Global Boiling: Australias Hellish Black Saturday Of Extreme Fire

I have previously blogged about how Australia has been suffering from Hell and High Water — record-breaking wildfire, drought, and heatwave in one part, flooding and inundation in another. Our guest blogger today Erica Newman, research associate at the College of Natural Resources and Center for Fire Research and Outreach at UC Berkeley, has an update on the hellish side (first published by Wonk Room here).

Firetruck fleeing the bushfire.Even in Australia, where people have learned to live with large wildfires, February’s “Black Saturday” fires in Victoria blew away all expectations. Of the hundreds that died, those who stayed had no time to prepare, and many who fled were overtaken by the fast-spreading flames and died in their cars. Multiple days of above 100-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, extremely low relative humidity and 100 mile per hour winds resulted in an unstoppable spread of the flames, 100-200 foot flame lengths, and fire intensity unlike anything ever before recorded anywhere on the planet.

Wildfire expert Max Moritz, a professor at the College of Natural Resources and Center for Fire Research and Outreach at the University of California, Berkeley, explains these extreme conditions raise new questions:

Although we won’t know many of the details until an assessment of the recent Australian fires is completed, the weather conditions and rates of fire spread we’re hearing about are extreme. It highlights a special case for both agencies and homeowners, and we have a lot to learn from each other about what does and does not work under weather conditions that are this bad.

So what caused this colossal inferno? In pointing to arson as the cause of these fires, we miss the overall significance of the fire dynamics that gave rise to this event. While arson is a lamentable and criminal source of ignition, with relative humidity and fuel moisture at below four percent, a lit cigarette or a spark thrown off by a moving vehicle could have caused similar wildland fires. Where there are people, there are always sources of ignition — what fire scientists call the “human-ignition component.” The larger issue at stake here is what gave rise to such extreme fire weather.

Australian fire scientists say that this area of Victoria has experienced between five and 30 years of drought (depending on if you are counting by successive years or overall water balances), the worst in perhaps 1000 years. Some, perhaps rightly, blame global climate change for what is known as the “Big Dry.” Diminishing rainfall, increased temperatures, and increased atmospheric instability all lead to higher fire danger.

An open question for scientists is whether or not with global climate change, we are experiencing “novel ecosystems” with entirely new combinations of environmental conditions. Is Australia really experiencing a “drought,” which is less-than-normal rainfall, or is there a new normal? Should Australia listen to its firefighters and be preparing for a permanently drier future with much more intense fire dynamics?

Australia has a history of successful fire management. Because of the inevitability of fire in Australia’s fire-evolved ecosystems, people have learned to expect and prepare for fires in a highly efficient, centralized manner. The “Prepare, Stay and Defend, or Leave Early” policies have long protected the lives of both citizens and firefighters, and reduced damage to homes and other buildings.

In a paper out this week in Environmental Research Letters, four Australian scientists and three scientists from California including Moritz, examine the policies and recommendations that both countries have in place for dealing with wildland fire on the urban interface.

In the “prepare, stay and defend” approach, property-owners are educated in fire suppression, such as putting out spot-fires, having buckets of water on hand, filling house gutters with water, creating a “defensible space,” and so on. People who chose to stay with their homes are also encouraged to keep protective Nomex clothing and firefighting implements on hand. Those who follow the “leave early” strategy do so when fire is reported for their area to give the wildfire a wide berth.

The unusual combination of extreme fire weather and the sudden onset of fire created conditions in which neither strategy worked. Leaving early works only if there is time to send out a warning. Those who would “prepare, stay, and defend” would have been reducing fuel loads in their yards well before this event, but it is unclear whether landscape-scale fuel treatments or even lowering fuel loads in the immediate vicinity of structures lowers fire hazard in wind-driven events, such as this one.

It will be up to Australian fire scientists and policy analysts to decide if their fire strategies need review. It the face of so primal a force as fire and on this scale, fighting the fires themselves is impossible, but perhaps one solution–fighting global climate change–is not.

Update: The state of Victoria has “declared a total ban on open fires tomorrow as high temperatures and strong winds are forecast to return this week.”

