Bushfires and our changed country

From late 2019 to early 2020, fires burnt across south-eastern Australia with an intensity and duration never before experienced in this country. It has been devastating to people, animals, birds, to insects, to forest habitats, people’s homes, and sacred sites. And we are only part way through the fire season.

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Cobargo bushfire, 31 Dec 2019 Image: Mark Gunning
© Mark Gunning

Trying to make sense of the firestorms - understanding their causes, figuring out how to best respond, and whether this is the new normal – are urgent questions occupying many of us. We are all impacted by this crisis - whether we have been involved intensely at the fire front, been anxious for family and friends, facing up to the long road of rebuilding, or grieving the loss of people, wildlife, places, and senses of security we once had.

All of this would be hard enough to deal with if this fire season was a one-off. Deepening the concern, for the majority, is the knowledge that these fires are an integral part of our now climate-changed Australia. Across much of the continent we are living in the hotter, drier landscapes, breathing in the dangerously polluted atmosphere and experiencing the longer, more intense fire season that climate scientists have long been warning us about. For many of us, we are now suddenly walking through our worst climate change imaginings. We had hoped these realities were still years away.

Bushfires and climate change

There is deep knowledge, based on extremely careful and long-term research in Australia and around the world, about the ways human-induced climate change is extending and intensifying the Australian bushfire season. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) recently stated: ‘The huge wildfires in Australia, Amazon, California, the Congo basin and Indonesia have drawn the world’s attention to the risks associated with extended periods of unusually hot and dry weather, which is an effect of climate change.’[1]

The global average temperature has risen 1.1°C since 1910.[2] In Australia higher temperatures create drier conditions, and this increases the ‘likelihood and intensity of wildfires, and megafires.’[3] A recent poster from the Bureau of Meteorology illustrates Australia’s temperatures since 1910, with dramatic reds of temperature upswings saturating the maps of recent years.

Australia Mean Temperature 2000 - 2019
These maps show the anomaly of mean temperature for each calendar year, compared to the average over the standard reference period of 2000 - 2019. BOM Image: Bureau of Meteorology

Dr Sarah Harris (Country Fire Authority) and Dr Chris Lucas (Bureau of Meteorology), recently completed Australia’s most comprehensive long-term survey of fire season data.[4] They have concluded that ‘climate change is definitely playing a role in producing the earlier start to bushfire seasons and overall more extreme seasons, particularly in south-eastern Australia’.[5]

Harris and Lucas explain the close relationship ‘between climate drivers such as El Niño, climate change, and the Australian bushfire season.’ [6] In any one year, climate modifying systems such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation and Indian Ocean Dipole affect sea surface temperatures and wind movements. These, in turn, affect short-term temperature and rainfall patterns across the Southern Hemisphere, causing variations in fire seasons each year. These shorter-term modifiers act on top of the longer-term background conditions caused by climate change.[7] So we shouldn’t expect each year to be worse than the last, and likewise, when one fire season is less severe, we shouldn’t interpret that as a reason to downplay the ongoing impact of climate change. [8]

The Bureau of Meteorology’s State of the Climate 2018 report confirms ‘background heating of the climate and lower cool season rainfall caused by anthropogenic climate change is bringing an earlier start and more extreme bushfire seasons than in the past.’ [9] The CSIRO, too, states that climate change is forecast to increase the number of extreme bushfire weather events and to ‘extend the bushfire season well into autumn.’[10] Looking to the future, the BOM’s national climate projections indicate there will be ‘an increase in the number of high fire weather danger days and a longer fire season for southern and eastern Australia.’[11]

In 2019, Australia had both the driest and the hottest year on record.[12] Considering the impacts of climate change globally, the UNEP has stated ‘these record temperatures, heatwaves and droughts are not anomalous, they are the beginning of a new norm.’[13]

Fire and Wildlife

Current estimates by highly respected scientific experts suggest well over 1 billion animals have perished in these fires.[14] Dr Rebecca Johnson, Australian Museum Chief Scientist and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, reports that many of the field sites currently being studied by AM scientists have been impacted by the 2019/20 wildfires. The scope and breadth of these events on our communities and our wildlife is unprecedented. We are overcome by the scale of loss we are witnessing. AM scientists will continue to dedicate their time and expertise to understanding and conserving our biodiversity and we are committed to resuming our research and providing conservation advice as soon as it is safe to re-enter these areas.

In a recent radio interview to Perth’s 6PR, Dr Johnson said "Now is the time for our best scientific minds ... it's their expertise that we really need now."

New knowledge for new challenges

It is not easy to acknowledge, for some, that the firestorms are part of a climate system of our own making. It is not easy to acknowledge that leaving fossil fuels behind us, rapidly, is necessary. An intellectual and moral courage is needed, and a strength of spirit to push for change in our energy system, regenerate our economy and rethink the ways we care for land, sea, and sky.

