The summer of 2023-24 will almost certainly see a return to normal or above-normal risk conditions for fires across most of Australia.
The warning from the Climate Council comes after authorities continue to monitor conditions in western Queensland, where more than 20 homes and buildings were destroyed by fast-moving fires earlier this month.
The Climate Council and a sub-group within the organisation called Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA), are forecasting that fires remain a threat to other regions as grass growth accelerated by widespread rain dries out and temperatures remain high.
Founder and former New South Wales Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins said conditions would worsen if the forecast El Nino dry weather system persisted during the cooler months and into next summer.
“There is an increased risk this year of major grass fires breaking out during hot, dry and windy weather across NSW, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia up to, and possibly including, April,” he said.
“Firefighters will also watch the NT closely in winter, as there is a precedent for post-La Niña grass fires to start there in July.”
Mr Mullins said the ferocity and danger of grass fires should not be underestimated. He said they were not only destructive but, in some cases, as deadly as forest fires.
“They are very fast moving. People who have been caught up in these types of fires in the past have been unable to outrun them and have sadly died,” he said.
Mr Mullins said the threat level was so severe, he would not rule out some outer suburban areas being affected by grass fires, with emergency services stretched to capacity.
“The summer of 2023-24 will also almost certainly see a return to normal or above-normal bushfire conditions across most of Australia,” he said.
“All levels of government need to understand the escalating risk of devastating fires and ramp up preparedness now.
“Firefighters fear that grass fires occurring in hot, dry and windy conditions worsened by climate change could unfold on a scale never before experienced, potentially overwhelming emergency services at times, and placing communities at great risk.”
La Nina’s triple threat
The Climate Council and the ELCA released a report on Wednesday called The Powder Keg: Australia Primed to Burn, that Mr Mullins co-authored.
The prolonged La Nina period has seen fire fuel loads jump from a normal range of 0.5 to 1.5 tonnes per hectare to between 4.5 and 6 tonnes, the report states.
NSW and Queensland have already experienced grassfires this summer.
The analysis recounts how 15 per cent of Australia’s landmass burned in 1974-75 after a triple La Nina.
They were the most widespread grassfires in the nation’s history.
“Since then, climate change has worsened and is intensifying extreme weather,” it says.
“Because of this, firefighters fear that extensive grassfires that break out in hotter, drier, windier weather conditions than those experienced in 1974-75 could be far more destructive and deadly, like those experienced in the United States in December 2021.”
Mr Mullins said what happened in Colorado that year was a horrifying example of what a climate change-driven grassfires can do.
The Marshall fire last year razed 991 homes, making it the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. Photos: Getty
The blaze, in midwinter December, drove tens of thousands of residents from their homes. Hurricane-force winds prevented firefighting aircraft from joining the battle. Crews on the ground were over-run.
And 1100 homes were lost in a single afternoon. The next day, it snowed.
Fighting the unfightable fire
Mr Mullins said emergency services and authorities that manage the land need more funding to respond to escalating disasters, and there must be a shift towards long-term disaster recovery efforts.
But he said there was only one thing that could save Australia from a future of unfightable fires, like the one in Colorado.
“Long term the only thing that will make any difference is dialling down the heat and that takes worldwide effort on climate change,” he said.
“It’s about reducing emissions urgently. The Albanese government has almost doubled the target of the Morrison government, but we need to go even harder.”
Southern Queensland wine grape consultant Mike Hayes, who manages a handful of vineyards near Stanthorpe, said he was remaining hyper vigilant as conditions deteriorated.
“You’re always looking for that puff of white smoke up in the hills, wondering if your property might be in the firing line,” he said.
“After the rain we’ve had, the grass is so high that it will only take a spark to drop in it and it will be away. Look out when that happens.”