EXPERT REACTION: Extreme weather as fires and floods sweep across Eastern Australia

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Australia is experiencing some wild weather at the moment. Sydney has been swamped with a month’s worth of rainfall sweeping the city in just two hours. BOM says it is the wettest November day in 34 years as public transport systems are severely affected and airport runways are closed. Sydney residents are also experiencing blackouts in some areas, but it is recommended they do not leave their homes as hail and damaging winds are expected. Just north, Queensland is experiencing the opposite – residents are urged to leave their homes immediately with at least 80 fires burning and significant dust moving across the state. Fire authorities say the conditions are like nothing they have ever seen, and could create a ‘firestorm.’ ABC news has even reported the smoke from these fires can be seen from space.

Organisation/s: La Trobe University, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, The University of Sydney

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives 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.

Jim McLennan is a Bushfire Safety Researcher and Adjunct Professor at the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University

While bushfires in Queensland have resulted in fatalities, they have not been regarded generally as a major hazard for life and property in that State—historically, cyclones have been of most concern.

The fires now threatening lives and property north of Bundaberg are consistent with what Australian climate scientists concluded a decade or more ago: we should expect more frequent and more severe extreme weather events and the dangers these bring. We need only to cast our minds back to what were regarded as “unseasonal” bushfires in Victoria and NSW earlier in this year.

We must accept that climate change now means (a) more areas of Australia are at significant risk of bushfire attack, and (b) the annual fire danger period is longer then we were accustomed to previously. These pose new challenges for governments, fire and land management agencies, and communities.

To date the worst Queensland bushfire, in terms of fatalities, occurred on 30 October 1918, on a cattle station at Saltern Creek, when five males employees died when a wind change trapped them as they attempted to extinguish a blaze.

As someone involved in the 2009 post-Black Saturday Victorian bushfires investigation and in those following several other serious fires up to 2015 (when I just decided I did not want to “do this anymore”) I am very worried about the fact that Queensland has not had a disaster-level bushfire in living memory and this may mean a serious lack of appreciation of the dangers posed and a consequent lack of readiness of residents currently under threat.

Last updated: 29 Nov 2018 10:02am
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr George Carayannopoulos is an expert in policy development, analysis and evaluation and is the Head of the Higher Degree Research Administration Centre at the University of Sydney

As summer is soon to start, we are seeing the beginning of ‘disaster season’ across Australia where emergency response agencies, governments at all levels and the public are faced with responding to and managing these extreme weather events.

Recent events in NSW and Queensland are a microcosm of what we face at the national level, although in this case different to what we’d usually expect at this time of year in each state, flooding and large storm events more typical to Queensland and fires more common in the South East. This fact itself causes increased complexity as while emergency agencies may be ready for any contingency and have been working in the background over the ‘off-season’ to fine-tune their approaches to collaboration this may not be the case for the wider public. As a result, public messaging on these events has needed to be clear on the risks and actions that need to be taken by the public to keep themselves safe. 

At the heart of these disaster responses lies the importance of managing the events and the perception of how these are being handled by authorities, not only within their states but across borders. The Queensland fires have been a great example of the coordination arrangements which exist across the nation with the NSW RFS members being conscripted in to assist with the ongoing fire management whilst large parts of NSW are being impacted by unseasonably high rainfalls in the course of today.

The impact of the large-scale rainfall event on the Sydney metropolitan area brings to the fore that these weather events can occur anywhere and anytime with the effects of these being amplified in a large urban centre with significant interdependencies on transport, roads and getting people to and from work and school safely whilst navigating the flash flooding events that are occurring. And finally we need to remember that Summer is only just starting and there will be more work done to prepare, respond and recover from these disaster events before it is over.

Last updated: 28 Nov 2018 3:03pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Richard Thornton is CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC

Natural hazards are causing more damage and destruction across Australia, and internationally, than ever before. Fire, flood, storm and earthquakes have always shaped Australia, and remain an inevitable part of our country. Climate change is causing more severe weather, but demographic changes are having an equal impact and deserve just as much of our attention. Our research shows that many Australians struggle to understand that we live in a country where natural perils exist and that the actions required to increase our safety are sometimes inconvenient and threaten the very things we value. 

Everyone in a fire or flood zone has a role and a responsibility, not just the emergency services. If you are in an area that is likely to be affected, you have to make specific decisions and take specific actions. When we survey communities, it is clear that this notion of shared responsibility doesn’t sit well with some people and even our emergency services struggle with it. What exactly is shared and how much of it? And if the risk is shared, who bears ultimate responsibility?

We need to change and think of new ways of dealing with bushfires, floods, cyclones and heatwaves. The old ways of sharing resources around Australia may not always be sustainable over a long hazards season, so we need to discover better ways to manage all our resources. This is especially relevant with the current bushfires in Queensland and flash flooding in New South Wales. Next week there could be other natural hazards in other states. Despite advances in technology, people are at the centre of the response, and a great many of these are volunteers from the community. Our evidence shows that those human resources are being stretched with hazard seasons getting longer.

Last updated: 28 Nov 2018 3:01pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Hilary Bambrick, Head of School, Public Health and Social Work at Queensland University of Technology (QUT)

Today’s bushfire conditions in the Deepwater area north of Bundaberg are unprecedented, with fire authorities warning residents that the danger from these fires today is unlike anything they have experienced before. No matter how good their fire plan is, authorities are urging people to leave to ensure their safety.

Climate change is driving increasingly dangerous fire weather by intensifying the hot, dry and windy conditions that Queensland is experiencing this week. These never before experienced conditions are occurring at a time when the planet has warmed only 1 degree Celsius on average, and such extreme events are set to get much worse as warming continues. 

Over the coming years, we will see extreme fire weather like that of today become increasingly frequent, and increasingly dangerous, and these events will occur in new areas that have never previously experienced such risk. As more frequent and even concurrent extreme events occur, fire-fighting resources will become very thin on the ground and firefighters at considerable risk of fatigue. The increasingly extreme conditions firefighters are working in puts their lives in danger.

With climate change, fire prevention also becomes much more difficult as the ‘safe’ seasons for controlled burns, for example, become much shorter. 

Australia needs to accept that climate change is behind the intensity of these unprecedented events. We need to not only adapt fire management strategies to meet the ‘new climate normal’ but also urgently and meaningfully reduce our greenhouse gas pollution in order to limit future climate change.

Last updated: 28 Nov 2018 2:59pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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