Bush Fires in Australia: What You Need to Know to Stay Safe as a Visitor

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Australia, with its vast tracts of wild and remote landscapes, has become almost synonymous with bush fires. Bush fires in Australia, which can be both a natural phenomenon and a result of human activities, shape the ecology of the continent and challenge its inhabitants.

Here, we delve into some of the reasons behind these fires, their impact, and the way forward for the information of conscious travelers to Australia. Before that however a few pointers for overseas visitors as to what protocols to follow if visiting during bushfire season.

Pointers for Overseas Visitors

Visitors to Australia, particularly during bushfire season, should be proactive in ensuring their safety. Here’s some suggestions for those who might be confronted with the danger of a bushfire:

  1. Stay Informed
    • Check Fire Ratings: The Bureau of Meteorology provides daily fire danger ratings. Know the ratings: Low-Moderate, High, Very High, Severe, Extreme, and Catastrophic.
    • Stay Updated: Listen to local radio, check websites or apps like the Fires Near Me app, and follow emergency services on social media for up-to-date information on fire movements. Australia’s public radio, the ABC, offers a comprehensive coverage of bushfires. (We love the ABC here in Australia! ed Kev Parker)
  2. Know the Terminology
    • Total Fire Ban: A day when no fires can be lit in the open air.
    • Watch and Act: There’s a heightened level of threat, conditions are changing, and you need to start taking action.
    • Emergency Warning: You are in imminent danger and should take action immediately. This will usually be accompanied by a siren sound on the radio or emergency app.
  3. Have an Emergency Plan
    • Even if you’re on vacation, discuss and decide upon an emergency plan with your group or family.
    • Know multiple routes out of the area you’re staying in.
    • Identify nearby safe locations, such as local community fire refuges or evacuation centers.
  4. Protect Yourself
    • If caught in the open, seek shelter from radiant heat.
    • Protect your airways by covering your nose and mouth with a cloth, preferably damp.
    • Wear protective clothing: long sleeves, trousers, sturdy shoes, gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat. Opt for natural fabrics as they’re less flammable.
  5. Avoid High-Risk Areas
    • During periods of high fire danger, avoid forested areas, thick bush, or dry grassland and always be aware of the conditions around you.
  6. Vehicle Safety
    • If traveling, keep windows up and air conditioning on “recirculate” to prevent smoke from entering the car.
    • If trapped, park off the road in a clear area away from trees, tall grass, and shrubs. Stay in the car below window level and cover yourself with a woolen blanket.
    • Once the fire front has passed, exit the vehicle and move to a burnt ground or cleared area.
  7. Stay Calm and Listen to Authorities
    • Always follow the instructions of emergency services personnel.
    • If told to evacuate, do so immediately and do not return until it’s declared safe.
  8. Prepare Before Your Trip
    • When planning your trip, be aware of the fire season in the regions you’ll be visiting.
    • Register with your embassy or consulate so they are aware of your presence in the area.

Note: Australia’s vast network of National Parks are often the first to be caught-up in bush fire scenarios. Make sure you are aware of fire warning situation before visiting national parks, particularly during the summer months.

AFDRS_FireDangerRatings
Keep an eye on the level of fire danger. Signage is frequent

Remember, the best way to protect yourself is to avoid dangerous situations in the first place. When in doubt, prioritize safety and always err on the side of caution.

The Tragic Black Summer

The 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season, known as “Black Summer,” was unprecedented in modern history. Fires affected over 18 million hectares, particularly in New South Wales. 33 people died, over 3,000 homes were destroyed, and an estimated 1 billion animals were killed. The fires were exacerbated by a severe drought and record-breaking temperatures, with climate change recognized as a contributing factor to these conditions.

australian_bushfire
Bush fires are a regular occurrence in Australia

Both national and international efforts were mobilized to combat the fires, including firefighters from various countries and the Australian Defence Force. The aftermath sparked debates on climate policy, forest management, and increased preparedness for future fire events.

Understanding the Phenomenon

A bush fire, also known as a wildfire in other parts of the world, is an uncontrolled fire that spreads rapidly through vegetation. In Australia, they predominantly occur in forested areas, but can also spread to grasslands and shrublands.

Natural Causes: Bush fires are a natural part of Australia’s ecosystem. Many of the country’s native flora have evolved with fire, and in some cases, even rely on it for germination and propagation. Lightning strikes are a significant natural cause of these fires.

Human Influence: Human activities have amplified the frequency and intensity of fires. Accidents, carelessness (like discarded cigarette butts), and deliberate acts of arson are some human-induced causes. Additionally, land-clearing and climate change, which leads to hotter and drier conditions, have been linked to the increasing severity of bush fires.

