EXPERT REACTION: Bushfire ravages NSW coastal town

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Around 70 homes and other buildings are thought to have been destroyed in and around the NSW coastal town of Tathra by the blaze that broke out on Sunday.

Organisation/s: Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, Curtin University, Murdoch University, University of Tasmania, La Trobe University

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives and reflect independent opinion on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Dr Richard Thornton is CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre

March is not traditionally seen as a time when the bushfire danger escalates, but as the fires in Tathra NSW, and south west Victoria show, bushfires do not respect summer boundaries.

When conditions are right, with high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds, bushfires will occur. We will see more fires outside of the traditional summer danger period as our climate changes.

The short, sharp hazard is where people are most vulnerable, but there is no silver bullet for bushfire safety.

Last updated: 21 Mar 2018 4:26pm
Dr Grant Wardell-Johnson is Associate Professor at the ARC Centre for Mine Site Restoration and School of Molecular and Life Sciences at Curtin University and is the President of the Australian Council of Environment Deans and Directors (ACEDD)

Sadly, fires like this well into autumn are an increasing part of the southern Australian experience, as we move further towards climate disruption associated with continued increases in human-associated carbon dioxide (and equivalent) emissions.
 
Fortunately, there are no reports of injuries from this fire – but intense fires that impact society will increase further – regardless of activity such as prescribed burning to reduce the fuel loads. Increased planning for events such as these are needed society-wide.
 
Given our weak efforts to reduce emissions globally – and especially in Australia, we will increasingly need to plan for catastrophic events and pick up the pieces following such events.
 
A great start would be an acknowledgement of the seriousness of issues we face in climate disruption. A move from burying heads in the sand towards adaptation to climate disruption is well overdue.

Last updated: 19 Mar 2018 12:55pm
Jim McLennan is a Bushfire Safety Researcher and Adjunct Professor at the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University

The weekend’s disastrous bushfires remind us of two things.

First, while we Victorians tend to think of January and February being our bushfire months, fires can strike us earlier or later. They have in the past. And with climate change upsetting our accustomed weather patterns, they are more likely to do so in the future.

Our bushfire danger period is getting longer. This is going to pose real problems for our fire and land management agencies. Their windows for hazard reduction burning are getting smaller and the possibility of burns escaping is becoming more and more of a concern.

Second, contrary to our usual way of thinking, it is strong winds that make bushfires particularly destructive, not just high temperatures and low humidities. In the future, residents in rural areas and on the urban-bushland fringes of Melbourne and regional centres will need to be vigilant and bushfire-ready as a matter of routine for longer.

Last updated: 19 Mar 2018 12:51pm
David Bowman is Professor of Environmental Change Biology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Tasmania

Four take-homes from this bushfire event:

  1. This event shows destructive fires can occur ‘outside’ the summer bushfire season.
     
  2. Fire seasons are lengthening globally in response to climate change, similar seasonally ‘anomalous’ destructive fires are being reported elsewhere in the world, such as California.
     
  3. Living in close proximity to bushland carries considerable risks and demands residents have high levels of situation awareness, especially fuel dryness and weather conditions, outside the classical bushfire risk period. 

Such events will trigger rethinking the way we manage fire risk to settlements in close proximity to flammable environments.

Last updated: 19 Mar 2018 12:49pm
Dr Joe Fontaine is a Fire Ecologist and Lecturer in Environment and Conservation Sciences at Murdoch University

The home losses around Tathra, NSW are tragic and underscore the importance of bushfire preparedness.

With increasing population and climate extremes, it is ever more important to do everything possible to reduce home susceptibility to ember attacks and to have a plan to defend or leave early.

Management of fire hazards in adjoining bushland can contribute to reduced risk but cannot prevent rapid spread of bushfires and home loss under extreme conditions such as those seen on Sunday.

Last updated: 19 Mar 2018 12:47pm

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