Adding Fuel to the Fire: Australia’s Heatwave and Bushfire Epidemic

By Jen Dickie

Bushfire in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia by Thomas Schoch.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licenseWhilst the UK suffered its wettest summer in 100 years and is currently under a blanket of snow, pictures showing the devastating effects of the epidemic of bushfires that have hit Australia, linked to a record breaking heatwave this January, have been appearing in the news.  In The Observer last Saturday, Alison Rourke reports how firefighters are struggling to control what have been described as the “most atrocious fire-fighting conditions in 30 years”.  A combination of high temperatures and strong winds have resulted in the situation being given a fire danger rating of ‘catastrophic’, the highest possible rating.  In a special climate statement released by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) on Monday, the heatwave event is described as being persistent and widespread, affecting large parts of central and southern Australia.  The combination of dry conditions since mid-2012 and a delay in the monsoon are thought to have exacerbated the susceptibility of the landscape to bushfires.

While Tim Flannery from The Guardian argues that these “raging wildfires are forcing many to rethink their stance on climate change”, the immediate focus is largely on the improvements in communication, weather prediction and management of the outbreaks, particularly since the tragedy in Victoria in 2009 where 173 people lost their lives.

In a paper for Geography Compass, Christopher O’Connor, Greg Garfin, Donald Falk and Thomas Swetnam review trends in human pyrogeography research, where they discuss the interactions among of fire, climate and society.  In particular, they highlight that geographers have the necessary tools to “change operational management actions and societal preparedness” and advance the study of the complex nature of pyrogeography.  They investigate, among other themes, the frequency and extent of wildfires, the role climate plays as a driver of fire occurrence and the impacts of human modification of the landscape; however, they emphasise that our current understanding of the interactions needs to be improved if we are to predict what might happen in the future.  Whether you believe in climate change or not, it seems that there have been more and more extreme weather events hitting our headlines over recent years; however, as the understanding of the complex relationships among fire, climate and society improves, hopefully society will become increasingly more prepared to deal with them in the future.

books_icon Christopher O’Connor, Gregg Garfin, Donald Falk, Thomas Swetnam, 2011, Human Pyrogeography: A New Synergy of Fire, Climate and People is Reshaping Ecosystems across the Globe, Geography Compass 5, 329-350

60-world2 As Australia heatwave hits new high, warning that bushfires will continue, The Observer, 12th Jan 2013

60-world2 As Australia burns, attitudes are changing. But is it too late? The Guardian, 11th Jan 2013

60-world2 Extreme January heat, SPECIAL CLIMATE STATEMENT 43 – INTERIM, Climate Information Services – Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, 14th Jan 2013

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