Bushfires burning hot and early

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Bushfire threatens Coolum, January 2017, photo by Rob MacColl

If you drove to Caloundra today you’d still smell the acrid smoke from last week’s rampant bushfire, which at one stage saw 34 fire appliances and 80+ firefighters on the scene. The smoky odour lingering around Bell’s Creek and Corbould Park Racecourse is a reminder of how quickly a grass fire can get out of control.

Hot westerly winds fanned tinder dry grasslands as the rapidly escalating fire torched trees in seconds. The smoke and flames closed the Bruce Highway, threatened houses in a new residential estate and an industrial park, prompting evacuations.

The blaze was intense – “fireball after fireball about seven storeys high” resident Brendan West told the Sunshine Coast Daily.

The fire was brought under control overnight, but not before Sunshine Coast residents were made aware of how quickly an emergency can arise.

In January, police briefly declared a state of emergency as a bushfire at Yandina threatened Coolum homes, Residents were evacuated as firefighters struggled to contain the fire, which burned for days. Even two months later, Yandina and Coolum residents reported smoke rising from peaty marshlands.

Photographer Rob MacColl sent up a drone to check out the Coolum fire (above and left).

Bushfires are a fact of life in rural Australia. If you’re a landowner, you either join the rural fire brigade or at least work with them to establish fire breaks, carry out controlled burns and establish contingency plans.

Canada, Portugal and Spain also on fire

British Columbia, which is having another bad wildfire season, evacuated almost 40,000 people from the western province in mid-July as 159 fires added to the 188,000 hectares burned out during the fire season. The Canadian government sent in the military and Australia sent 50 fire fighters to lend a hand. Australian fire fighters are prized for their experience and are often exported to fight wildfires in Canada or the US.

No casualties were reported, which is probably more down to good management than luck.

Those who browse the Internet or listen to Radio National will know that southern Europe has also suffered a series of wildfires in (their) summer. Hot, dry conditions and a lack of rain led to disastrous wildfires in Portugal, where 64 people died. There have also been extensive wildfires in Spain and Italy.

As we say in the privacy of our own home, sarcasm dialled up to 99: “Just as well there’s no climate change, then!”

Closer to home, Queensland, supposedly the least-affected Australian State, is starting to chalk up an invidious track record for bushfires. The high fire danger in Queensland is August to October (compared with December to March for the bushfire-prone states of NSW and Victoria).

Weekly bushfire frequencies in Australia increased 40% between 2008 and 2013, according to Be Prepared: Climate Change and the Queensland Bushfire Threat by Professor Lesley Hughes and Dr David Alexander.

The report prepared for the Climate Council says Queensland is experiencing an increase in hot days and therefore an increasing number of days with high fire danger. More than 50% of Queensland’s extreme fire days from 1945 to 2007 have occurred since 1990, most prevalent in the southeast of the state.

Queensland’s tropical and sub-tropical climate protects the State from the high cost of bushfires events in dryer zones, which costs Australia $322 million a year. There is only a 1% chance that a bushfire event will cause an annual residential loss of greater than $14 million. But climate change is significantly increasing the potential for higher costs in the future.

The report says Queensland is experiencing an increase in extreme heat. Seven of the State’s 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998.

The Caloundra grass fire came after the hottest August day since 2009. Temperatures reached 31 degrees in Brisbane and at the Sunshine and Gold Coasts – eight degrees above normal. In the western residential suburbs of Logan and Ipswich, the mercury soared to 33 degrees. This record hot August day was followed by strong westerly winds.

Meanwhile, rural fire brigades and landowners are out conducting controlled burns, with the aim of reducing fuel hazards around structures. Controlled burning is not always popular with people living in urban areas as the smoke may linger for days. But the deliberate torching of grass, leaf litter and fallen branches is essential for removing potential fuel that can intensify forest fires.

As is now well-known, Aborigines used fire to carve tracks through dense bush, maintain a pattern of vegetation to encourage new growth and encourage useful food plants. Forest fires can also tease dormant seeds back to life.

Many fires are started by lightning strikes and there’s not a whole lot one can do about those random events. However, most statistics on bushfires/wildfires indicate that half of them are started by human actions, including vehicle accidents, sparks from ride-on mowers hitting rocks, angle grinders and welders, careless disposal of cigarette butts and errant campfires. Sadly, some are deliberately lit by people who get a buzz out of starting fires.

Meanwhile, Australian fire services are preparing for an early start to the bushfire season as Sydney is again shrouded in smoke from hazard burning. Academic researchers writing for The Conversation say new modelling warns that conditions in August 2017 are similar to the 2013 period where unseasonal warmth and low rainfall led to destructive bushfires in Victoria and NSW.

Authors Matthias Boer, Rachael Helen Nolan and Ross Bradstock took a Bureau of Meteorology project that maps water availability levels and combined the data with NASA satellite imagery. This allowed them to develop new tools for mapping and monitoring moisture levels of different fuels in forests and woodlands. They modelled fuel moisture levels during bushfires between 2000 and 2014 and compared those predictions to historical bushfires.

“Our research has identified critical dryness thresholds associated with significant increases in fire area. Rather than a gradual increase in flammability as forests dry out, when dead fuel moisture drops below 15%, subsequent bushfires are larger.”

Bushfires become more intense when dead fuel moisture drops below 10%. The researchers found that moisture content of live and dead fuel is tracking well below 2013 values.

“If warm dry weather continues (we) could reach critical levels before the end of August,” the authors concluded.

“It’s clear that much of the Sydney Basin is dangerously primed for major bushfires, at least until it receives major rainfall.”

Check out your own place now

I’ve been doing an audit of our half-acre bushland allotment, which intersects with other ‘battle-axe blocks’ closer to town than anyone realises. The pest inspector already suggested we collect and burn fallen timber as it encourages termites. It also reduces the amount of potential fuel should a fire start on your land or elsewhere.

So is it safe to make a fire pit and burn excess timber on your own property? It depends on local fire bans, whether your hoses reach that far and, if neighbours take exception.

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Image by R. Simcocks, Eukey.

As preventative measures go, that’s a fair step behind this landowner on the Granite Belt, appropriately kitted out while selectively burning off grass and leaf litter. It does make you think.

Postscript: Rural Fire Services director Rural Fire Services area director Gary Seaman, inspecting the aftermath of the Caloundra blaze, told the SCD it was a “major, major fire”, and abnormally large for winter. I drove down Bell’s Creek Road and took a photo, which shows minimal damage as the fire corridor ran out of fuel close to a new residential suburb.

 

2 thoughts on “Bushfires burning hot and early”

  1. hi Bob, yesterday I met with two officers from DEH, working in Mooloolah National Park, which is now on the east and west of the Highway. They were part of teams managing the fires. They reported that the fires were not overly damaging, as reflected in the vegetation post fire. Careful planned burnings are required in many forests. It is difficult to burn near highways as winds and smoke can affect traffic. They said the fire did them a service in that sense; it did the job for them. the SCD and its brother papers almost ALWAYS exaggerate. I know because I’ve been subscribed for the last six months. Love your essays.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Gillian. I took a drive along Bell’s Creek road yesterday and as you say (see my photo added to the end of the essay), damage was minimised in the residential area. However I see Rural Fire Services area director Gary Seaman told the SCD on the 22nd it was a “major, major fire”, and abnormally large for winter.

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