Media release

Aussie firefighters warned: more mega-fires on the way

The cost of “mega-fires” has already doubled this century, with researchers warning firefighters to brace for more extreme bushfires under climate change.

New research, published in a special issue of the journal Climatic Change, found the time between such mega-fires or “fire storms” is shrinking and the conditions under which these catastrophic fires develop are worsening.

In a finding that’s consistent with similar research carried out in the United States, the research authors conclude that mega fires in Australia are 30% more likely to develop by 2070[1].

At the same time, a new analysis reveals the cost of catastrophic fires to insurers is rapidly rising. In 1987-1996 there was $88 million in insurance claims recorded as a result of mega-fires. This jumped to $491 million between 1997 and 2006, and more than doubled to $1.179 billion between 2007-2016.

Australian Firefighters Climate Alliance spokesman Jim Casey says it is frightening to think this is becoming the “new normal”.

“These findings won’t come as a surprise to firefighters who have experienced these mega-fires up close. They know first-hand that they are unlike anything they have faced before – fires like Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, or the Yarloop fire in Western Australia that destroy everything in their path.

“These are the sort of fires that can’t be fought in the way you would a traditional bushfire – they are too large, and too intense. You can only get people out of the way.”

In the past decade such mega-fires have been fought in Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales and the ACT. As the population continues to increase the number of people affected is only expected to grow.

Mr Casey said the financial cost to communities was only one part of the story with both firefighters and those living in bushfire-prone areas having to deal with high-levels of emotional trauma.

“Lives lost can never be replaced, and many Australians live with the ongoing trauma after a bushfire.

“The cost of not addressing the root cause of worsening bushfires is high, and growing ever higher. That’s why we keep saying that our government must do everything it can to protect people by addressing climate change and encourage other governments around the world to do the same.”

There is extensive research on how climate change is lengthening bushfire seasons and worsening conditions but the latest research is the first in Australia to look specifically at catastrophic “mega-fires” or “fire-storms”.

[1] Overall the time between such fires has shrunk with an approximate doubling of frequency – from about a 6.9 year interval in 1900 compared with 3.5 years in 2015. This suggests that the potential for fires to intensify into extreme bushfires will increase due to climate change, with an average increase of approximately 30% by 2070.