Bushfire inquiry says Australia must prepare for 'alarming outlook'

·3 min read
Volunteer firefighters watch a blaze in Sydney's south-west
A top inquiry says Australia needs to prepare for simultaneous natural disasters

Australia must prepare for an "alarming" future of simultaneous and worsening natural disasters, says a long-awaited report into the country's bushfires.

A royal commission inquiry examined Australia's Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 - which ravaged vast swathes of the nation - and other disasters.

At least 33 people died in what was by many measures an unprecedented season.

The report made more than 80 recommendations to the government.

They included detailed proposals to improve national response efforts, tools and climate data, among many other areas.

It also reiterated that climate change had exacerbated the extreme conditions which caused the fires, but that future projections were more grim.

The Australian government said it would "carefully and methodically" consider the proposals.

What happened in Australia's Black Summer?

From July 2019 to March 2020, blazes swept across 24 million hectares of land. It was Australia's most intense bushfire season on record, though not its most deadly.

The blazes affected every Australian state, destroyed over 3,000 homes, and killed or displaced nearly three billion animals.

Smoke spread across vast areas, at times cloaking cities including Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide.

One study estimated that hazardous air quality was linked to 445 deaths and had put thousands more in hospital.

Swimmers stand near the water under a red sky at Jindabyne in New South Wales on 4 January
Skies turned red and smoke blanketed towns across eastern Australia in January

The extreme bushfires were often uncontrollable and stretched the resources of state-based fire services, largely manned by volunteers.

The blazes occurred in Australia's driest and hottest year on record, and followed a prolonged drought. Afterwards, some affected communities also faced intense storms and flooding.

What did the report say?

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements warned global warming was "inevitable" the coming two decades.

The commissioners said that "compounding disasters" would become more common - where natural hazards such as fires, floods and storms happen simultaneously, or one after another.

"To properly manage natural disasters of national scale and consequence, it is no longer suitable or appropriate to assess disaster risk at an individual hazard," they wrote in the report.

"We must assess the risk of multiple hazard events occurring concurrently or consecutively."

The report said the damage from successive disasters could be partly mitigated by how well authorities prepared.

Australia needed "strong adaptation measures" to deal with the impacts of future warming which depended on "the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions", the commissioners added.

The inquiry, which focused on national response efforts, called for the federal government to take earlier intervention in disasters.

Some of the recommendations included:

  • Introducing powers to declare a national state of emergency

  • A better system for reporting climate data

  • More resources for aerial firefighting and emergency warnings

  • Nationally consistent fire danger ratings and air quality monitoring.

What's been the reaction?

Climate action advocates said the Australian government and others needed to do more to reduce emissions.

"The main point made in this report is that the Black Summer bushfires would not have happened if not for climate change and a warming planet," said Greg Mullins, a former state fire commissioner.

"[The report] calls for action to mitigate the effects of climate change, and that means a change in policy from the government on climate."

On Friday, the government reiterated its position that it was "living up to its international commitments" on climate change.

At the peak of the fires, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government faced renewed scrutiny over its climate policies.

Scientists have raised doubts about Australia's assertion it is on track to meet its 2030 goal of a 26% emissions reduction.

A supporter of fossil fuels including coal and gas, Australia has so far resisted pressure to join other nations in committing to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Australia would reach that target "at some point in the second part of this century", said David Littleproud, the minister for emergency management.