Australian home and business owners – and their brokers – should be well aware of the potential bushfire threat this spring and summer, but a new report from an insurer shows misunderstandings about the risks are still rife.
We only have to look overseas to witness what could be coming our way – unprecedented, uncontrollable fires in Canada, a terrible death toll in Hawaii, and holidaymakers running for their lives in Rhodes.
Australia has just recorded its warmest winter since at least 1910, and the Bureau of Meteorology last week warned this spring will likely be marked by low rainfall and high temperatures.
Bureau Climate Services Manager Karl Braganza says unusually warm days are likely, especially for WA and parts of the south-east, and many areas have an increased chance of an unusually dry spring.
These predictions worsen the outlook for the upcoming bushfire season – with concerns already high as the country is on El Nino alert. The weather system, driven by conditions in the tropical Pacific, usually leads to less rainfall across parts of Australia.
Other nations have already declared an El Nino, and the bureau still expects to. But whether conditions meet its particular thresholds isn’t crucial – the precursors to a bad bushfire season are already there.
Climate models also show a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) event is likely to form during spring.
“This increases our chances of below average rainfall for much of south-eastern and central Australia,” bureau Senior Climatologist Catherine Ganter said.
“If a positive IOD occurs with an El Nino, the drying effect is typically stronger and more widespread across Australia, compared to either event by themselves.”
Global sea surface temperatures have been the highest on record in recent months, which only adds to the problem.
As previously reported by insuranceNEWS.com.au, the Australasian Fire Authorities Council warns that an earlier start to the high risk fire season is expected, with increased risk in parts of NSW, Victoria, Queensland, SA and the NT.
“The recent wildfires in Canada and Hawaii underscore risks that Australians are familiar with, in particular the catastrophic potential of fires that can occur near urban areas during periods of low rainfall,” Dr Braganza said.
But a new report from Suncorp questions just how familiar Australians are with true scale of the threat.
The research released today, which polled 1000 people across the country, found:
- 55% of survey participants don’t know that rivers, creeks or roads cannot stop the path of a very intense bushfire. This was 46% in regional locations
- 55% of Australians don’t know that the front of the fire is the most dangerous part
- 26% don’t know that embers can travel up to 40km during a very intense bushfire
- 16% of Australians have no idea that a house can catch fire from embers well ahead of the fire front
- 31% of Australians don’t know that lightning is one of the most common causes of bushfires in Australia
- In the event of a bushfire, 42% incorrectly assume it is safe to remain at their property unless advised otherwise by Emergency Services.
Suncorp says it has used claims and climate data to develop a “sophisticated view” of Australian bushfire risk – and for some areas it doesn’t look good.
“Tragically, we expect those regions that have high risk now will only become worse as the world becomes warmer,” Suncorp Insurance Climatologist Rhys Whitley said.
“This trend is particularly evident for much of southern Queensland where fire-weather conditions are becoming more severe and emerging more frequently.
“As we look into the future, catastrophic bushfires will be an ever-present danger, and so monitoring of conditions (including fire weather, fuel loads) and extensive planning (i.e. property development, evacuation of communities and fire-fighting resources) is something we consider as a high priority.”
Suncorp says it is monitoring the following regions of concern leading into the upcoming spring and summer season:
- Western Southern Queensland – west of the Great Dividing Range, near the NSW border
- The Mid-and-Far North Coast NSW
- Central Coast NSW
- South Coast NSW
- The Blue Mountains region
- Regional ACT
- Central parts of regional Victoria – Dandenong Ranges and Gippsland
- South-west WA – Bunbury, Perth outer regions
- Parts of Southern and Western Tasmania
- Adelaide Hills, SA.
“South-west WA and Tasmania regions have been relatively dry over the last few seasons. These regions show signs of relative water stress and did not benefit from extra rainfall as other parts of the country did during the recent La Nina seasons,” Dr Whitley said.
“Areas around the fringes of Perth have had fire activity over the last couple of summers and we should expect similar activity this summer.
“Southern and Western Tasmania are also relatively dry despite recent winter rainfall, and there is the possibility of the forests in these regions entering a bushfire-prone state if we do not see more rainfall over the coming seasons.”
Suncorp’s Head of Home Claims Alli Smith says while the latest statistics are concerning, Australians can take simple steps to ensure their home or business is better protected against bushfires.
“Trimming trees and branches near your home and keeping the lawn short in the backyard is important as grassfires spread quickly, and travel faster than you can run,” she says.
“Dead leaves and twigs can also catch alight easily, so be sure to regularly check downpipes and that gutters are clear of debris.
“A bushfire regardless of whether you are at the front, side or behind it is incredibly dangerous, fast moving and unpredictable. All it takes is for one slight change of wind direction for things to go wrong.
“Wherever you live, it’s good to understand your bushfire risk so you and your loved ones can stay safe and protect your home, contents, car, livestock and land.”