corner of Western Australia, are among the regions likely to have a busier than usual fire season, according to the Southern Australia seasonal bushfire outlook for 2015-16 report released on Tuesday.

While late winter rains have reduced the risk of an early fire season in much of NSW and eastern Victoria, a series of dry years have left soil moisture levels relatively low over large parts of the country, said Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Co-operative Research Centre, which helped to compile the report.

David Jones, head of climate prediction services at the weather bureau, said most parts of southern Australia have had consistently below-average rainfall during the cooler half of the year, from April to October, since the last big El Nino event in 1997. This year is shaping up to extend the pattern.(See chart below showing many areas have had a relatively dry decade.)

Late winter rains in NSW have lifted moisture levels but will also mean vegetation growth, especially for grass, will accelerate, Rob Rogers, deputy commissioner for the NSW Rural Fire Service, said.

The rain has also hindered hazard-reduction efforts by reducing controlled burning. “It’s fair to say we didn’t get the targets we’d like to have got because of the rain,” he said.

Competing weather patterns, though, are complicating predictions.

Victoria, NSW

In Victoria, the major concern extends across the west of the state after another dry season, said Craig Lapsley, the state’s first Emergency Management Commissioner.

Mr Lapsley said residents should prepare for a long fire season, noting that many Victorians typically put off fire preparations from about a week before Christmas through January as holidays take priority. “We traditionally lose most in February and January” from fires, he said.

Both states will have additional aircraft available this fire season, including a Hercules C130 aircraft unveiled in Sydney on Tuesday.

Dubbed Thor, the plane can dump as much as 15,000 litres of water or fire retardant at a time, and will be one of about 100 aircraft available for use across the state to aid firefighters.

“With warm and dry conditions predicted throughout the season, these aircraft are an important asset in our firefighting weaponry,” Shane Fitzsimmons, RFS Commissioner, said.

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