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Climate change fuels bushfires

Jennifer Macey, New South Wales, Australia
November 6, 2015

Although Australia has always lived with bushfire, climate change is expected to make bushfires more frequent, severe and long. Homeowners are developing their own responses - but strong climate policy is still lacking.

Backburning in Australia's Blue Mountains (Photo: Ian Brown)
Image: Ian Brown

The bushfire season has started a month early in Australia, with record-breaking heat waves recorded across the continent in October contributing to several large fires destroying properties.

More than 200 fires have already burnt across the state of Victoria, and five houses were lost.

The early outbreak of bushfires could be a taste of what is to come in Australia's summer. Scientists are forecasting a long, hot, dry season, exacerbated by climate change and a "Godzilla" El Nino system in the Pacific.

Bushfires are a part of the Australian landscape - but under climate change, scientists expect them to become much more severe.

This surge in bushfires is leading to a revamp of building codes - while homeowners are developing their own responses, out of necessity.

But Australia still lacks a coordinated climate policy, and climate protection advocates continue to criticize the country's lack of ambition in emissions reduction pledges.

Climate change making fire season more severe

Professor Lesley Hughes from Macquarie University is a member of the Climate Council, an independent think tank. She said climate change is driving the increase in bushfire weather and longer fire seasons.

"What we're seeing, especially in southern Australia, is hotter drier summers," Hughes told DW. "Bushfires tend to start in October and go through to March."

She said October 2015 set new heat records across southern Australia, with temperatures at least 12 degrees Celsius above average for most of the region.

Firestorm over Grose Valley, Australia (Photo: Ian Brown)
At risk are also vast natural areas, including the plant and animal species that depend on themImage: Ian Brown

Hughes expects that globally, 2015 will surpass last year as the hottest ever recorded - but she says Australia is not prepared, and the number of firefighters will need to double.

She added that as the fire seasons get longer in the southern and northern hemispheres, the sharing of equipment like water-bombing helicopters becomes more problematic.

"Both hemispheres need the equipment at the same time, so resources are constrained, and our emergency services are going to need more resources to deal with the increasing fire threat."

Lack of firefighting resources

Jim Casey is the NSW secretary of the Fire Brigade Employees Union and a member of the newly formed Australian firefighters' Climate Alliance.

He says climate change is making the job of firefighting more difficult - and more dangerous.

"It's a serious question about workplace safety," he told DW. "The world is our workplace. It's a dangerous enough place as it is; anything that increases that risk, we take very seriously."

Firefighters are expecting a severe fire season this summer. The Climate Council says since 2009, there has been an increase in the number of days where temperature and weather pose a "catastrophic" fire risk.

Increased bushfires are also expensive: The Climate Council released a report last year showing that the bushfires will cost Australia more than 500 million euros by the middle of the century.

Casey is urging governments to address the cause of climate change and limit greenhouse gases.

"We are going to see more incredibly destructive fires on the eastern seaboard, that's just a fact," Casey said. "The question now is whether we're going to take action to address this at its root," he added.

Volunteer firefighters in Australia (Photo: Rural Fire Service)
Bushfires are making for more dangerous firefighting workImage: Rural Fire Service

Impact on people's lives

Two years ago in October, unseasonably hot weather in the state of New South Wales during spring gave an early start to the bushfire season.

Adriana Hernandez remembers it well: On October 17, 2013, she was at work 150 kilometers west of Sydney when she was told to go home early because a nearby bushfire was threatening her workplace.

She rushed back to her home in the Blue Mountains suburb of Winmalee - but a fire truck was blocking access to her house.

"As I'm pulling into the main street, I just saw this massive red cloud, and saw all the cops, I didn't realize there was a fire at Winmalee," Hernandez recounted.

"I didn't know if I had a house. I went to sleep at my in-laws, and I shared a bed with my two year old, and I thought: If I don't have a house at least I've got this," she said.

Her house survived, but many of her neighbors' houses didn't. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed in the fires, and two people were killed in what has been described as the worst bushfires in the state of New South Wales in 70 years.

The Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009, often described as a "firestorm," killed 173 people, many of whom tried to shelter in their own homes for protection.

Adriana Hernandez said she's already prepared for this year's bushfire season.

"I'm ready. I've already cleaned my gutters, I've cut my trees. I have my little stash of important documents, so if anything happens, I'll just leave," she said.

House burned by bushfire in Australia (Photo: Ian Brown)
Climate change is fueling bushfires that are destroying homesImage: Ian Brown

Uncertainty on impacts remain

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, along with its national science body the CSIRO, released a report earlier this year showing that as greenhouse gases continue to rise, Australia is on track for increasingly extreme weather events - leading to more intense bushfires.

But Ross Bradstock, a professor and director of the Center for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong, said the story is a bit more complicated.

Some parts of the Australian continent will get more rain, he explained, while other parts may dry out.

Climate change will affect vegetation growth, which can fuel bushfires, Bradstock said. "Climate change will also affect weather conditions that cause a fire to spread, wind and heat, and ignition such as lightning," he continued.

"Unraveling all those effects under the influence of climate change is complex, there's still a lot of uncertainty and different things may happen in different parts," Bradstock concluded.

Lack of master plan

These devastating fires are beginning to lead to a rewrite of building codes across Australia, especially for new homes being built in bushfire-prone areas.

Alan Green, a PhD student at the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at the University of Wollongong, said there are a number of ways to design or retrofit an existing building to make it more resilient to fire.

This includes making the building "ember-tight," or covering any gaps or cracks that may allow flying embers to set it on fire, and using non-combustible building and protecting windows and doors from bushfire attack.

"My research is looking at sprinkler systems to assist these methods, or in some cases to replace them," Green said.

Firefighters at fire front in Australia's Blue Mountains National Park (Photo: Rural Fire Service)
The fires are not only deadly, but expensive tooImage: Rural Fire Service

But many of these measures are expensive - and the onus is on individuals to adapt to the changing climatic conditions and an increased bushfire risk.

In the bigger picture, the Australian government is taking to the COP21 climate summit in Paris a pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Hughes from the Climate Council says this is not ambitious enough for a country that will so keenly feel the impacts of climate change.

"We have 200 billion [Australian dollars worth of] infrastructure at risk from 1-meter sea level and storm surges," Hughes said.

"Murray-Darling basin - where 40 percent of our food is produced - is getting drier threatening our wheat exports. The Great Barrier Reef may not survive past 2 degrees."

"We should be more ambitious than the rest of the world, and not less," she concluded.

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