Mallacoota Escapes Obliteration, but Australia’s Terrifying Bushfire Season Rolls On

December 31, 2019, 3:52 PM EST

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Above: The afternoon sky glows red from bushfires in the area around the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on December 31, 2019. Image credit: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images.

The new year opened in harrowing fashion in far southeast Australia, where massive bushfires rolled all the way to the coastline and came close to wiping out a small town. Up to 4,000 people took shelter on the coast at the town of Mallacoota, protected only by a line of fire trucks. People on the beach were poised to jump into the water when firefighters gave the word. According to weather.com, a cheer went up along the waterfront when officials reported that a change in wind direction has spared much of the town.

It’s unclear how many structures have been consumed in the last couple of days of fire. No meaningful rainfall is in the forecast, and periods of scorching heat are expected to continue. Temperatures may again top 45°C (113°F) in parts of interior southeast Australia on Friday and Saturday. Update (January 3): Saturday is expected to be the worst day in the newest round of wildfire, as intense heat and high winds stream across the region ahead of a cool front.

A 28-year-old firefighter was killed on Monday and two others suffered burns when winds apparently produced by a fire-related vortex flipped over their truck east of Albury, New South Wales. (The video embedded below is from a separate truck surrounded by flames.)

The hordes in Mallacoota included many that had escaped other parts of the region in Victoria state known as East Gippsland. On Sunday, officials had given a stark warning for everyone in a large swath of East Gippsland west of Mallacoota to leave the area ahead of the anticipated extreme fire threat on Monday and Tuesday. Well to the north, at least two people were killed in the New South Wales town of Cobargo, which suffered extensive damage, according to Australia’s ABC News. Several others are still missing across southeast Australia.

Gary Hinton stands amongst rubble after fires devastated the New South Wales town of Cobargo, 12/31/19
Figure 1. Gary Hinton stands amongst rubble after fires devastated the New South Wales town of Cobargo on December 31, 2019. Image credit: Sean Davey/AFP via Getty Images.

Despite the ongoing disaster, Sydney carried on with its long-scheduled New Year’s Eve fireworks display—a decision that prompted some protests. The city has suffered through weeks of smoke and poor air quality.

Internet and phone service may be out for as long as two days along parts of the coastline between Melbourne and Sydney, reported weather.com.

Bushfires in context: climate change and Australia’s fire history

This season’s bushfires have thrown a searing spotlight on human-produced climate change and its impacts in Australia. The year 2019 through November was the second warmest in Australian history, and the southern spring (September-November) was the nation’s driest on record. Update (January 3): 2019 ended up as both the hottest and driest year in Australian history.

Daily highs averaged across the nation were the hottest on record on December 18, with 40.9°C (105.6°F); that record was eclipsed just the next day with 41.9°C (107.4°F). The reading of 49.9°C (121.8°F) at Nullarbor on the 19th was a global record high for any December. As we noted in a post on December 19, such heat is entirely consistent with what we’d expect in a regional and global climate that’s being warmed by human activity—which is exactly what we’ve got.

Perhaps surprisingly, this season’s fires to date are not the deadliest, most destructive, or most widespread on record for Australia as a whole. Fire activity depends on a whole range of factors beyond temperature and precipitation alone, including the state of forests and grasslands, the vagaries of where fires happen to break out, and how aggressively fires can be attacked.

Shane Fitzsimmons, the Rural Fire Services commissioner for New South Wales, told the Sydney Morning News this was “absolutely” the worst fire season in the history of that southeastern state, which includes Sydney. Some 900 structures have been consumed and 9.9 million acres burned in New South Wales, according to BBC. At least 13 fire-related deaths have occurred across Australia, noted weather.com.

Comparisons have arisen to “Black Saturday,” the catastrophic sequence of fires that ravaged adjoining Victoria state starting on February 7, 2009. Those fires were the deadliest in modern Australian history. At least 173 people lost their lives and 1.1 million acres were burned, according to the National Museum of Australia. More than 3500 structures were reportedly destroyed.

Attendees pay their respects by laying flowers during the state commemoration for the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 Victorian bushfires on 2/4/19 in Melbourne
Figure 2. Attendees pay their respects by laying flowers during the state commemoration for the 10-year anniversary of the 2009 Victorian bushfires on February 4, 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. Image credit: Michael Dodge/Getty Images.

The most widespread bushfire season in modern Australia history was 1974-75, when fires rampaged across a mammoth swath of the outback. According to the nation’s Bureau of Statistics, some 15% of the entire Australian continent was burned in that fire season, much of it across the sparsely populated interior. Heavy rains in the prior two years had led to unusually lush grasslands that dried out in the summer heat. (This was the same summer that brought Tracy, the catastrophic tropical cyclone that destroyed the bulk of Darwin on Christmas Day.)

In contrast to the massive interior fires of 1974-75, events such as Black Saturday 2009 in Victoria and the current blazes in New South Wales are affecting more heavily forested areas in more heavily populated parts of Australia, including forests in Tasmania that do not traditionally burn. Also, these more recent fires are more closely related to heat and drought, as pointed out by The Guardian.

Baseball game amid wildfire smoke in Hobart, Tasmania, 1/29/19
Figure 3. George Bailey of the Hobart Hurricanes stands in the field as smoke from a nearby bushfire is seen over the ground during the Big Bash League match between the Hobart Hurricanes and the Brisbane Heat at Blundstone Arena on January 29, 2019 in Hobart, Australia. Image credit: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images.

Especially unnerving is the fact that we still haven’t reached the typical summertime peak of bushfire season. Chris Lucas (Australian Bureau of Meteorology) and Sarah Harris (Country Fire Authority) summed up the longer-term prognosis in a Conversation essay in October:

“Our research has made clear that climate modes bring large and rapid swings to the fire weather, while human-induced climate change gradually increases background fire weather conditions. The trend generally means an earlier start to the bushfire seasons than in the past.

“Climate change is definitely playing a role in producing the earlier start to bushfire seasons and overall more extreme seasons, particularly in southeastern Australia. However, the natural variations in climate modes continue to play a key role, meaning we should not expect every bushfire season to be worse than the last as a result of climate change. Similarly, a few milder bushfire seasons among a string of record high seasons does not mean that climate change should be dismissed.”

It’s only been in the last few years that we’ve had ubiquitous cell phones with crisp video and high-resolution photos, not to mention social media. We can only imagine how the most cataclysmic fires in Australian history—even Black Saturday of 2009—would have played out in today’s media environment. That said, Australia’s notorious record of fire shouldn’t give us any false sense of relief about the current climate crisis. It’s real. Episodes of prolonged heat and intensified drought impacts are only projected to increase in the coming decades across Australia. We don’t know exactly how that will translate into specific bushfires from year to year, but in a country as naturally fire-prone as Australia, it’s definitely not the kind of trend one wants to see.

I'll have a post later today on the year and the decade of weather and climate in review, as captured by some of my illustrious peers.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and writer at weather.com, where he co-produces the Category 6 news site at Weather Underground. He spent many years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”
 

emailbob.henson@weather.com

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