The deadly and devastating 2019-20 Australian bushfires decimated more than 18 million hectares, killed 34 people and millions of animals.
The dry country is certainly no stranger to blazes, but the ferocity of the Black Summer left many questioning their own beliefs about bushfires and what they had heard growing up.
How much of an effect does climate change have on bushfires? What percentage of fires are arsonists responsible for?
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Dr. Dale Dominey-Howes, a Professor of Hazard and and Disaster Risk Sciences at the University of Sydney, has broken down the top four myths surrounding bushfires.
Myth 1: Backburning is unnecessary
Backburning, otherwise known as hazard reduction, removes a fuel source that can help drive fires, Dr Dominey-Howe said.
The fires are conducted in controlled conditions and help to remove the dead vegetation, tree branches and twigs that can pile up on the ground in bush areas and make blazes worse, he said.
“When you remove the fuel, the fire will burn but it will be less and easier to control.
“Backburning plays an important role in helping to reduce the intensity of fires in the following fire season,” Dr Dominey-Howe said.
Hazard reduction is just one tool used by fire and emergency departments across the country.
“Others include land zoning and planning, building code designs and regulation, community and public education,” Dr Dominey-Howe said.
Myth 2: Australia has always had bushfires
Australia is a land of both fires and floods.
It’s a natural part of the landscape and is important to the regeneration of ecosystems and plant species, Dr Dominey-Howe said.
“It’s always been the case, but the Black Summer in particular brought us, as a nation, fires that were unprecedented,” he said.
Not only was the amount of land burned more than has ever been recorded before, but the bushfires had begun months in advance in some states and continued to burn for so much longer because of the drought and hotter temperatures, Dr Dominey-Howe said.
Myth 3: Climate change has nothing to do with bushfires
Climate change is definitely linked to the increasing ferocity of Australia’s bushfires, Dr Dominey-Howe said.
There is a natural climate system that swings from periods of cooler temperatures and heavy rainfall during La Nina and El Nino, which brings hotter temperatures and drier conditions, he said.
“But human changes to the climate are adding on top of that natural variation in Australia - the consequences are higher temperatures, lower rainfall and lower humidity,” Dr Dominey-Howe said.
The professor likened it to a pot of boiling water on the stove.
When heat is added to the pot, it begins to bubble and boil, he said.
“That’s what our atmosphere and ocean are doing. The more explosive and energetic they become, the more storms, floods, bushfires and droughts.”
Myth 4: Arsonists are largely responsible for bushfires
Only a small percentage of bushfires are actually started by people, whether that is an arsonist or a driver who threw their cigarette out the window.
“It is true that human beings can either deliberately or accidentally trigger catastrophic bushfires,” Dr Dominey-Howe said.
However, during the Black Summer roughly two per cent of the land burned was caused by a fire started by a person.
The far majority were triggered by dry lightning strikes.
“People are a tiny fraction of the enormous devastation,” Dr Dominey-Howe said.
Bushfires: How to keep yourself safe this season
Pay attention to the time of year bushfire season starts in your town. They are more likely to start in the winter in Queensland because it is drier, but NSW, Tasmania and Victoria are more at risk in the summer.
Keep an eye on weather forecasts. A dry, hot day with strong winds sets the stage for a bushfire to occur.
Take a look at what you can do at your home to prepare: clear out debris from gutters, remove twigs, leaves and other dead material that can easily catch fire, remove plants growing up against the home.
Create a bushfire plan with your household and discuss your roles. Consider all scenarios, including what to do if you are at work when a fire approaches your home.
Place all valuable documents such as birth certificates and passports in a fireproof box by the front door so it can easily be picked up on the way out the door.
Dr Dominey-Howe suggests creating a bushfire safety checklist and just ticking off one thing a day as not to overwhelm anyone.
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