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Climate scientists say horror fire seasons set to become the Australian norm

Disaster: A firefighter hoses down trees and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra, New South Wales during the January bushfires. Photo: AAP

CLIMATE scientists have told the bushfire royal commission that tinderbox conditions that allowed the catastrophic 2019-20 fire season are set to become the Australian norm.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, chaired by retired Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, started two-weeks of hearings in Canberra on May 25 examining the Black Summer bushfires that killed 33 people, destroyed more than 3000 homes and burnt about 12 million hectares across the nation.

“This isn’t a one-off event we’re looking at here,” head of climate monitoring for the Bureau of Meteorology, Dr Karl Braganza, told commissioners.

“Since the Canberra 2003 fires every jurisdiction in Australia have seen some really significant fire events that have challenged what we do to respond to them and what we thought fire weather would look like.

“The frequency of these events – if we look at the historical record – seems to be increasing.””

According to Dr Braganza, three “unprecedented” weather events combined to create the perfect storm of conditions to fuel last summer’s fires.

The first event – an Indian Ocean Dipole – caused drier conditions.

By spring, the signs were there.

On September 9, southeast Queensland’s historic Binna Burra Lodge, on the Gold Coast hinterland, was destroyed in a bushfire.

The loss, and the blazes in the surrounding rain forests, alarmed scientists, who said that such fires were extremely rare in the usually cool and wet area.

Dr Braganza said the second event – a Negative Southern Annular Mode – meant above-average temperatures and less rainfall.

Finally, a Neutral El Nino – combined with the warming climate – created a stage for the devastating bushfires.

Dr Braganza said Australia had experienced two decades of record temperatures, and overall warming of 1.4 degrees.

If greenhouse gas emissions increase, temperatures are likely to hit 48 degrees by 2050, he said.

Senior scientist from the CSIRO Dr Helen Cleugh told the commission climate change was interacting with, and exacerbating, previous weather systems in a way never seen before.

“This means that understanding the interaction between climate variability and these drivers and climate change is very important for building preparedness for the changing nature of climate risks into the future,” she said.

Dr Cleugh said “Australia will continue to warm substantially”, and that coupled with lower rainfall, this would lead to the future risk of extreme fire weather.

Mr Briskin said the devastation of the bushfires and their ongoing effects meant many communities are still grieving.

“The tragic loss of life, the destruction of homes, the significant loss of livestock and millions of hectares of forest has been devastating and continues to deeply affect people and their recovery,” he said.

The commission received almost 1700 submissions from individuals, companies and government bodies.

It will deliver its final report and recommendations in August.

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