Australian Bushfires: Tragic, But Not Unprecedented – Yet

  • Date: 07/01/20
  • Jennifer Marohasy, The Spectator-Australia

The historical evidence indicates fires have burnt very large areas before, and it has been hotter before too.

The word unprecedented is applied to almost every bad thing that happens at the moment, as though particular events could not have been predicted, and have never happened before at such a scale or intensity. This is creating so much anxiety, because it follows logically that we are living in an uncertain time: that there really is a climate emergency.

The historical evidence, however, indicates fires have burnt very large areas before, and it has been hotter.

Some of the catastrophe has been compounded by our refusal to prepare appropriately, as is the case with the current bushfire emergency here in Australia. Expert Dr Christine Finlay explains the importance of properly managing the ever-increasing fire loads in an article in The Weekend Australian. While there is an increase in the area of national park with Eucalyptus forests, there has been a reduction in the area of hazard reduction burning.

The situation is perhaps also made worse by fiddling with the historical temperature record. This will affect the capacity of those modelling bushfire behaviour to obtain an accurate forecast.

We have had a horrific start to the bushfire season, and much is being said about the more than 17 lives lost already, and that smoke has blown as far as New Zealand. Unprecedented has been the claim. But just 10 years ago, on 9 February 2009, 173 lives were lost in the Black Saturday inferno. On January 13, 1939 — Black Friday — two million hectares burnt with ash reportedly falling on New Zealand. That was probably the worst bushfire catastrophe in Australia’s modern recorded history in terms of area burnt and it was 80 years ago next week.

According to the Report of the Royal Commission that followed, it was avoidable.

In terms of total area burnt: figures of over 5 million hectares are often quoted for 1851. The areas now burnt in New South Wales and Victoria are approaching this.

Last summer, and this summer, has been hot in Australia. But the summer of 1938-1939 was probably hotter. In rural Victoria, the summer of 1938-1939 was on average at least two degrees hotter than anything measured with equivalent equipment since, as the table below shows.

The summer of 1938-1939 was probably the hottest ever in recorded history for the states of New South Wales and Victoria. It is difficult to know for sure because the Bureau of Meteorology has since changed how temperatures are measured at many locations and has not provided any indication of how current electronic probes are recording relative to the earlier mercury thermometers.

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