Notes on the East Gippsland Bushfires

Bairnsdale is in the smoke again. The East Gippsland bushfires* have mostly passed ‘under the (news) radar’ due to the emergency fires in NSW, Queensland and WA. But the East Gippsland fires – Upper Nicholson (8,000ha?), Ensay East (16,673 ha), W Tree (25,000ha?) and Bruthen (10,000ha?) – are all quite large. At the time of writing (17.12) none are “under control” as the jargon for still burning goes.

I have been in the smoke before, especially in 2003 when being downwind of the fires our house was in the smoke for a month. With hindsight the 2003 fires appear to be the dawning of the ‘pyrocene’ – the new age of fire brought on by global warming. One wishes for a wind to blow the smoke away but is aware that this will probably only stoke the fires in another direction with the smoke later returning from a much bigger fire.

For someone sensitive to these conditions the smoke warnings from Vic Emergency go as follows “If you can smell smoke, please note: Smoke can affect people’s health. People with heart or lung conditions (including asthma), children, pregnant women and older people are more sensitive to the effects of breathing in smoke. People with existing heart or lung conditions (including asthma) should follow the treatment plan advised by the doctor.” 

The bush is still very dry following three years of rainfall deficiency in the east. (See blogs on the Gippsland drought here and here). The conditions quickly become favourable for the serious to catastrophic bushfire days when heatwaves and windy weather conditions are added. The fires that have been trickling slowly through the bush can then increase rapidly. Some back burning may have helped although this tool seems dependent on benign weather conditions for success. What is needed is heavy rain. None is predicted in the short term and the long term forecast for the summer is not looking promising.

One aspect of these fires not clearly understood is that their perimeters are enormous. The perimeter of a perfectly square 10,000 ha block for example is 40k. Of course the fires are not symmetrical and their real perimeters must be much larger. Adding the four main fires together gives a minimum total fire front of well over 100k. Most of this is currently in hilly to mountainous country with relatively difficult access. Fire bombers, satellite imagery and infra-red hot-spot detection are no doubt of great advantage but only in benign to moderate conditions.

But when the adverse weather conditions arrive, when heat and wind are added to the bone dry bush our next severe to catastrophic bushfire day will have arrived. Then the fires somewhere along those hundreds of kilometres of fire perimeters will take off once again. Most likely in many places at once. The local economy, heavily dependent on the holiday tourist trade, will suffer. Who wants to holiday in the smoke or with bushfires hovering in the hills? When someone complains answer “climate emergency” or “global warming” and ask them who they voted for.

*I have written on these fires here and here.