Ecological Impact

Positive Effects: Some Australian plants, especially in the eucalyptus family, have evolved to not only survive fires but to thrive because of them. Fire can clear dead vegetation, making way for new growth. Some seeds require the intense heat of a fire to crack open and begin the germination process.

Negative Effects: While fires can be regenerative, they can also be devastatingly destructive. They can wipe out entire habitats, leading to loss of biodiversity. Animals can lose their homes or even their lives. Post-fire landscapes are also vulnerable to invasive species which can further change the ecosystem dynamics.

kangaroo in a bushfire
The impact of bushfires on wildlife is often devastating

Human Impact

Losses: Fires claim lives, both human and animal. They destroy homes, infrastructure, and valuable resources. In recent years, cities like Sydney have been blanketed with smoke from distant fires, posing health risks to residents.

Economic Impact: Bush fires damage agriculture, reduce tourism, and require vast resources for firefighting and post-fire recovery.

Adaptation and Future Strategies

Australia has been dealing with bush fires for millennia, and its residents have shown resilience and adaptability.

Prevention and Preparedness: Fire bans during high-risk periods, controlled burning to reduce fuel load, building homes with fire-resistant materials, and creating firebreaks are some strategies employed.

Response: Australia boasts a robust system of volunteer and professional firefighters. Their heroics, combined with community support, play a vital role in combating fires.

Research and Innovation: With the aid of technology, forecasting and early detection systems have improved. Drones, satellites, and AI are being used to monitor fire-prone areas.

Community and Collaboration: Community education and awareness programs ensure that people are prepared and can act swiftly. Collaborations between Australian states and international partners facilitate sharing of resources and expertise.

Climate Change Implications for Bush Fires in Australia

The link between climate change and the increasing intensity and frequency of bush fires in Australia has been a topic of significant research and discussion. Below are summaries of key reports and studies that have delved into this issue:

  1. Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and CSIRO – “State of the Climate” Reports:
    • These biennial reports provide an update on the changes and long-term trends in Australia’s climate. They consistently highlight the increase in extreme fire weather and the length of the fire season due to climate change.
    • Reference: State of the Climate Reports
  1. Climate Council – “Be Prepared: Climate Change and the Australian Bushfire Threat”:
    • This report claims that climate change is increasing the probability of extreme fire weather days and is leading to a longer fire season.
    • It suggests that in future decades, southern Australia is expected to experience an increase in dangerous fire weather, placing more communities at risk.
    • Reference: Climate Council Reports
  2. The Garnaut Climate Change Review:
    • Commissioned by the Australian government, this review explored the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy. The report indicated that fire seasons would start earlier, end slightly later, and become more intense, predicting this change would be evident by 2020.
    • Reference: Garnaut, R. (2008). The Garnaut Climate Change Review
  1. Nature Climate Change – “Human contribution to the record-breaking July 2016 temperatures in southeastern Australia”:
    • This study demonstrated the role of anthropogenic climate change in the extreme temperatures that led to massive bushfires in southeastern Australia.
    • Reference: King, A. D., Karoly, D. J., & Henley, B. J. (2017). Nature Climate Change, 7(12), 941-945.
  2. Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC:
  3. IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) – “Special Report on Climate Change and Land”:
    • While this report is broader in scope, it includes considerations of fire regimes, mentioning that climate change can increase the frequency, intensity, and seasonality of fires by altering fire weather and vegetation.
    • Reference: IPCC Special Reports

It’s important to note that while climate change increases the risk and intensity of bushfires, other factors, like ignition sources, land management practices, and human encroachment into fire-prone areas, also play critical roles in fire incidence and intensity. The above reports, among others, aim to present a holistic view of the interplay of these factors in the context of a changing climate.

Traditional Aboriginal Bush Fire Management Practices

Traditional Aboriginal Bush Fire Management, known as cultural burning or “country fire,” has been practiced for over 65,000 years in Australia. This method involves cool, low-intensity fires to manage land, protect habitats, and reduce fuel loads, without harming the ecosystem. The practice is deeply connected to Indigenous knowledge and spirituality, with specific techniques varying by location to protect cultural values and biodiversity.

Burning-at-Fish-River-NT_Ted-Wood-Nature-Conservancy
Burning at Fish River NT (Ted-Wood). There are increasing levels of cooperation between traditional owners and fire fighting services in bush fire management using traditional practices and knowledge

Contemporary applications involve collaboration between Indigenous custodians and modern fire management agencies, demonstrating a blend of traditional knowledge and modern science. This integrated approach not only helps in fire prevention but also revitalizes ecosystems and supports cultural heritag

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