OPINION

Early bushfire season now the new normal

Back in the early 1960s I often watched my father, a volunteer firefighter for more than 60 years, head off to fires in surrounding bushland.

I took a keen interest in the bush and what drove intense fires, becoming a volunteer firefighter myself in 1972, then a career firefighter in 1978.

After my retirement as Commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW in 2017, I went full circle back to fighting fires as a volunteer. I am also a Climate Councillor because of the frightening changes I have seen over nearly 50 years on the frontline.

Bushfire seasons are now longer, more intense, and are burning in areas where they shouldn't be burning. Recently 22 former heads of every Australian fire service and some SES agencies joined me in signing a statement calling on the Australian Government to take urgent action on emissions and climate change because they too have witnessed dramatic changes driving increasingly extreme weather events.

Once again, the fire season has started "early" in Queensland and NSW. But in fact, it is not "early", it is our new normal.

Bushfire seasons in NSW used to go from October to late March - six months of the year. We would sometimes get fires in August, but never too serious or widespread, and certainly not with property losses.

Yet the fires that broke out on August 9 on the NSW north coast have already destroyed four homes. Thirty fires remain uncontained. Last year, on August 15 homes were lost on the south coast, with major fires raging in the Bega Valley, near Ulladulla, and Salt Ash near Newcastle.

Some of the new ingredients are warmer winter temperatures, up to 20 per cent less winter rainfall than in the 1970s, higher rates of evaporation leading to drier soils, and drier vegetation.

Added to this is an increase in "dry" lightning storms that often spark dozens of remote fires, as occurred in Gippsland and Tasmania last year.

2018 was the hottest year recorded, and July 2019 the hottest month globally.

Fire services internationally face a deepening climate crisis, with bushfires burning in the Arctic Circle and countries like Switzerland, Britain and Greenland where bushfires were virtually unknown. California suffered the loss of 14,000 homes last year and nearly 9,000 in 2017.

Australia and its emergency services are also facing a worsening climate emergency of drought, heatwaves, fires, storms and floods. Unfortunately, Canberra remains asleep at the wheel.

Greg Mullins Climate Councillor and former Commissioner Fire & Rescue, NSW