Above-average bushfire threats the new normal

Rising temperatures and weakening rainfall mean the average bushfire season is a thing of the past, according to a panel of experts.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards Community Research Centre (CRC) this week released its outlook for the coming bushfire season, finding that vast swathes of the country, including most of its population centres, were under threat of bushfire seasons that start earlier and last longer.

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“Fire severity across southern Australia has been consistently worse than the long term averages would suggest,” the report states.

“This is partly driven by an increase in temperatures as well as an increased dryness of soils and vegetation.

“Such impacts are challenging the limited resources of the fire and land management agencies and have created the situation where each fire season is demanding both in economic and human costs.”

The CRC says benign fire seasons are predicted to become exceptions, and historical averages are becoming regularly overtaken and less meaningful.

“2013 was Australia’s warmest year since comparable records began in 1910, and persistent warm conditions have continued to affect Australia during 2014,” the report states.

“These above average temperatures have been a feature across almost the whole country, and particularly affected the eastern states in 2014, including the major eastern capital cities.

“This combination of underlying rainfall deficits, with persistently above average temperatures and near el Niño conditions in the pacific, means that the antecedent conditions favour an early and above normal fire season in many areas.”

Karl Sullivan, Insurance Council of Australia Policy, Risk and Disaster Planning General Manager, says more stringent building standards for buildings in bushfire-prone areas will, over time, lead to greater resilience and smaller losses.

“The ICA also has ongoing discussions with local and state governments about the need for better planning laws to prevent properties being built in areas of high risk and introducing measures that will improve the resilience of existing buildings in high-risk areas,” he says.

“Community awareness around bushfires is growing rapidly and the industry has been introducing tools to guide households on an appropriate level of cover. For example, online building calculators offered by Understand Insurance and some insurance companies include an additional factor for properties that have a high BAL rating.

“The ICA would welcome a greater focus on raising community awareness from local governments and is looking at taking part in consumer awareness initiatives in concert with government education programs.”