One of Queensland’s largest fires, located near the Blackbraes National Park, looks to be affecting an area that covers 78 square miles. That’s roughly 50,000 acres, or a little larger than Washington. This figure comes from data collected by the Japanese weather satellite Himawari-8, which uses 3.9 micrometer wavelengths to detect “hot spots” associated with wildfires. It’s unclear how much of that area has charred and how much solely remains on the cusp of a flare-up.
Another bush fire was burning Monday morning in the Byfield State Forest, situated along a rural peninsula in northeast Australia bordering the Coral Sea. It threatens to isolate the uninhabited peninsula. Twin hot spots just to the west pose a threat of additional flare-ups in coming days. No rainfall is expected in the hardest-hit areas for at least a week.
All told, more than two dozen wildfires are burning across Queensland, where wildfire season peaks during the late winter and spring. September and October are usually the worst months within a few hundred miles of the coastline. Deeper inland, bush fires tend to hold off until late spring into summer.
In August, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology warned that “the 2019/20 fire season has the potential to be an active season across Australia, following on from a very warm and dry start to the year.” The bureau specifically mentioned “the east coast of Queensland [and New South Wales]” as having “above normal fire potential.”
It has been especially dry in Australia. In fact, the southern half of the country experienced its driest January-to-July period on record. “Some areas, such as New South Wales into south eastern Queensland, are into their third year of dry conditions,” the bureau wrote. It was also the second-warmest January-to-July period on record, which comes on the heels of their warmest summer on record.
“These high temperatures add to the impact of reduced rainfall, and increase evaporation, further drying the landscape and vegetation.” Pressure patterns over the Tasman Sea favor an offshore flow, preventing maritime humidity from spilling into Queensland and New South Wales.
A number of blazes loom outside Brisbane, Queensland’s capital and a city of 2.25 million. Five fire complexes pepper the landscape, the farthest northern one only about four or five miles from Brisbane’s southern neighborhoods. It’s also precariously close to a spattering of the Gold Coast’s subtropical rain and eucalyptus forests.
In New South Wales, the problem isn’t much better. East of the Great Dividing Range, a slew of fires burn — their smoke plume wafting out about 500 miles east before dissipating.
The recent spate of fires reawakens wounds left behind by a devastating bush fire episode in Queensland in November. For the first time, the fire danger had been risen to “catastrophic” level, with 140 wildfires going on simultaneously. During the event, maximum temperature records “were smashed” at a number of locations, including 109 degrees at Cairns.
In 2009, the Black Saturday bush fires killed an estimated 180 people in Victoria while destroying more than 2,000 homes.
With a climate in many spots reminiscent of California, Australia is no stranger to wildfires. But some experts fear that the blazes may be getting worse because of climate change.
According to the Australian Climate Council, the number of days with maximum temperatures greater than 95 degrees in Queensland has increased between 10 and 45 days per year since the 1970s.
Wildfire risk can be broken down into four key components: source of ignition, fuel load, fuel condition and weather.
As urban sprawl into the wilderness continues, more sources of ignition will boost the odds of fires igniting. Increased lightning also could assist in that realm.
Increasing carbon dioxide levels, meanwhile, favor more vegetation growth. And more vegetation means more fuel.
Changes in rainfall patterns have a more complex role in the wildfire puzzle. While dry air parches plants and makes them ripe to fuel a blaze in the short term, longer-term drought can stunt plant growth enough to reduce the availability of fuels. Queensland, which has seen bouts of drought since 2013, may be beginning to cross this threshold.
Meanwhile, warming temperatures more efficiently extract moisture from available fuels, meaning that surging temperatures associated with the changing climate will continue to make it that much easier for plants to burn.
“Most of the stations showing an increase [in Forest Fire Danger Index] are located in the populous regions of southwest and southeast Australia,” according to the Australian Climate Council.
Experts also cite these factors as spurring a “lengthened fire season” in “many locations in Australia,” the dangerous period now extending into the fall.
The same study found “sixteen of 38 stations” across Australia “show a significant positive trend” in wildfire danger between 1973 and 2010. No stations observed a decline.