Warnings of extreme grass fire season after La Nina event

Many parts of Australia are at risk of extreme grass fires after years of wet weather created “powder keg” conditions, according to a new report.

Residents have been warned of an increased risk of major grass fires during hot weather in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia according to the new report by the Climate Council.

The fire risk is particularly heightened across NSW, south western Queensland and large parts of Victoria according to former Commissioner of LD Fire and Emergency Services Lee Johnson, who reviewed the report.

Mr Johnson said Australians could expect the coming months and the summer of 2023-24 will be “fairly severe”, but that it would not be as disastrous as the 2019-20 season

“Most parts of Australia [had rain] above normal, and it has just led to just oceans of grass, oceans of it, and even [in] some of those areas that were destroyed by the black summer fires,” Mr Johnson said.

“The vegetation will be getting a real kick on and regrowth in those areas should be continuing so we’re expecting to see a pretty active season at this stage.”

Australia has experienced a multiyear “protracted” La Nina event from 2022 to 2023 that brought with it record breaking rainfall and flooding on the east coast.

Wet seasons have been described as a “double-edged sword” by fire services as while they keep vegetation wet, lowering the risk of fire, they also lead to the “prolific” growth of vegetation that becomes a huge fuel load in the future.

In some inland areas, fire fuel loads normally range between 0.5 and 1.5 tonnes per hectare, however, that number has jumped to between 4.5 and 6 tonnes per hectare after recent heavy rains.

The areas with prolific growth of grass and bushland include rapid regrowth in areas affected by the Black Summer bushfires.

“These same areas – so recently green – are now turning brown and yellow as heatwaves sweep across the country, priming grasslands to burn,” the report said.

Though grassfires are considered less dangerous than forest fires, they can prove fatal in hot and dry conditions.

“They just flash up out of nowhere and they move very quickly, they’re devastating and they can kill people easily, kill wildlife and they can destroy property,” Mr Johnson said.

“They run around subject to the wind, they’re prone to changing direction rapidly and moving quite quickly across the ground, faster than you could run.”

The report also warns that grass fires could be “supercharged” through the summer of 2023-24 thanks to climate change.

“Our point of view is that a lot of these events now are being exacerbated with what‘s happening with climate,” Mr Johnson said.

“We’re just seeing year after year after year of whether it’s floods or fires – extremes.

“We’re going from one kind of disaster to the next without very much of a break – droughts to fires to floods to cyclones.”

Originally published as Fears of ‘powder keg’ fire season spurred by years of La Nina

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