EXPERT REACTION: Queensland bushfires

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Parts of Queensland are bracing for severe to extreme fire dangers as fires continue to burn in the hinterland. Australian experts respond.

Organisation/s: The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), La Trobe University, Monash University

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.

Malinda Steenkamp is from the Torrens Resilience Institute at Flinders University

Australia is experiencing more extreme heat and longer fire seasons in all jurisdictions. According to the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO’s State of the Climate report, this is consistent with a changing climate. 

The fires in Queensland is an example of the earlier than expected start of the fire season. Also, fire behaviour has changed and the impact of fires can be worse than expected as influenced by factors such as higher ambient temperatures and drier soil conditions.

We need to be aware that the public and people in communities affected by the fires are active agents in fire situations.

People often decide to stay and defend their property. However, research and lived experience have shown that people are not always ready to deal with the reality of fire. Although they might have prepared to fight the fire, they are often not emotionally prepared to deal with the situation - the way the sky turns dark, the smells, smoke, the sounds of the fire and the fear of losing their life.

People need to be aware of this and take it into account when they decide to stay or go. Of course, this is not always a straightforward decision if they have pets, stock or important assets that need to be protected.

The bottom line is, if people have not lived through a fire before, the reality of fire will be worse than they expect or imagine. People need to take this into consideration when they decide to stay or go. Also, when they decide to go, they need to do this early as leaving late can be a dangerous option.

In dealing with situations such as these, it is also important to remember that a resilient community is based on a population of resilient people. What helps are  what is called the three Cs – control, coherence (understanding why this happens) and connectedness. 

In a situation such as this, these aspects can be fostered through providing relevant and timely information, asking people what they need and how they can be helped, and enabling people to connect and help each other.

Last updated: 06 Sep 2019 1:19pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Richard Thornton is CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC

Bushfires are expected to be worse than normal across much of Australia this summer so we shouldn’t be surprised that when it gets hot, windy and dry, the likelihood of fire increases.

Our latest Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook was released last week showing the 2019-20 fire season has the potential to be active across most of the country.

Coastal Queensland and New South Wales, where today’s conditions are high, plus eastern Victoria and Tasmania, southern Western Australia and South Australia, face above-normal fire potential.

This year has been unusually warm and dry for large parts of Australia. Given these underlying conditions, if a large fire was to take hold on a hot and windy day it would be extremely difficult to control.

Communities in these areas, not just in Queensland and New South Wales, should start planning their emergency fire response.

But our research is consistently showing that many Australians, especially those in high risk areas, are not sufficiently ready for fire and have not established fire plans well ahead of time. For example, people may underestimate the risks to life and property if the fire danger is not rated as 'catastrophic'. Research on past fires shows many properties were under-insured and some people overestimated the response capacity of fire services. 

Last updated: 06 Sep 2019 12:49pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Paul Read is Senior Research Fellow at the Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University and a Co-Director of the National Centre for Research in Bushfire and Arson

Queenslanders have been blindsided by weather of all kinds this year - floods, cyclones, and now major fires. There are already fires down the east coast from Cairns to Brisbane, all clustering down the coast along more populated areas.  As there have been no lightning strikes I'm confident almost all have come from a mix of reckless use of machinery, land-clearing or deliberate arson. 

Bushfire season is getting earlier every year and the firebugs come out as soon as spring hits. In Australia 50 per cent are kids but our work suggests older groups are the more dangerous and malicious. 

As Southern Queensland heads into catastrophic fire danger the key message is foremost that if you haven't prepared get out early. As catastrophic fire conditions kick in the areas of most concern are about 300 km west of Rockhampton and the same distance west of Brisbane around the Darling Downs down to New England. The big one is less than 50 kms southwest of Surfers Paradise.

Queensland farmers, communities and fire services are on the front line of the fires, and starting to worry more about climate change. Some might not call it climate change but they've certainly noticed the impact on their livelihoods

Last updated: 06 Sep 2019 12:47pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Jim McLennan is a Bushfire Safety Researcher and Adjunct Professor at the School of Psychology and Public Health at La Trobe University

About this time last year, we were discussing the ‘unprecedented’ threats from bushfires in Queensland—a State in which, historically, the major natural hazards have been cyclones and flooding associated with severe storms. Yet here we are again. To repeat the cliché: this is the new normal.

Previously, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd famously declared that climate change was the great moral challenge of our generation. The bushfire situation in Queensland demonstrates that it is becoming the great practical challenge for the Nation’s emergency management sector.

For many of us working in the field of community bushfire safety, our focus has been on improving household awareness of bushfire risk and preparedness to evacuate safely from a fire-ready home. That will remain a goal. But the scale of climate change driven increase in bushfire threat levels across the country means that a household-focused approach to community bushfire safety will have limited effectiveness.

New policy approaches at State and Federal levels addressing wider issues such as management of government lands and forests, housing development on the urban-bushland fringe, and vegetation management on private property need to be developed. 

Last updated: 06 Sep 2019 12:47pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Ian Weir is a Research Architect and Senior Lecturer in Landscape Architecture at Queensland University of Technology

So-called ‘Catastrophic’ conditions arise when the Forest Fire Danger Index rises above 100. But who amongst the community understands what this really means? – and who is aware that houses in QLD that are built to the new Australian Standards are only designed for when the FFDI is 40 - less than half the risk posed by Catastrophic conditions? If you have built your house to AS3959 get out now!

Last updated: 06 Sep 2019 12:46pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Professor Hilary Bambrick is Head of School, School of Public Health and Social Work at Queensland University of Technology.

Historically, Southeast Queensland was not known for its extreme bushfire conditions. Unfortunately, the unseasonal fire conditions we are experiencing this week is only a taste of things to come as the planet continues to warm, increasing local temperatures and changing rainfall patterns.
 
With global warming we are already seeing extreme events – heat, storms, droughts and bushfires – of intensities that we’ve never had before, in places that have never been at risk, and in seasons which have previously been safe. These new extremes put human lives at risk.
 
The fire conditions in Queensland this week is yet more evidence on the unfolding climate emergency and the urgent need for Australian leadership on emissions reductions

Last updated: 06 Sep 2019 12:45pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Brian Oliver leads the Respiratory Molecular Pathogenesis Group at UTS and the Woolcock Institute

Simple advice is often the best. Keep as far away from the fires and smoke as is possible.  Avoid unnecessary exposure to smoke. If indoors, keep windows and doors closed. If you have a pre-existing medical condition seek medical attention if you feel your symptoms worsening

Last updated: 06 Sep 2019 12:44pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.
Dr Philip Stewart is a Certified Wildland Fire Ecologist at The University of Queensland

The fires being experienced are a result of the extended drought in the region and due to the continuation of this drought there is an increase in dry fuel loads, or I should say very dry vegetation. When vegetation becomes dehydrated there is a loss of water and an accumulation of volatiles in the leaves that will carry fire.

So with increased dry and dead fuels, especially fine fuels and an increase in concentrations of volatiles in the leaves of the vegetation, there is a greater potential for ignition and fire to develop.

Plus with the extreme weather conditions mixed into this, it is really a recipe for increased intensity and severity fires and the probability of large scale wildfires that are uncontrollable. Climate being the majored driver of these unstable fire conditions. That said, fires can and do occur at any time of the year, it is dependant on climate (weather), fuel and time since last fire. 

Last updated: 06 Sep 2019 12:43pm
Declared conflicts of interest:
None declared.

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