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HILLVILLE, AUSTRALIA - 13 NOVEMBER 2019: RFS Firefighters battle a spot fire on 13 November 2019 in Hillville, Australia, during what is now known as the Black Summer, a period of intense and widespread fire conditions across Australia. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Australia Poised to Face Another Summer of Harsh Bushfires

Weather experts in Australia are warning that the country should brace itself for the hottest, driest period since the summer of 2019 and 2020, when broad swaths of southeastern Australia were destroyed by bushfires.

During the season known as the Black Summer, 480 people died in the flames and smoke, countless animals were killed, almost 2,500 homes were destroyed, and 25 million hectares were burned—an area the size of the United Kingdom, the BBC noted. More than 15,000 fires burned across the country that summer, and they generated their own weather, including storms and fire tornadoes. Smoke from the fires choked cities and spread as far as New Zealand.

Now, heat records are already being broken in the first weeks of Australian spring, which begins in September, and some regional schools have closed due to bushfire risk—a month before the official fire season begins, Reuters reported. Authorities have stressed that this summer will not reach the same scale of devastation as in 2019-2020, but a number of factors could launch bushfires back into the headlines, causing experts to put almost the entire country on high alert.

An El Nino-affected weather pattern will likely produce more hot and dry conditions in Australia. Additionally, unusually heavy rain since the Black Summer fires spurred rapid vegetation growth, which is now dry (although not as dry as in 2019) and could serve as fuel for widespread fires. The rains also slowed fire services’ ability to perform controlled burns, which reduce the amount of loose, dry vegetation that could burn in a bushfire. The volunteer New South Wales Rural Fire Service said it had carried out just 24 percent of the hazard reduction it had planned.

A royal commission inquiry found that a combination of conditions made the 2019-2020 summer so catastrophic, including how climate change exacerbated hot and dry conditions and narrowed the window of safe weather when firefighters could conduct hazard reduction burns, the BBC reported.

According to a 2020 World Meteorological Organization report, 79 percent of disasters around the world between 1970 and 2019 involved extreme weather and climate-related hazards, and escalating climate change is likely to increase these stressors—especially for national and global security functions.

A 2021 article from Security Management, “Why You Should Be Thinking About Climate Proofing,” examined how climate change is spilling over into security and business continuity:

To understand what even a low warming scenario would look like from a security perspective, CCS, an Institute of the Council of Strategic Risks, gathered a group of climate, intelligence, and military experts to assess the current climate change situation and the ramifications it has for global security.

Their analysis came together in the first report of its kind, A Security Threat Assessment of Climate Change, published in February 2020, says Kate Guy, principal investigator for the report. The assessment looked at two warming scenarios’ impacts on national security—levels that reached 2˚ Celsius by mid-century and levels that reached 4˚ Celsius—and found that if global emissions are not “reigned in,” the entire world will experience “destabilizing changes in both the near and medium-to-long terms which pose significant threats to security environments, infrastructure, and institutions.”

For more on how climate change can affect security personnel—from business continuity to workplace violence risks—see Security Management’s May 2023 collection on the subject here.