Australia braces for a ‘horror’ wildfire season

Already, major blazes have broken out in the state – especially near the coast. Last week, a man was hospitalised and at least two homes destroyed in a fire in Bega Valley; this week, six schools have been pre-emptively closed and extreme fire warnings issued for five regions. 

In Cobar – a remote mining town eight west of Sydney, across the luscious Blue Mountains and along vast highways littered with kangaroo roadkill – Mr Lennon’s team is combining satellite data with old-fashioned visual checks and conversations with locals to map the fire risk and prepare for the worst.

“It’s about knowing the landscape, having situational awareness and good relationships with locals and landowners,” he says. “We need everyone to know how to respond when a wildfire does kick off.” 

But although grass fires in the dry outback are a major concern, it is the areas closer to the coast where the greatest risks lie. 

“That’s where the forests are and that’s where the people are,” says Professor Jason Sharples, a bushfire expert at the University of New South Wales. “When we talk about risk, we’re talking about the likelihood of the fires happening but also the consequences that they have.

“You get some absolutely massive fires in the outback – a million hectare fires burning out there – but nobody really knows about them because they only affect a few remote settlements.” 

A new ‘Flame Age’

The greatest threat is firestorms: infernos so intense and destructive that they create their own weather systems akin to a “thunderstorm within the plume of the fire”. 

“If you think of a really bad thunderstorm – winds blowing all around the place, sleet and rain going sideways. Think of that, but take away the sleet and rain and replace it with embers and flames. It’ll also be dark because of the smoke. These are very dark, chaotic, scary events,” says Prof Sharples. 

Once rare, research shows the frequency of these uncontrollable blazes has surged as the world enters a new ‘Flame Age’ driven by global warming.

Between 1998, when relevant records began, and 2018, 62 firestorms were confirmed in Australia. But in 2019 alone, the country experienced at least 30 of these enormous blazes, known as pyroconvective events. It is “very likely” that Australia will add to its tally this season. 

Unlike smaller bushfires, once a firestorm gets started they are almost impossible to fight. 

“You can’t put them out,” says Prof Sharples. “The best advice I think you can give is: when one of these things starts, just get out of the way.” 

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