Climate Change And The NSW & ACT Bushfire Threat

Climate CouncilLesley Hughes

NSW and the ACT are bracing for another severe bushfire season, as climate change continues to drive extreme conditions, our new report has revealed.
The ‘Climate Change and the NSW and ACT Bushfire Threat’ report finds the economic cost of bushfires in the NSW and ACT is approximately $100m this year, with annual bushfire costs projected to more than double by 2050.

1. Climate change is already increasing the risk of bushfires in New South Wales (NSW) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).
  • Since the 1970s, extreme fire weather has increased across large parts of Australia, including NSW and the ACT.
  • Hot, dry conditions have a major influence on bushfires. Climate change is making hot days hotter, and heatwaves longer and more frequent, with increasing drought conditions in Australia’s southeast.
  • The 2015/16 summer was Australia’s sixth hottest on record and in NSW and the ACT the mean maximum temperatures were 1.4°C and 1.9°C above average, respectively. February 2016 was also the driest that NSW has experienced since 1978. Hot and dry conditions are driving up the likelihood of dangerous fire weather in NSW and the ACT.
2. In NSW and the ACT the fire season is starting earlier and lasting longer. Dangerous fire weather has been extending into Spring and Autumn.
  • 'Above normal' fire potential is expected in most of NSW for the 2016-17 bushfire season, because of high grass growth experienced during spring and predicted above average temperatures during summer.
  • In the ACT, predicted hotter and drier weather during summer will produce conditions conducive to bushfire development.
3. Recent severe fires in NSW and the ACT have been influenced by record hot, dry conditions.
  • Record-breaking heat and hotter weather over the long term in NSW and the ACT has worsened fire weather and contributed to an increase in the frequency and severity of bushfires.
  • In October 2013, exceptionally dry conditions contributed to severe bushfires on the Central Coast and in the Blue Mountains of NSW, which caused over $180 million in damages.
  • At the beginning of August in 2014, volunteers were fighting 90 fires simultaneously and properties were destroyed.
4. The total economic costs of NSW and ACT bushfires are estimated to be approximately $100 million per year. By around the middle of the century these costs will more than double.
  • Bushfires cost an estimated $375 million per year in Australia. With a forecast growth in costs of 2.2% annually between 2016 and 2050, the total economic cost of bushfires is expected to reach $800 million annually by mid-century.
  • These state and national projections do not incorporate increased bushfire incident rates due to climate change and could potentially be much higher.
  • In 2003, abnormally high temperatures and below-average rainfall in and around the ACT preceded bushfires that devastated several suburbs, destroyed over 500 properties and claimed five lives. This also had serious economic implications for the ACT with insured losses of $660 million.
5. In the future, NSW and the ACT are very likely to experience an increased number of days with dangerous fire weather. Communities, emergency services and health services must keep preparing.
  • Fire severity and intensity is expected to increase substantially in coming decades, especially in those regions currently most affected by bushfires, and where a substantial proportion of the Australian population lives.
  • Increased resources for our emergency services and fire management agencies will be required as fire risk increases.
6. This is the critical decade to protect Australians.
  • Australia must strive to cut emissions rapidly and deeply to join global efforts to stabilise the world’s climate and to reduce the impact of extreme weather events, including bushfires.
  • Australia’s very weak target of a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels – and we are on track to miss even this target – leaves Australia lagging well behind other OECD countries. 

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