As the U.S. grapples with one of its worst wildfire seasons on record, Australia is getting a head start on what looks to be an equally brutal year of bushfires.
Since early August—wintertime in the southern hemisphere—hundreds of bushfires have flared up in the Australian provinces of Queensland and New South Wales, prompting some local authorities to declare bushfire season open more than a month ahead of schedule. This freak fire lashing has experts extremely worried for what lies ahead as Australia transitions into spring and then summer.
“We’re dreading what the rest of the season holds for us,” former New South Wales Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Greg Mullins told Earther.
Fueling the flames is a drought that’s been described as the worst in living memory. Last winter was Australia’s hottest on record and the driest since 2002, and for large swaths of eastern and southern Australia, there’s been little rain to slake the thirst since. About 60 percent of Queensland is currently in drought. So is 100 percent of New South Wales, a province that produces a quarter of the nation’s crops. Many of its fields are looking frighteningly brown.
This winter has also been unusually warm, and that combination of heat and drought is causing landscapes to light up like a tinderbox when something provides the spark. For the most remote fires, the spark is often lightning, but a large number of the blazes are being started by humans as well.
Mullins said farmers often use small, contained fires to burn off weeds or undergrowth outside of fire season, but some of those burns have gotten out of hand this winter. Fire managers, who typically use the winter to conduct prescribed burns that reduce fire fuel, are grappling with a similar issue because of the parched conditions.
“At least some of the fires in New South Wales originated as hazard reduction burns that got out of control because it was so flammable,” Lesley Hughes, an ecologist with the Australian Climate Council, told Earther.
None of this bodes for the months ahead, especially with the eastern Pacific tipping into an El Niño state, something that normally delivers warmer, drier weather to southern Australia.