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Fire season update 2019-20

Thursday, 21st May 2020

Fire season update 2019-20

Fire Season

The year 2019 started unusually warm and dry across large parts of Australia, marked by severe and prolonged drought. New South Wales and some areas of south eastern Queensland were already into their third year of dry conditions. It was a foreboding start with a spike in fires in the final weeks of Summer and early Autumn 2019. Weather conditions remained exceptionally dry leading into the 2019/20 fire season. Significant concern for the potential of an above normal fire season in forested areas on and east of the Great Dividing Range was highlighted in the Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook: August 2019.

What followed in NSW was over 200 days of continuous operational fire-fighting activity. Throughout the season NSW had 68 days where the fire danger index reached Severe (23 of these days occurred in December alone). There were also 22 Extreme fire danger days and 6 Catastrophic fire danger days. At the height of activity, there was on average around 2,500 firefighters in the field each shift with up to 4,000 on days of increased fire danger and impact.

It was a combined inter-agency response from NSW RFS, Fire and Rescue NSW, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Forestry Corporation NSW, NSW State Emergency Service, NSW Police, NSW Ambulance and the Australian Defence Force. Many thanks must also go to our interstate colleagues who were deployed to assist NSW and the international response and assistance provided from Canada, the United States and New Zealand.

In total 5.49 million hectares burnt in NSW which equates to 6.8% of the State. Such was the prolonged soil dryness and fuel availability that many areas that burnt in the fires had already been burnt recently (in the last one to seven years) either in previous bush fires or through hazard reduction. While in some instances these areas might have re-burnt at a reduced intensity, the Department of Planning Industry and Environment Wildlife and Conservation Bush fire Recovery Immediate Response report indicates that there may be species that were re-burnt before they had time to recover from the previous fires and this is likely to lead to population declines and reduced recovery for some species. Fires also affected 54% of the Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area, 35% of rainforest and more than 80% of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Fortunately, many areas were not impacted by high intensity fire and some vegetation types are expected to regenerate more readily.

Unfortunately, the losses also included 2,475 homes, 284 facilities and 5,556 outbuildings which were destroyed and sadly 25 lives including 3 NSW volunteer firefighters and 3 aerial fire-fighting personnel who were deployed from the USA.

Meteorology highlights

  • 2019 was Australia’s driest year on record. Annual total rainfall was 40% below average.
  • 2019 was Australia’s warmest year on record.
  • Overall though it was not the hottest Summer on record but is in the top 5.
  • NSW had its driest Spring since 2002.
  • December 2019 was the hottest December on record for NSW and Australia. A whopping 4.31°C above average.
  • Australia’s hottest day on record was 18 December 2019. The national area-averaged maximum temperature was 41.9°C. The previous record (area-averaged) was set the day before.
  • The highest Forest Fire Danger Index was 158 recorded at Murrurundi on 6th September 2019.
  • The highest temperature of the season recorded for NSW was 48.9°C in Penrith on the 4th January 2020.
  • What contributed to the climatic situation this season?

    While the ENSO Southern Oscillation which switches El Nino and La Nina conditions remained neutral throughout the year. Some other climate influences were at play during the season:

  • The monsoon arrived about 3 weeks later than usual ~ mid-January.
  • Australia experienced an extended positive IOD (Indian Ocean Dipole) event which peaked in October and took a long time to break down. Positive IOD events often result in less rainfall and higher than normal temperatures over parts of Australia during winter and spring.
  • Australia also experienced a negative SAM (Southern Annular Mode) event. A negative SAM phase typically sees increased westerly dry air flow across Eastern parts of Australia. The phases are usually transient and switch between positive and negative every 1-2 weeks, but this year was consistently negative from August 2019 – January 2020. This is highly unusual.
  • Bush fire assistance

    If you have been affected by the NSW Bush fires help is available. The NSW Government is delivering bushfire recovery assistance to help people and businesses impacted by bushfires. The Service NSW bushfire customer care service has specialists to help guide you: https://www.service.nsw.gov.au/campaign/bushfire-customer-care-service

    Preparedness

    COVID-19 is keeping us occupied but while we might not feel ready for it the next bush fire season will begin in only a matter of months. So, while you are spending time at home revisit your Hotspots property fire management plan, keep your property prepared and have your bush fire survival plan up to date and discussed with those in your family and household. Fire agencies and land managers across NSW are continuing important and strategic work to continue to reduce risk to life, property and the environment.

    Outlook

    The early months of 2020 have seen a shift to more normal rain patterns for several areas. The latest climate outlook from the Bureau of Meteorology (May to July) points towards wetter than average conditions for most of the southern two-thirds of Australia. On the back of increased rainfall amounts in the south east in April this has improved soil moisture conditions. However, there is no significant wet or dry patterns for the eastern seaboard. This rainfall is still well short of clearing rainfall deficiencies in the longer term. Day and night-time temperatures are likely to remain warmer than average nationwide particularly around the North an East. It is uncertain how this may influence the next fire season. Where weather permits agencies will continue to implement prescribed burning.

    You can read more from the DPIE about the ongoing environmental recovery actions here: https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/parks-reserves-and-protected-areas/fire/park-recovery-and-rehabilitation/recovering-from-2019-20-fires/understanding-the-impact-of-the-2019-20-fires

    For more information on the seasonal bushfire outlook for 2020 visit: https://www.bnhcrc.com.au/hazardnotes/71

    For more information on the climate outlook across NSW visit: www.bom.gov.au/climate/outlooks

    For more information on preparing your property see: https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/plan-and-prepare/prepare-your-property.

    You may also wish to follow the NSW Rural Fire Service on Facebook or Twitter to stay up to date on fire safety.

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