Charlotte street after the fire Cobargo 31 Dec 2019 Image: Mark Gunning
© Mark Gunning

We can be led by researchers who are creating environmentally supportive ways for us to live, developing biotech solutions using algae to sequester carbon and create new plastics; we can be led by renewable energy engineers who have already delivered, and continue to improve, the technology that can support us entirely, without need for burning fossil coal or fossil gas. We can be led by First Nations knowledge-holders with finely-grained skills for managing and caring for forests, grasslands, coasts and all that lives within them. We can be led by the people who have been working to control fires over deep time, and over recent years; we can learn from the fire fighters who have intimate knowledge of fire behaviour. Some of us have had steep learning curves these past few weeks about how to better prepare for a disaster. My own family were directly impacted as my husband, sons and I were holidaying at my mother’s and brother’s places in Cobargo, on the New South Wales south coast, when fires came up rapidly overnight. Most of the family evacuated to Bermagui while my brother and husband stayed and saved houses. We had days of helping each other manage without power, communications, fuel and smoke masks and with dwindling fresh water, under black-orange, ash-raining skies – an unexpectedly rapid descent into the apocalyptic. We all need as much knowledge now as we can muster – as many ‘tools in our backpack’ as possible – and a focus on working together to help us cope in this old-new country.

Those of us who work on climate change research, education and outreach at the Australian Museum have projects underway to document, share and respond to accounts of what is happening on the ground in fire-affected communities. Climate change exhibitions, talks, web resources and workshops are already in development and will be able to address the fires and their impacts.

The Australian Museum, through its research and engagement with Australia’s people and biodiversity, will be continuing to deepen understandings of how best to respond to the challenges of living with climate crisis.

We each of us will have our own ways of coming to terms with how our families, communities and our country are now challenged, and to respond to the calls they make to us. As ever, the important thing is to not turn away. We can join in. We can identify our particular strengths and bring them to bear. We can join effective groups. We can continue to care about the people, species and ecologies that need regeneration. We can continue to learn about carbon-neutral ways of living, and – this is really important – take action.

Dr Jenny Newell

Manager, Climate Change Projects


There are many good things to read, listen and watch:

Informative Summaries from international climate research bodies and local climate scientists:

Bureau of Meteorology, State of the Climate 2018

CSIRO, Bushfire Basics Blog

UN Environment Program,‘Are “megafires” the new normal?'

Tim Flannery, CNN interview 10 Jan 2020

Joëlle Gergis (ANU), The Terrible Truth of Climate Change, The Monthly 19 August 2019

Thought pieces, by some of Australia’s foremost thinkers and writers:

James Bradley, Unearthed, Meanjin (text and podcast)

Jackie French, Message to Australians, SMH

Bushfire Photography At The Firefront, video SMH. Watch Nick Moir talk through capturing bushfire photographs, his experience working in fire situations and his connection to the towns affected.

‘Like a bad dream’: Bilpin’s day of reckoning multimedia, SMH. For the Herald’s chief photographer Nick Moir, it’s not just a job. Seeing his home town in flames was devastating.

K. Shuttleworth and J. Achenbach, ‘As fires devastate Australia…’, Washington Post, 9 Jan 2020.

Visit the AM’s Climate Change pages for information on the Australian Museum’s Climate Change commitments, a range of resources and news on upcoming climate change exhibitions and programs.

Capturing Climate Change, an online photographic exhibition, will be calling for your photos, from 3 February 2020. #CapturingClimateChange


  1. UN Environment Programme, ‘Are “megafires” the new normal?', 10 January 2020.
  2. Bureau of Meteorology, State of the Climate 2018, Commonwealth of Australia, 2018.
  3. UN Environment Programme, ‘Are “megafires” the new normal?', 10 January 2020.
  4. S. Harris and C. Lucas (2019) Understanding the variability of Australian fire weather between 1973 and 2017. PLoS ONE 14(9): e0222328. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0222328.
  5. S. Harris and C. Lucas, The Conversation, 19 October 2019,
  6. S. Harris and C. Lucas, The Conversation, 19 October 2019,
  7. S. Harris and C. Lucas, The Conversation, 19 October 2019,
  8. S. Harris and C. Lucas, The Conversation, 19 October 2019,
  9. Bureau of Meteorology, State of the Climate 2018, Commonwealth of Australia, 2018.
  10. CSIRO https://blog.csiro.au/bushfire-basics/
  11. Bureau of Meteorology, State of the Climate 2018, Commonwealth of Australia, 2018, p.22.
  12. Bureau of Meteorology, Annual Climate Statement 2019, Commonwealth of Australia, 2019.
  13. UN Environment Programme, ‘Are “megafires” the new normal?', 10 January 2020.
  14. https://www.theage.com.au/national/many-many-billions-of-animals-feared-to-have-died-in-bushfires-20200108-p53pvk.html?cspt=1579563899%7Cd6e9199410eaa35d070905a676226d72 ; https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/australia-bushfires-animals-extinction_au_5e1d5f51c5b6640ec3d9f866?guccounter=2&guce_referrer=aHR0cDovL3RyYW5zaXRpb24ubWVsdHdhdGVyLmNvbS9yZWRpcmVjdD91cmw9aHR0cHMlM0ElMkYlMkZ3