Fire Season in Australia Starts Early

Fire Season in Australia Starts Early
Fire Season in Australia Starts Early

The warmest winter on record, followed by an unusually warm and dry spring. Hundreds of fires along Australia’s east coast, including one that razed 53 homes in Queensland. And last week, on the west coast, a raging blaze just over a dozen miles from the Perth city center was fueled by an unseasonably early heat wave and strong winds.

By Sunday, firefighters had contained the Perth fire, which had burned through about 4,500 acres, destroyed 18 homes and forced dozens of people to evacuate.

It is not yet summer, but Australia’s fire season is well underway, in the latest example of how climate change is altering the rhythms of life across the Earth. Stoked by the El Niño weather pattern, it is the first dry and hot year since the summer of 2019-2020. It is expected to be the worst fire season since that period, when nearly 500 people died from direct fire exposure and smoke inhalation, and tens of thousands of acres were charred.

“We’re still at the very beginning of the fire season, and already we’ve had hundreds of fires since early October,” Western Australia’s emergency services minister, Stephen Dawson, said on Friday.

Many experts foresee a difficult summer.

“All of the diagnostics are telling us that we’re moving into dangerous terrain,” said David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania. Current conditions more closely resemble a late-summer month like February, he said.

The authorities and experts do not believe that this summer will be as bad as 2019-2020, because it is being preceded by years of rain and floods rather than drought. And they say the country is better prepared, with improved coordination between agencies and more resources for firefighters. Communities devastated that summer have spent years equipping themselves.

But what level of preparation is enough when climate change is driving more intense and unpredictable extreme weather events? Scientists say that everyone, from the authorities to everyday people, is struggling to answer this question.

On Wednesday night, Debra Edmonds, 54, got a stressful surprise when her apartment, in a residential block on the outskirts of Perth, the fourth-biggest city in the country, was put under an evacuation order as the wildfire blazed nearby.

“Living in suburbia, you just don’t expect a bushfire to be on top of you,” she said on Friday, adding that she had grown up in the area.

Her experience points to a concern many experts have: how the combination of urban sprawl and increasingly intense, climate-driven fires puts more residents at risk.

Ms. Edmonds spent the night at a relative’s house and was able to return the next day, when the threat was downgraded. But she went home changed. “Before, it was never something that entered your mind,” she said. “And now, it’s made me very prepared.”

Such a mental shift, though helpful, may not be enough as the past becomes less useful for anticipating what’s ahead.

The conditions in Australia exemplify how climate change is making fires more unpredictable and firefighting more difficult, Mr. Bowman said.

Firefighters in some states struggled to complete preventive burning, with climate change shortening the time they had to work, he said. And in some areas, vegetation that flourished with several years of heavy rain has dried out incredibly quickly.

“We’ve got all these things that are changing: this sudden surge of fuel loads after La Niña, everything drying out because of El Niño, summer weather in spring, astronomical climate exceedances,” Mr. Bowman said.

He said that fires in late October in Queensland had already shown unusual behavior, such as burning fiercely through the night instead of becoming weaker, as normally happens when temperatures fall and humidity rises. It was an indicator of how intensely dry the area was, he said, warning that the country would continue to experience unusual fire behavior in the months ahead.

“The fire history that we depended on to try and understand things and make decisions and get ourselves prepared is all changing now because of climate change,” said Jason Sharples, a professor and director of the University of New South Wales’s bushfire research group. “The knowledge we had based on the historical events isn’t necessarily going to be a good guide.”

Some of the fires in the country have occurred earlier and been more intense than usual, he said, and fit into a broader trend “toward more extreme fires” on both coasts.

Australia has heavily invested in firefighting aircraft, he said, having recognized that with fire seasons expected to get longer globally, the country can no longer rely on borrowing from places like the United States and Canada during their winters.

And firefighters and experts are in the process of re-evaluating “the traditional tactics we would have used to suppress fires” as wildfires grew more extreme, Mr. Sharples said, often “to the stage where it’s literally just not safe for firefighters to try to be putting them out.”

Even people who thought they were prepared for the coming summer have been caught off guard.

When Michele Eckersley and Andrew Lawson bought property last year near Bawley Point on the New South Wales south coast, in the country’s east, they were aware of the fire risk. The area had been devastated by the 2019-2020 summer, and they had seen vegetation flourish under heavy rain, then dry out over the past few months.

They installed a sprinkler system on top of the house, and set aside time in October and November to further safeguard their home, including replacing their deck with fireproof timber.

What they were not expecting was for a fire to flare up on Oct. 1 — only a month after the end of winter — and raze about half the land on their property.

“We thought we had time,” Ms. Eckersley, 60, said.

“Everything’s changed,” Mr. Lawson, 62, added. “It’s changing so fast.”