Australia should build a national agency to strengthen the country’s resilience to climate change according to a group of fire researchers.
In an article published in the journal Nature, the researchers argued the magnitude of the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, which destroyed more than 3000 homes and burnt 30 million hectares of vegetation, highlighted the need for a coordinated national approach.
Article co-author and University of Tasmania Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science David Bowman said Australia did not have a central system for gathering and storing essential information about bushfires.
“State and territory governments, and even agencies within states, have different approaches. This worked fine when fires were smaller but those in the 2019-20 season crossed multiple state borders,” Professor Bowman said.
In other news:
With each state and territory recording bushfires in a variety of ways, the researchers said the lack of consistent data made it difficult to measure scale and environmental impact accurately.
They used satellite data from the European Space Agency’s Fire CCI51 to analyse burnt areas from 2001-2020 to determine whether the Black Summer bushfires were anomalous.
They also analysed the data and written records of all major fires in Australia from 1851 to gain a broader geographical and historical perspective.
The researchers found the extraordinary scale and intensity of the Black Summer fires were driven by climate conditions not seen in a century, including three years of drought, and it highlighted inconsistencies with the way government records are currently compiled using field observations.
It showed the extent of the fires was 24 per cent smaller than estimated from government records and fires of that magnitude had not been seen since the mid-19th century.
Almost 20 per cent of Australia’s eucalyptus forest coverage burnt – more than 7.5 times higher than the annual average percentage burnt during the previous 18 years.
The researchers called on the Bushfire Royal Commission to recommend the establishment of a national fire monitoring agency to collect consistent information on:
- fire causes,
- frequency, extent and severity,
- biodiversity and vegetation coverage,
- greenhouse gas emissions,
- smoke and public health, and
- economic trade-offs.
“The geographic scale, on the back of a series of massive bushfires that have burnt southern Australia and Tasmania since the beginning of this century, eclipsed the worst-case scenarios designed to prepare agencies and communities,” Professor Bowman said.
“In other words, we’re navigating uncharted territory without a compass.
“Effective adaptation to extreme events of this sort demands much more detailed description and analysis, and that requires accurate and timely data.
“The 2019-20 fires marked a historic crossroads. A national crisis of this magnitude, which will probably happen again, requires a national solution.”