'We're not out of the woods': Dire weather prediction for the rest of the bushfire season

Australians praying for a dumping of rain to extinguish bushfires burning across the country will have a long wait on their hands, with the worst of the hot and dry conditions still yet to come.

Two weather patterns that combined to create the hottest and driest weather on record are predicted to eventually subside - but at a slow and gradual rate, Bureau of Meteorology head of long-range forecasts Dr Andrew Watkins told Yahoo News Australia.

The weather patterns, the Southern Annular Mode and the Indian Ocean Dipole, have started “relaxing” towards regular levels, so by the end of summer Australia will begin its slow and arduous recovery from being severely burnt, Dr Watkins said.

Firefighter battling blaze in Hillville near Taree, 350km north of Sydney in November 2019.
It could be months before Australia experiences reprieve from hot, dry bushfire weather. Source: Getty Images
Bureau of Meteorology showing weather prediction for January as bushfires continue.
This is the dire rainfall prediction from January 13 to 19. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

“We’re starting to see a bit of a shift in our weather patterns, back towards a more neutral and more normal weather patterns rather than one that favours dry and hot weather,” he said.

While this was relatively positive news, Dr Watkins said it was appropriate to consider the upcoming change more as being “less dry”, rather than being “more wet”.

The damage is already done

“But unfortunately a lot of the damage has been done, the landscape is now very dry, particularly in eastern and southern Australia at the moment, so that increases the chance of fire weather,” he said.

“We’re also not quite at the hottest time of year for southern Australia, typically the end of January and early February are the hottest and driest times of year, and so our most fire prone part of the year in terms of southern states.”

“We’re not out of the woods just yet.”

Map from Bureau of Meteorology showing weather outlook February to April 2020.
A BoM outlook scenario for the February-April period of 2020. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

Warmer and drier than average conditions are expected for eastern Australia throughout January, but by February there will be an easing of conditions back towards neutral, Dr Watkins said.

“It will be neither going to be significantly dry, or unfortunately significantly wet. But it will be staying warm,” he said.

Possible rain on the horizon

Widespread rainfall sadly was not yet on the cards, but given the predicted shift back to normal weather, there could be a higher chance of decent rain come autumn.

Dr Watkins said Australians would need to wait at least for the hottest part of the season to pass before they could expect to see any rain.

BoM map showing significant chance of rainfall predicted for March to May 2020.
The brown areas indicate the chance of above median rainfall predicted from March to May 2020. Source: Bureau of Meteorology

“Once we get to the end of March and start of April, parts of southern Australia start to get a bit wetter and start to transition towards winter and farmers look for the first Autumn rain,” Dr Watkins said.

“The outlooks are average at best from what we’re seeing at the moment, but still a lot better than what we saw for much of last year when the outlooks were very dry.”

Much-needed moisture ahead

A monsoon burst could hit Australia as soon as within the next few days, according to Dr Watkins, bringing much-needed moisture to the country and the chance it could reach further south where it is needed most.

“We can’t guarantee that by any means, but at least that’s one factor that could help us a little bit,” Dr Watkins said.

“It might be a slow decrease in the fire rather than a really fast increase with 100-200mm of rain in one event.”

A large sudden dumping of rain could also be problematic however, as it would flush ash and other debris into the waterways, and drinking water would require filtration before consumption.

“It’s a tough one, whether you want the rain or not.”

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