In Brief

Australia’s Fires Will Rage Again. Here’s How the Government Can Prepare.

Warming temperatures mean that Australia will likely continue to suffer from massive bushfires. To reduce future damage, the government must act.

Australia is suffering from one of its worst fire seasons in history, with more than two dozen people killed, thousands of homes destroyed, and millions of acres burned so far. Unfortunately, fires like this, exacerbated by the effects of climate change, will likely rage again, but Australia’s government can take steps to minimize their destruction.

What has caused the massive bushfires in Australia?

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Australia has always had bushfires. But with more people living in fire-prone areas, the risk that humans—rather than natural causes such as lightning—ignite the fires has grown. All it takes is malfunctioning equipment or an arsonist for acres to burst into flames.

A kangaroo is seen near trees and the sky is in an orange haze.
A biodiversity expert at University of Sydney has estimated that one billion animals have died in the recent fires. Lukas Coch/AAP Image/Reuters

Drier, hotter conditions driven by climate change can add to the size and intensity of bushfires, as moisture levels in the soil shrink and vegetation dries up. Since 1950, temperatures in Australia have risen about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, and the country has experienced drought for the last three years. Under these conditions, fires spread rapidly and burn extremely hot. At such high temperatures, the fires can create their own weather, including producing lightning that can ignite additional bushfires.

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There is another worrisome connection to climate change: the loss of vegetation that absorbs carbon. A burning forest emits carbon dioxide that is normally reabsorbed over time as the forest regrows. But scientists fear that the scale and intensity of the current bushfires will cause Australian forests to regrow more slowly, reducing their ability to rapidly absorb excess carbon. With more carbon in the atmosphere, the earth will continue to warm.

 

What should Australia’s federal, state, and local governments do to minimize destruction during future fire seasons?

With warming temperatures, Australia will face longer fire seasons. To reduce future damage, governments at all levels must act. Areas of focus should include enhancing early warning systems and fire prediction capabilities; launching public awareness campaigns on the dangers posed by climate-fueled bushfires and necessary prevention measures; conducting more controlled burns; and developing more stringent building codes that address climate risk.

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At the state and local levels, communities need to professionalize their firefighting capabilities. They should invest in improved training that educates firefighters and local leaders about the changing characteristics of bushfires. And, once this fire season subsides, states should oversee how and where rebuilding occurs, including restricting redevelopment of particularly fire-prone areas.

 

In recent years, the United States has also suffered from catastrophic wildfires. Is there anything the United States can learn from Australia?

The United States could learn from Australia’s adoption of prevention measures after the 2009 Black Saturday fires in the state of Victoria. Those fires, the country’s worst on record, killed almost two hundred people and burned an area larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island. In the aftermath, Victoria officials implemented aggressive measures to reduce the threat of damage from fires, including identifying fire-prone areas, setting up planning and permitting requirements to curb risky development in those areas, and launching a voluntary buyback program to move people off land threatened by repeated burning. Additionally, Australia overhauled its warning system for bushfires, creating a six-stage program that encourages people to leave early rather than stay and try to defend their property.

The United States could benefit from all these measures. Most importantly, it should focus on getting and keeping people out of harm’s way. California’s experience shows just how challenging this is to accomplish. The state has the most homes currently at high to extreme risk of fire, even without considering the added fire risk from climate change.  According to the state’s 2018 climate assessment, the amount of acreage burned by fire will increase by 77 percent by 2100. Yet, the state continues to see development in areas destined to burn.

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For example, days after the devastating Camp Fire in 2018, which killed more than eighty people, Los Angeles County approved the development of nineteen thousand homes in an area that the state had already designated as being at high or very high fire risk. Similarly, after a wildfire burned the neighborhood of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, California, the city declined to impose stricter building standards for fire prevention. State and local governments in the United States should heed Australia’s unfolding tragedy and curb development in areas facing a growing threat of fire.

Finally, to reduce the escalating threats from climate change, the United States, the world’s second-largest emitter, and Australia, the world’s largest exporter of coal, should cut their carbon footprints. In doing so, the countries can play leadership roles to keep global temperatures from rising to unmanageable, dangerous levels.

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