Article | Wildfires in Australia: Black Saturday & Black Summer

By: Francisca Yunis Richter

Published on September 26, 2022

The Australian landscape is dominated by frequent low-intensity fires, however, in the southern part of the continent, where the majority of the population lives, bushfires are less frequent but extremely severe in certain seasons of the year

(Murphy et al, 2013).

The main causes of wildfires in Australia range from lightning strikes to arson or accidental fires. The presence of fuel material, for example dry vegetation, the low presence of humidity, drought and weather conditions, increase the severity of fires, therefore, their intensity and spread is more difficult to control. Considering the consequences of the climate crisis and the existing conditions of the Australian climate, rising temperatures, drought, and changes in wind gusts, intensify wildfires, facilitating their ignition and spread in the territory.

According to data obtained by CSIRO, burnt areas by fire in Australia are growing because of the increasing severe fire weather, which is 75% of the variation shown in the total annual area of wildfires. In fact, this is consistent with the  predictions from climate change scenarios, which indicate that fire weather conditions are intensifying because of greater greenhouse gas emissions (Cook et al, 2021).

Over the last decade, Australian wildfires are becoming an extremely frequent event due to climate conditions, in fact, in the first 10 days of 2020 there were 9,360 fire alerts, in 2019 the alerts in New South Wales (NSW) increased four times more than at any point in the last 20 years (Frontline Wildfire Defense, 2022).

Among other consequences of the increase in wildfires, the modification of the territory through densification and the growth of residential areas in the rural-urban interface, have altered the landscape and modified the fire regime, which has been increasing its risk due to the significant amount of fuel material in the areas of the urban-rural interface. Likewise, the infrastructure in this area was built before the incorporation of wildfires in the urban planning and construction regulations, therefore, they imply a greater exposure to disaster risk, since there are more lives and properties exposed to fires. This is why it is essential to address fire risk reduction through urban planning and disaster risk management (Gonzalez, Ruane & March, 2021).

Wildfires Southeastern Australia 2020 – NASA Earth Observatory, Joshua Stevens, MODIS data NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview
Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2017
Source: Wildfire in the East Gippsland region of Victoria (2019). Photo by Ned Dawson for Victoria State Government.

Among the most devastating wildfires in Australia, we find the “Black Saturday” fires, which happened during the 2009 fire season, and the “Black Summer” in 2019 and early 2020. Both are registered, to this day, as the worst fire events in Australian history, destroying an estimated 24.5 million hectares between the two seasons.

Black Saturday

The Black Saturday fires began on February 7, 2009. Approximately 400 fires were recorded in the State of Victoria, affecting 78 communities. A total of 173 people died in the fires and 2,029 houses were lost. Several communities suffered extensive loss of life and property damage as a result of major fires, including Beechworth, Bendigo, Bunyip, Winston Churchill, Narre Warren, Redesdale, and Upper Ferntree Gully. In the two weeks leading up to Black Saturday, Victoria experienced a severe heat wave; Melbourne reached temperatures above 43°C for three consecutive days. The effects of long-term drought and extreme fire risk conditions were created when Melbourne reached 46°C on February 7th. Wind gusts of more than 100 kilometers per hour changed direction, causing fire paths that were unpredictable and difficult to control” (Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, 2022).

Table 1: Based on Country Fire Authority (CFA) data

“The most significant fire was the Kinglake Fire Complex, named following the merge of the Kilmore East and Murrindindi fires on 8 February. This forest crown fire swept through state forest and national parks with flames more than 30 metres high. The extreme temperatures and wind created convection clouds above the flames that further fuelled the fire and propelled embers far beyond the fire front” (Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, 2022).

Fore more information about Black Saturday visit: About Black Saturday CFA 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal CommissionForest Fire Management Victoria

Black Summer

The 2019-2020 fire season, better known as Black Summer, began in September 2019 in southeastern Australia, affecting New South Wales, eastern Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory. Losses worsened in early November with rising temperatures, strong winds, and prolonged drought. The fires lasted until March 2020, extinguished after 9 months after the first outbreak. This catastrophic event devastated more than 24 million hectares, around 3,500 homes, 33 people died directly, and almost 450 more from the effects of smoke inhalation, and the death of an estimated 3 billion animals.

Source: Matthew Abbott for The New York Times – Wildfires in Conjola
Source: State Government of Victoria – Wildfires near Bairnsdale in Victoria
Table 2: based on CFA Annual Report 2019–20 data

“The 2019-2020 fire season was the worst New South Wales (NSW) has ever recorded. High temperatures and low humidity levels, coupled with several years of drought, allowed devastating fires to burn across much of the state with extreme weather conditions, intensifying fires, which continued through most of the fire season. Over the course of a few months, 26 lives were lost, 2,448 houses were destroyed, and 5.5 million hectares (ha) of land were burned” (Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, 2022).

“From July 1, 2019, to the end of the fire season on March 31, 2020, there were more than 11.400 bush and vegetation fires in NSW. The wildfires burned 6.2% of the state, the largest area recorded in a single fire season in eastern Australia” (Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, 2022).

Referencias

Frontline Wildfire Defense (2022) History of Fires in Australia & What We Can Learn | Frontline. (online) Available at: https://www.frontlinewildfire.com/wildfire-news-and-resources/history-fires-australia/ (Accessed 21/09/2022).

Gonzalez-Mathiesen, C., Ruane, S., & March, A. (2021). Integrating wildfire risk management and spatial planning – A historical review of two Australian planning systems. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction: IJDRR, 53(101984), 101984. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.101984

Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (2022). Bushfire – Black Saturday, Victoria, 2009 | Australian Disaster Resilience Knowledge Hub. (online) Available at: https://knowledge.aidr.org.au/resources/bushfire-black-saturday-victoria-2009/ (Accessed 21/09/2022).

Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (2022). Bushfire – Black Summer, NSW, 2019-2020 | Australian Disaster Resilience Knowledge Hub. (online) Available at: https://knowledge.aidr.org.au/resources/black-summer-bushfires-nsw-2019-20/ (Accessed 22/09/2022).

Final Report Summary (2010) Authority Government Printer for the State of Victoria (online) Available at: http://royalcommission.vic.gov.au/finaldocuments/summary/PF/VBRC_Summary_PF.pdf (Accessed 22/09/2022).

Mills, G., Salkin, O., Fearon, M., Harris, S., Brown, T., & Reinbold, H. (2022). Meteorological drivers of the eastern Victorian Black Summer (2019–2020) fires. Journal of Southern Hemisphere Earth Systems Science, 72(2), 139–163. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1071/ES22011 (Accessed 21/09/2022).

Understanding fire weather-Bureau of Meteorology. (2019) https://media.bom.gov.au/social/blog/1538/understanding-fire-weather/ (Accessed 22/09/2022).

Cook, G., Dowdy, A., Knauer, J., Meyer, M., Canadell, P. and Briggs, P., (2021). Australia’s Black Summer of fire was not normal – and we can prove it. (online) CSIROscope. Available at: https://blog.csiro.au/bushfires-linked-climate-change (Accessed 29 September 2022).

Murphy, B., Bradstock, R., Boer, M., Carter, J., Cary, G., Cochrane, M., Fensham, R., Russell-Smith, J.,Williamson, G., Bowman, D. (2013). Fire regimes of Australia: A pyrogeographic model system (online). Journal of Biogeography. 40. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.12065 (Accessed 30 September 2022).

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