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How Much Worse Can Australia's Fires Get? An Expert Explains

Australia's worst bushfire season on record has been escalating for months now—and there's still no end in sight.

by Gavin Butler
07 January 2020, 4:30am

Residents commute on a road through thick smoke from bushfires in Bemboka, in Australia's New South Wales state on January 5, 2020. Australians on January 5 counted the cost from a day of catastrophic bushfires that caused "extensive damage" across swathes of the country and took the death toll from the long-running crisis to 24. SAEED KHAN / AFP

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

It's difficult to describe the current feeling of malaise in Australia. There is a prevailing mood of grief and desperation—a sadness at what has been lost, and a fury at the alleged failure of state and federal governments to adequately address the ongoing bushfire catastrophe. Underlying all of this is a growing sense of hopelessness, as the country faces off against a months-long natural disaster that shows no signs of abating.

The outlook is bleak, and it's hard to know how much longer the suffering can last—or what can be done to mitigate it. At least 24 human lives have already been lost, an estimated 480 million animals are believed to have been killed in New South Wales alone, and more than 1,500 homes have been destroyed. All of this with two months of summer left to go and more hot, dry, windy weather to come.

With this in mind, VICE spoke to Dr Geoff Cary, Associate Professor of Bushfire Science at ANU's Fenner School of Environment & Society, to discuss Australia's ongoing bushfire crisis: the possibility of it getting better in the near future, the probability of it getting worse, and what it's going to take to bring it to an end.

Hi Geoff. How much longer are these fires expected to continue?
The fires could potentially burn for weeks or even months. What's required for these fires to be extinguished is very significant rainfall, and until that rainfall occurs, they'll continue to burn.

What are the current weather forecasts looking like in terms of rain?
Well there's no substantial rainfall forecast in the next week or so. Australia is in the grip of a very big drought and has been for some time, and it will require a lot of rain to bring soil moisture and fuel moisture back up to a level where the fires are likely to be extinguished.

How much rain are we talking here?
It's not a straightforward question to answer, because it will vary so much from place to place depending on the soil moisture and the types of fuel—whether it's grassy fuels, or litter fuels, or coarse, larger, woody fuels—but you'd be looking for soaking rainfall that markedly increases soil moisture and bushfire fuel moisture, to really dampen these fires down. And even then they can continue to smoulder.

What needs to happen in the meantime? Is there anything we can do to accelerate that process, or is it just a matter of waiting until the rains break?
There's a lot of suppression activity on all of these fires, including building mineral earth containment lines—where bulldozers are used to push aside the fuel along a continuous break, removing all the vegetation down to the soil.

Often these lines are then used to conduct back burning operations, which involves lighting fires ahead of the advancing fire front and burning out the fuel. But higher intensity fires can easily burn over those breaks, and fires can spread easily when combustible materials—typically ignited bark—are lofted by the fire and thrown up to tens of kilometres ahead of the fire front. It doesn't take much for some of these containment lines to be breached.

So it seems like there isn't any end in sight, and the best we can do is implement these containment strategies and mitigate the spread of the fires?
That will be the main strategy at this point in time: to contain the fires within predefined areas. But we're also still approaching a time [of year] where major bushfire disasters have occurred. The Black Saturday fires occurred on the seventh of February 2009; the Canberra 2003 fires occurred in late January. So we're actually entering a season where heatwaves can be quite common and typically large bushfires can continue to burn. So there’s great potential for increased bushfire activity over the next month or so.

How much worse could this reasonably get?
It's hard to put a number on the amount of fires and the amount of hectares [burned], but the situation could escalate significantly from here. Or there may be a situation where the current containment strategies being put in place could contain the fires at near the size they are now, and those fires will continue to burn within those containment lines. It will really depend on the extent to which there are periods of severe bushfire weather—high temperatures, low humidity, and high wind speeds blowing in particular directions—over the next four to six or eight weeks. But what's not going away until there we see more rainfall is the drought, which is one of the key factors in these bushfire events.

Do you hold out much hope that things are going to get better in the next few weeks?
All I can say at the moment is that it's fairly open as to where this could go. There is the potential for a serious escalation in terms of the area burned. Or the outcome might not be as bad as that.

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