Spring Outbreak of Wildfire Hits Southeast Australia; “Catastrophic” Threat Near Sydney

November 11, 2019, 8:55 PM EST

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Above: A fire rages in Bobin, about 200 miles north of Sydney, on Saturday, November 9, 2019, as firefighters try to contain dozens of out-of-control blazes that are raging in the state of New South Wales. Image credit: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images.

More than five million Australians, including the entire Sydney area, were placed under a fire weather danger rating of “catastrophic” for Tuesday—the first time this top-end rating has been used there since it was introduced in 2009. Dozens of bushfires have pockmarked the region inland from the coast between Sydney and Brisbane in recent days. On Friday alone, more than 150 homes were destroyed, with three deaths and five people unaccounted for, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

The sprawling Sydney area extends from the city center near the coast well into the surrounding bushland, where many thousands of people are vulnerable to fast-moving fires. Strong winds and hot temperatures on Tuesday in advance of a cool front will lead to especially volatile conditions. Along with the Sydney area, catastrophic fire danger is expected in the Hunter and Illawarra areas.

All of New South Wales—an area bigger than Texas, including Sydney—has been placed under a state of emergency through next weekend, according to weather.com. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state of emergency would continue for the next seven days. NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott said residents were facing what "could be the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen."

More than 600 schools are expected to be closed on Tuesday.

"We are in uncharted territory," said NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons on Friday, as reported by BBC. "We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level….We just cannot overstate the profound impact that the drought is having on fire behavior.”

Coffs Harbour, a coastal city of 71,000 people about 350 miles northeast of Sydney, is in the crosshairs of one of the most threatening fires. The New South Wales RFS projects that this fire could expand to virtually surround the city on Tuesday (see map in tweet below). Residents west of the Pacific Coast Highway, which bisects Coffs Harbour only about one to two miles inland, are being advised to move east of the highway, toward the coast. Those in outlying towns have been urged to “self-relocate” in Coffs Harbour or one of the other urban areas lining the coast.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the NWS RFD warned that live embers could be pushed by strong winds as far as 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the fire front.

Through October, 2019 has been Australia’s second hottest and second driest year in more than a century of recordkeeping, according to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). It’s now mid-spring in Australia, typically the peak of fire season in southeast Queensland and northeast New South Wales (NSW). However, the 2019 fire season got off to an unusually early and intense start. Rainfall over much of this region was at record lows for the 20 months starting in January 2018 and the 32 months starting in January 2017, according to BOM.

In the short term, fire danger may drop by midweek, as cooler and less-windy weather makes its way into New South Wales. However, the longer-range outlook is for unusually hot, dry weather to predominate through the rest of the month. The last few months of parched conditions are linked to the positive mode of the Indian Ocean Dipole. A positive IOD favors drier weather toward Australia and Southeast Asia and moist conditions toward the northwest Indian Ocean—including the Arabian Sea, which is having its most active cyclone season on record, as discussed by Jeff Masters at Scientific American. The IOD may remain positive into early 2020, said the BOM in its latest climate outlook.

Trees charred by wildfire in Old Bar, AU, on 11/10/19
Figure 1. Trees are charred after a bushfire in Old Bar, about 200 miles north of Sydney, on Sunday, November 10, 2019. Image credit: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images.

Climate change and Australia bushfires

Australia is famed for its enormous swings between wet and dry periods. A strong climate-change signal in precipitation has yet to emerge from this natural variability. However, there’s a clear and undeniable shift toward hotter weather in Australia, and climate-change models agree this trend will continue. As a result, when dry spells arrive, they’re increasingly likely to be accompanied by unusually hot weather. If this rings a bell, it’s because California has been dealing with the same consequence of our warming world. The trend toward “hot droughts” have transformed California wildfire behavior in recent years, as the heat makes the landscape even drier and more fire-prone when precipitation is lacking.

Lengthening fire seasons—another trend plaguing California—is a concern in Australia as well. “Trends towards a lengthened fire season have already been discerned in some areas of the country, with the fire season typically starting earlier in the year in southern Queensland, inland and southern New South Wales, and Victoria,” noted BOM in a special statement on September’s fires. Parts of NSW are seeing the first day of fire season arriving on average about a month earlier than in 1950.

The Climate Change in Australia report projects with high confidence that East Australia is in for “a harsher fire-weather climate in the future.” It notes that changes in rainfall are uncertain and highly localized, with the greatest confidence for a trend toward reduced winter rainfall later this century. What’s driving the outlook for harsher fire weather is mainly temperature: “There is very high confidence in continued substantial increases in projected mean, maximum and minimum temperatures in Eastern Australia, in line with our understanding of the effect of further increases in greenhouse gas concentrations.” It’s this heating that is making the impacts of drought worse and boosting the potential for catastrophic wildfire, in Australia as well as in California.

Climate change is an especially polarized topic in Australia, which has some of the world’s leading climate-change scientists and climate advocates as well as some of the fiercest voices of climate-change denial. In the last several days, political leaders in Australia have declined to address the topic of climate change and wildfire with variations on “now is not the time”, as summarized by BBC:  “On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to answer a question about climate change, saying: ‘My only thoughts today are with those who have lost their lives and their families.’ When asked the same question, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters: ‘Honestly, not today.’”

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack took a similar approach but with a snarkier edge, saying that fire victims “don't need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they're trying to save their homes, when in fact they're going out in many cases saving other peoples' homes and leaving their own homes at risk." However, even McCormack acknowledged that Australia was getting drier and that “parts are getting very, very warm,” noted the Sydney Morning News.

Referring to McCormack’s comment that “we've had fires in Australia since time began”, Mid Coast Mayor Claire Pontin told ABC: “Fifty years ago, this would never happen...We don't have capital city greenies around here, we have farmers coming to us and saying, ‘look what's happened to my farm, I can't afford to feed the cows anymore because I've been buying feed for the last 18 months.’”

The UK Guardian is maintaining a liveblog on the Australian bushfires (thanks to WU member BarbaraGermany for this tip).

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.”


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