The Bureau of Meteorology has told the royal commission into last summer’s bushfires the season “played out” the way its forecasts said it would.
The commission, which is hearing about how Australia can better prepare for, and respond to, natural disasters, today heard from its first witnesses, who focused on climate change and the financial impact of the fires.
Bureau of Meteorology forecasted ‘Black Summer’
The commission started its first day of witness hearings with Dr Karl Braganza from the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), who said the weather forecasts ahead of the last bushfire season proved to be very accurate.
Dr Braganza told the commission a mix of climate drivers in the past few years led to an extended dry period, hotter-than-average temperatures and reduced humidity, particularly over the south-eastern states.
“We were getting strong indications of our seasonal drivers … that we were going to favour hotter and drier conditions,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the conditions turned out to be very severe.
Dr Braganza said the outlook for the next fire season was that it would be milder, thanks to wetter conditions throughout the year compared to the past two years.
But he noted while it was difficult to make accurate predictions without knowing what weather systems would develop in the Pacific and Indian oceans, the forecast was that fire seasons would not only start earlier and finish later, but become worse and more extreme.
“The trends probably load the dice towards worse fire seasons in general,” Dr Braganza said.
“This isn’t a one-off event that we’re looking at here.”
Bushfire assistance needs to be streamlined, survivor says
As well as hearing from experts, the commission will hear from a number of people about their direct experience with the past bushfire season.
Today, Sue Townsend, a Wiradjuri woman who lost her house near Tumbarumba, recounted her story of the day fire tore through the area she lived in as well as what she had been through in the months since.
“The first day [I went back to the property] wasn’t too upsetting but the next time, about five days later, I went back by myself and that’s when it was really hard,” she said.
Professor Townsend said the financial and material assistance provided in the days and weeks immediately after the fire was confusing and she said the scheme should be streamlined.
“I think the way of moving forward from here is there needs to be a coordinated response.
“People shouldn’t have to, when they’re in distress, jump through hoops to get help.”
Professor Townsend also said the coronavirus pandemic had a toll on the community as it tried to rebuild, isolating people when they needed support the most.
Emissions have ‘locked in’ future extreme weather
While the BOM provides short-term weather forecasts, the CSIRO has been responsible for working on longer-term weather modelling for decades ahead.
Dr Helen Cleugh from the CSIRO told the commission climate change was interacting with, and exacerbating, previous weather systems in a way never seen before.
“This means that understanding the interaction between climate variability and these drivers and climate change is very important for building preparedness for the changing nature of climate risks into the future,” she said.
Dr Cleugh said one of the “key messages” from their data was that “Australia will continue to warm substantially”, and that coupled with lower rainfall would lead to the risk of extreme fire weather into the future.
But she pointed out while average rainfall levels were decreasing, when it rained it would also be much more “intense” and lead to greater instances of flooding.
In her evidence, Dr Cleugh also said while reducing global emissions would help reduce the severity of future disasters, some were already “locked in”.
“Depending on the extreme events, there’s an element of some of these are locked in because of emissions we’ve already had,” she said.
Black Summer most destructive season in nearly 20 years
According to data provided to the commission by Risk Frontiers, a risk management and catastrophe modelling company, the total area of bushland burned during the Black Summer fires across Victoria and New South Wales was the largest in 19 years.
Risk Frontiers’ Ryan Crompton said New South Wales was the hardest-hit state.
“This is particularly so in New South Wales where the area that was burnt was more than three times larger than any other season,” Dr Crompton said.
Risk Frontiers also analysed the people who had died during the bushfires to identify who was most at risk.
Dr Crompton said it noted “the disproportionately high rates amongst professional volunteer firefighters”, as well as “males aged 60 and over trying to save their own property with pre-existing health conditions, males aged 55 and over attempting their own evacuation and males and females aged 55 and over in their own house.”
Severe cyclones and hail storms to become more frequent
While the commission was formed in response to the Black Summer fires, it is also hearing evidence about the risk to Australia from other natural disasters.
Insurance Australia Group’s Mark Leplastrier told the commission modelling it undertook showed while the total number of tropical cyclones in Australian waters might decline, the ones that did form would be more intense.
“There’s also we believe a broadening of the areas affected by cyclones … meaning that places that are on the fringe of cyclone activity, like south-east Queensland or north-east New South Wales, are going to increasingly be exposed to cyclones going forward.
“While they’re not a high-risk area at the moment, we believe that’s one of the faster-changing areas.”
Mr Leplastrier said it was a similar story for hail storms, with predictions they would occur more frequently further south and be more damaging.
Sharanjit Paddam from the Actuaries Institute of Australia said improving observational data and equipment was crucial to accurately understand the extremity of future weather systems.
Author: Political reporter Georgia Hitch
Originally published: 25 May 2020