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7 Responses to Global Boiling: Australias Hellish Black Saturday Of Extreme Fire

  1. paulm says:

    Interesting graphic…

    Weather and mortality

    Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes get the attention-grabbing headlines when a natural disaster kills people in the U.S. Yet heat waves, cold winter weather, severe thunderstorm winds, and flooding all killed more people in the U.S. between 1970 and 2004, according to a December 2008 article published by Kevin Borden and Susan Cutter of the University of South Carolina.

    Tornadoes and lightning were tied for fifth place, and Hurricanes and earthquakes tied for eighth place.

    However, had this study extended one more year into 2005, the roughly 1800 hurricane deaths from Hurricane Katrina would have vaulted hurricane deaths into third place, behind heat wave deaths and cold weather deaths.

    The study also showed that people living in rural areas were most likely to die from a natural disaster than those living in cities.

  2. paulm says:

    “extremely low relative humidity and 100 mile per hour winds resulted in an unstoppable spread of the flames,”

    Related info…

    Stronger coastal winds due to climate change may have far-reaching effects–scw121208.php

    “”What we think is going on is that land temperatures are increasing at a faster rate than the ocean temperatures, and this thermal gradient between the land and the ocean is driving increased winds,” Snyder said.”

  3. Dan B says:

    It’s beyond all of us, individually.

  4. George says:

    Realizing that we had gone beyond global warming to a level of climate change with severe circumstances several years ago I began following world wide indicators and sensors at a website called

    In the last year we saw not only huge changes in Australia but we saw something happen in the north pole that had never happened before SINCE HUMANS HAVE WALKED ON EARTH . The north pole ice cap shrabk so much that it was no longer connected to land anywhere around it’s circumference. It became a huge freefloating island and it was easy to see on the ice cap measurements right on

    In addition the global temperature color map showed huge broad heat spikes and generally those could be visiually mapped to satellite images of huge sea storms spinning up right on those hot spots in the ocean whether off the coast of asia or australai and previously in the USA with Katrina.

  5. George says:

    Following up more one what I said above:
    In terms of solutions its important for many people to recognize that they will for the rest of their lives be living in a more desert environment in many places. this is likely true in southern california as the snow pack water sources are reduced and in many parts of australia.

    For people’s comfort they should begin to think that way. People live in deserts and do so happily but differently. They don’t live happily in deserts trying to luive like they don’t live in a desert. Crops need changes, water uses home desing etc.

    In terms of what we can do individually:
    We can build our own small electric vehicles to stop our own carbon dioxide imprint. Consider yourself an electric hot rodder just like the old gas hotrodders of the 60’s.

    Look at for some inspiration.

    Also we as nations who are realizing the errors of our ways must do whatever we can to prevent china from doing it themselves. If China moves to gas cars like America and Australia did we may not survive the climate change.

    We can all promote and post to chinese websites ideas to the effect that we are moving away from old gas and toward electric. I we can instill in chinese people’s minds the idea by discussion and example (see electric hotrods above) that gas cars are old fashioned and second rate we can perhaps shape their buying patterns so they view gas cars as cigeraettes – something other ountires are doing to them rather than for them.

    Changing chinese consu,er perceptions baout gas cars is absolutely imperative before they reach the level of car ownership per popultion that America and australia and europe have.

    Electirc cars mean self sufficiency (especially if copupled with a home solar panel to keep them charged for free) , modernity (vs antique gas cars), speed and “flash” .
    Electric cars are rockets. Gas cars are ugly farting old men dependent on outside sources for their movement.

    We need to understand it and more importantly we need to make the chinses consumers see it that way before we are all wiped out by the increase in carbon dioxide a car owning china will push over the top.

  6. paulm says:

    1st things 1st – give up meat or reduce it to the bear minimum, feasting on chicken mainly.

    Stop purchasing unnecessary stuff !

  7. kate says:

    I am an Australian. as far as I can remember we have had super hot summers that usually come in seven year cycles. This years fires were a result of not properly clearing the busy areas. Before white man came to Australia, the Koorie people used to practice regular burning in the dense areas during wintertime then in summer, when there is a great risk, they and the animals were safe. It would also produce new grass and help for hunting (animals not so safe)… but not such destruction.