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‘This is unusual’: areas burnt in Black Summer already bushfire prone again

Large areas of Queensland, NSW and the NT are at increased risk of bushfire in coming months, the Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) says, as are some areas of Tasmania, Victoria, SA and WA.

Forested areas burnt during Black Summer have regrown rapidly “to the point where they are able to carry fast moving and dangerous bushfires,” AFAC says in its summer bushfire outlook.

“The speed of this recovery is unusual. Typically, areas burnt this recently would slow or limit the spread of new fires,” it said.

“After three wet years, even areas deemed to have average fire risk could still see significant fire activity, particularly where extra growth dries out, so communities are encouraged to prepare and maintain a high level of awareness in all areas through the summer period.” 

Aus Afac Seasonal Outlook Summer 2023

AFAC, the national council for fire and emergency services, says Australia has experienced record-breaking dry conditions and warmer than average temperatures during early spring. CEO Rob Webb says Australian fire agencies have already had a busy bushfire season responding to spring emergencies.

“Several fires have spread aggressively through areas burnt during Black Summer, demonstrating these areas have regrown to the point they will no longer slow or inhibit the spread of fires under elevated conditions.”

August to October maximum temperatures were above average across most of the country, with NSW and WA hitting the highest maximum temperature since records began in 1910, and Australia as a whole having the second-highest. Hot and dry conditions are expected to persist into the new year for many locations. 

In NSW, large areas are in drought or much drier than normal and expected above-normal temperatures in summer are predicted to see the landscape dry out more quickly after rainfall.

AFAC says while areas in southern NSW that have seen consistent recent rain can expect a relatively typical summer fire season, there is a significant risk coastal western and northern NSW will see increased fire potential in summer.

“During spring…a number fires around the state were able to make rapid and damaging runs,” the report said.

In Queensland, a continuation of intense late spring fire conditions into the summer months is likely for much of the state. Below average rainfall, elevated fuel growth and record rainfall deficiencies across southern parts of Queensland throughout the late winter and spring months has “primed many parts of the state” for an extended fire season. 

“The drying fuels, forecast rainfall and above average temperatures are likely to bring locally intense bushfires that may be destructive across parts of Queensland as vegetation will remain flammable during early summer.”

In the NT, the annual monsoon season is predicted to be later onset and above normal fire potential is predicted for the Barkly, Tanami, Alice Springs and Lassiter regions. There has already been a significant increase in bushfire as dry lightning has caused multiple ignitions.

In Victoria, above-average fire potential is expected in eastern, western and central areas, including along the Surfcoast, through summer. Above average fuel loads and fire potential is expected to persist during summer, especially in areas that did not burn, or only burned lightly, in the 2019-20 season.

“In many of the Black Summer burnt areas, high levels of forest regrowth has already become very dry and may carry fire again,” AFAC said.

In Tasmania, areas of the Midlands, East Coast and South East are significantly drier than normal. There were several difficult fires in spring and grassland curing is advancing rapidly in drier locations.

“There is concern the drying trend will increase the area of increased fire risk to include the Northern Midlands and the Fingal and Royal George valleys by the new year.”

In SA, fuel dryness is particularly above average in the West Coast, Lower Eyre Peninsula, Yorke Peninsula, Upper and Lower South East and Kangaroo Island. 

In WA, summer conditions are “highly likely to be challenging for firefighting” for parts of southern WA, while a later than usual northern rainfall onset may increase bushfire risk in the Pilbara, inland Midwest Gascoyne, and Goldfields Midlands regions.