Australia Bushfires

By: Isabela Claret Torres, MSc, Ph.D.

Almost two years ago we watched Australia bushfires burn as never seen before. Starting before July 2019 and lasting until March 2020 the intense bushfires burned an area around 24 million hectares (59 million acres). This area roughly equal to the terrestrial United Kingdom (UK). And even though Australia is the most fire-prone continent some aspects of the current 2019–2020 wildfires are unprecedented. It has been estimated that these wildfires burned >12 million hectares of forests and agricultural areas across southeastern Australia. This is >12 times larger than the 2019 Amazon fires. 

We saw Apocalyptic images on TV. The regions of the fire brought gusty winds and temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius. The sky of Sidney became orange. People and animals running for their lives. Rescuers giving water to koalas, burned animals, and a scorched vast land. For months we followed the relentless work of the 76,000 volunteer’s firefighters of the Rural Fire Service (the world’s largest single body of volunteers) trying to extinguish the fires. Our heart was broken to see so much devastation.  And we felt hopeless to not be able to do anything about it.  

Australia Wildlife

Being conservative, scientists estimate a total of 3 billion animals dead in and after the fires. The affected wildlife includes 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds and 51 million frogs. A huge ecosystem loss. Some examples of endangered species that have been particularly impacted are the Kangaroo Island’s dunnarts. They are small nocturnal mouse-sized marsupials, which may have lost a staggering 95% of their habitat. As well as koalas, according to the WWF, approximately 60,000 were killed or hurt in the 2019 Black Summer with the government recently declaring the species to be “endangered”. 

On the human side, 33 lives were lost, including nine firefighters. Around 3,000 homes were destroyed. The fire also affected the water ecosystems and agriculture as nearly 100,000 beehives suffered heat and smoke damage or were destroyed entirely.  

But Australia has dealt with wildfires since the beginning of times. Its biomes, in most cases, are prone to get burned. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) defines 8 different ecoregions in Australia: 

  1.  Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests  
  1.  Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests  
  1. Tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, and shrublands  
  1. Temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands  
  1. Montane grasslands and shrublands  
  1. Tundra  
  1. Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub  
  1. Deserts and xeric shrublands 
Bushfire in Australia
Bushfire in Australia (Photo: Shutterstock)

Around 70% of the Australian mainland is classified as semi-arid, arid or desert; making it the driest inhabited continent on Earth. And this drier vegetation and even the shrublands, grasslands, savannas and eucalyptus forests are prone to fires. Actually, they need fire for proper ecosystem functioning. Many plants need fire to reproduce due to many reasons. Fires clear the land and if the plant release its seeds, it has more chance of finding a place to fix and grow.

Organic to Inorganic

There is no competition for space, everything was burned. Other important issue is that fires transform everything that is organic to inorganic making nutrients available for the seedlings. Like other parts of the world the fire triggers the plants in some cases to produce flowers and release the seeds. Scientist argues that these ecosystems evolved with the fires throughout earth history. Eastern Australia is one of the most fire-prone regions of the world. And the fires are naturally occurring through lightening.  

The problem is that with climate change these fires increased severity, intensity, duration and frequency. Intense fires can kill the seeds and will not germinate with the first rains. Other problem with Australia is due to the fact that it is an Island 80% of the mammals and 90% of reptiles and frogs species are endemic and just occur in the continent. So fires can cause more damage and even extinction of many species.  

Climate Change

Climate change has driven many catastrophic fires around the world. In the Black Summer bushfires is estimated that the region’s warming climate boosted wildfire risk in the region by at least 30%. Catastrophic fires are becoming more often due to global climate change. In Australia, long-term drought and high temperatures were blamed for the Black Summer bushfires. New research by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, shows climate change has driven a significant increase in Australia’s forest fire activity over the last three decades.  

Australia bushfires from space
Australia Bushfires from Space (Photo: Shutterstock)

Global Warming

The CSIRO report that the climate change has lead to an increase of 1.4 degrees Celsius since 1910 in Australia. There was also a rapid increase in extreme heat events. In the opposite side rainfall has declined in the southern and eastern regions of the continent. The extent of forest fires in Australia is increasing. Over the last 90 years, three of the four mega fire years occurred after the year 2000. A mega fire year is defined as the cumulative burned area of forest over one year of more than 1 million hectares. 

When comparing the first half (1988-2001) with the second half (2002-2018) of the record studied, the research showed that the average annual forest burned area in Australia increased 350%, and 800% per cent when including 2019. Comparing the same time period, the research showed a five-fold increase in annual average burned area in winter and a three-fold increase in Autumn, with Spring and Summer seeing a ten-fold increase. The Australia National Council for fire and emergency services, has released the Seasonal Bushfire Outlook for Autumn 2022, with varied fire potential for locations across Australia. 

Increasing Bushfire Potential

Based on this report recent rainfall has resulted in average to above average soil moisture and stream flows across large parts of eastern Australia. This is the result of the effect of the current La Niña event. This will bring above-average rainfall in Autumn for most parts of the country. However, the southeast and south of Australia are expected to have above normal bushfire potential. This is result of prolonged dry conditions and above average temperatures that are expected for the next three months of autumn. Over summer western Australia experienced bushfires incidents over summer, with temperatures above the average. This tendency will continue, and this area will also have above normal fire potential during autumn.   

Worsening Australia Bushfires

Australia has cope with bushfires throughout its history. But now they are more frequent, intense and severe, affecting vast amount of land. And the climate change is helping this scenario get much worst. Many endemics and threaten animals are at risk. We can all contribute to diminish the fire in Australia. How? Reducing our carbon footprint. Climate change is here, and Australia is burning more and more every year. We can all contribute a little to the planet and make something huge together. So, lets, start, with small steps but always moving forward. Planet earth needs our help! It’s time to act! 

About the Author:

Isabela started her work with the environment in 1993 as a Biology Bachelor student at the highly regarded Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG/Brazil). Later she joined the Graduate Program on Ecology, Conservation and Management of the Wildlife of the same University (UFMG/Brazil) where she received her Masters degree in 1999. Later, she received her Ph.D. on Soil and Water Science at the University of Florida (USA). During her Ph.D. studies she received an Outstanding Student Poster Award at the ASLO (American Society of Limnology and Oceanography) 2006 Summer Meeting held in Victoria (Canada). After working for the State Government Secretary, consulting environmental company and watershed management company she began her post-doctorate in the Geography Department at UFMG (Brazil). Throughout her career she gathered knowledge and specialized on Biology, Ecology, Soil Science, Limnology, Paleolimnology, Biogeochemistry, Organic Geochemistry, Metal and Environmental pollution.

Sources: 

Following Two Years After Australia’s Lethal Black Summer Fires | Discover Magazine 

3 Things to Know About Australia Wildfires and Bushfires | Earth.Org – Past | Present | Future 

As Australia faces new fire reality, forest restoration tactics reevaluated (mongabay.com) 

New spatial analyses of Australian wildfires highlight the need for new fire, resource, and conservation policies | PNAS 

Australian wildfires declared among the ‘worst wildlife disasters in modern history’ (nbcnews.com) 

New research links Australia’s forest fires to climate change – CSIRO 

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