EXPLAINER

Australia's 2020-21 bushfire season: what to expect this summer

Most of Australia will face different fire conditions this summer. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Most of Australia will face different fire conditions this summer. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Australia's devastating bushfire season of 2019-20 is not a distant memory.

Thousands of homes and millions of hectares of land were destroyed by fires that spanned several months.

Fires burned across the country, ravaging landscapes through NSW, the ACT, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.

The start of the 2019-20 season came with force and this time last year fires had already had disastrous consequences.

In early September devastating bushfires tore through parts of northern NSW. The Long Gully Road fire burned for almost two months, killed two people and destroyed more than 40 homes.

While the start of the bushfire season has not come with the same ferocity as the start of the 2019-20, authorities are warning against complacency.

There has been a lot more rain in many parts of Australia this year and the ground is not as dry but fire remains a threat.

Authorities say rapid grass fires could pose a serious concern and parts of Australia could face the same deadly conditions as last year.

When does the bushfire season officially start? 

Official start dates for the 2020-21 bushfire season vary across Australia. The date can also change year-to-year.

Jurisdictions also take their own approaches when declaring the start of the fire season.

The bushfire season has already kicked off in Queensland. It typically starts in late July or August. There have already been some bushfires in the sunshine state.

In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority declares the start of the bushfire season for each council area. The fire season starts in some areas around October.

Likewise in NSW, the bushfire season for local council areas is determined by the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner.

Six council areas in northern NSW began their bushfire season on August 1, including areas such as Armidale Regional and Glen Innes.

An additional 21 local council areas in NSW started their bushfire season on September 1, and the bushfire season was brought forward in a lot of these areas. NSW RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers said at the time this was due to increased growth.

"Increased grass growth due to recent rain could prove problematic over coming weeks and months, particularly in these areas starting their danger period," he said.

"Land holders and firefighters have reported increased grass growth... once dry and cured this will bring an unwelcome threat of grass fires."

South Australia's bushfire season normally starts in November.

Western Australia's bushfire season is June to October in the north and October to April in the south.

The ACT pushed back the start of its bushfire season to November 1, a month later than usual. This was due to the expectation of further rainfall in the coming months and low forest flammability.

Tasmania's fire season starts in November or December.

Northern parts of the NT are in the middle of their bushfire season, which typically runs from April to November. The southern part of the territory's fire season runs from October to March.

What is the forecast for the upcoming bushfire season? 

Most of Australia will not face the same fire conditions as last summer.

The bushfire outlook for most of Australia in spring is "normal", according to the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

But in parts of Queenland and north WA there is an "above normal" fire potential.

Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC chief executive Dr Richard Thornton said the organisation's seasonal bushfire outlook for September to November showed the fire season would have different climate drivers than the last two seasons in most parts of Australia. This has been mostly due to wetter-than-average conditions.

"With a La Nina alert now active, large areas of eastern and northern Australia are expecting wetter than average conditions through spring," he said.

"Despite the wetter climate signals, parts of Queensland face above normal fire potential in the south east and central coast, extending to the north.

"In contrast to the wetter conditions for the east, dry conditions persist in Western Australia with above normal fire potential continuing to be expected in parts of the north."

Dr Thornton said while a wetter-than-average spring for most of eastern Australia would help, there is a high chance of grass fires in summer.

"While these wetter conditions in eastern Australia will help for spring, they may lead to an increase in the risk of fast running fires in grasslands and cropping areas over summer," he said.

"These conditions will be monitored closely over the coming months, as if a La Nina does eventuate, the increased rain will lead to strong grass growth. Once this grass dries, it could pose a significant fire risk."

Dr Thornton warned against complacency, saying warm and windy conditions meant fire could occur right across the country.

"Do not be complacent about fire. Fire is a regular occurrence across Australia, and it is important to remember that areas designated as normal fire potential will still see fires," he said.

"Make sure you've got a fire plan, talk about it with your family, and ensure you have multiple back up plans. Our research shows it is important to include your children in planning to help them prepare, and don't forget about your pets and animals too."

This story What should we expect this bushfire season? first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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