The four biggest myths about Australian bushfires

Brianne Tolj
·5-min read

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?

Pictured is a bright red sky during bushfires over the weekend. Source: Reddit
The deadly and devastating 2019-20 Australian bushfires decimated more than 18 million hectares, killed 34 people and millions of animals. Source: Reddit

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.

Pictured is a charred swing among burnt trees. Source: AAP
The dry country is certainly no stranger to blazes, but the ferocity of the Black Summer left many questioning their own knowledge beliefs about bushfires. Source: AAP

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.

A water bombing helicopter at the Gospers Mountain fire near Colo Heights south west of Sydney in November. Source: AAP
Climate change is definitely linked to the increasing ferocity of Australia’s bushfires. Source: AAP

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.

Over the last few years, large parts of the country have been plagued by drought and the overall surface temperature has rise by about 1C, he added.

“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.”

A bushfire in Hillville moves in on a house near the Pacific Highway, north of Nabiac in the Mid North Coast.
Bushfires are a natural part of the landscape and are important to the regeneration of ecosystems and plant species. Source: AAP

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.

NSW Rural Fire Service crews protect properties on Waratah Road and Kelyknack Road near Mangrove Mountain. Source: AAP
Only a few small percentage of bushfires are actually started by people. Source: AAP

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.

For more information and ready-to-do checklists, visit your local RFS or CFA.

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