Fighting climate change: How emergency services are battling changing conditions
13 November 2018 | Mitigation
Attributing individual events to climate change is complex, but observing the overall trend is not.
The California fires are happening during the period of the Santa Ana winds, which blow across the continent bringing hot, dry winds from October through to April.
November fires are not unheard of, but historically the Santa Ana fires peak in October, before things cool down as the northern hemisphere heads into winter.
Because of climate change, fires are getting more intense and fire seasons are extending to the point where the northern and southern hemisphere fire seasons are overlapping.
Tactics will need to change
Climate change is a reality emergency services are dealing with, and fire is not the only problem, with warming oceans resulting in heavier rain and the potential for increased flooding.
Tasmanian Fire Service chief officer Chris Arnold does not back away from the issue.
"We have to look at what the impact of climate change is in the community and how we're going to change our strategies and our tactics, and then ultimately invest in new approaches to deal with climate change," he said. Mr Arnold is involved with an emergency services climate change initiative to research and respond to climate change issues in the sector. "Certainly we have been aware of climate change coming and the Bureau of Meteorology has long been warning of those impacts. The next thing to decide is what do you do about that?" he said.
Bad fire seasons are becoming the norm
Bureau of Meteorology climate services manager David Jones said the impacts of climate change were already being felt in Australia. "In southern Australia we've seen rising temperatures and declining rainfall and that's increasing the fire danger, particularly in states like Victoria, parts of New South Wales, western New South Wales, southern New South Wales, across south-west WA," he said. Dr Jones said in Victoria there had been about a 50 per cent increase in the forest fire danger index season severity. "When you look at the past, we would get a bad fire season maybe once every 10 years or thereabouts," he said. "Now the norm is actually a bad fire season."
What can be done about that?
New South Wales Rural Fire Service planning and predictive services manager Simon Heemstra is on the frontline of trying to work out how to adapt to climate change in the emergency services sector.
One of the challenges he faces is not being able to share resources, such as the big American firebombing aeroplanes, when seasons cross over.
"With the lengthening season, there may be competition for those sorts of resources, and we're going to need to look at what are the most effective alternatives, and also how else can we better mitigate and prepare for events," Dr Heemstra said.
"The American water bombers are only a part of how we manage fires."
Dr Heemstra said an increased emphasis on better hardening infrastructure, preparing communities, as well as all the mitigation works on fire trials and hazard reduction, would hopefully reduce the increasing risk and impact of climate change-induced natural disasters.
Not just fire that is an issue
Dr Jones said the changing climate was not just impacting fires — the ice is melting and the warming ocean is expanding, impacting on flooding. "What we're seeing is a quite general increase in sea level. It's about 4 millimetres a year at the moment, 3–4 millimetres, and it's going on year on year. It's actually starting to add up," he said. A few centimetres could change how natural disasters play out.
"For example, earlier in the year in Brisbane, we saw floods on perfectly fine sunny days and that was because of these higher sea levels," Dr Jones said. Warmer oceans can also lead to heavier rain, especially when combined with a warmer atmosphere. "The amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold increases by nearly 10 per cent for each degree of global warming," Dr Jones said.
When it comes to climate, nothing happens in isolation
"The other thing we're noticing with the heating globe is that the things that caused these disasters also have other cascading and coalescing events," Dr Heemstra said. For example, fires during heatwaves can stress electricity supply. "There's a whole public health issue that also goes with multiple disasters you might need to be responding to," he said.
There are many aspects for emergency services to consider, particularly if there are going to be more frequent events. "How do we deal with our workforce, and fatigue, and managing the increased expectation of how we're going to work?" Dr Heemstra said. "How do we look at infrastructure, and are our design levels appropriate for a changing climate?"
How bad could it get?
Most climate modelling focuses on how the averages are going to change over time.
"The thing that we're missing out of the climate models is they don't really look at the extremes, and that is where we operate in the emergency services space," Dr Heemstra said. "We actually need to do some more work looking at the amplitude or the amount which those extreme events vary from those averages, stay the same, or will that actually increase."
According to Dr Heemstra, there needs to be an investment in projecting the extremes so we can better understand the sort of challenges we might face because of climate change. Dr Jones's data demonstrates that things are already different from how they were in the past.
"What it means is really the past can no longer tell you the limits of what you can see," he said. "So you start to have to prepare for events which are perhaps beyond what you're seen before, perhaps starting to really test your imagination." For Dr Jones it is not about hope or options. As a scientist he studies these things objectively. "We study really to make people's life better … enable them to take the opportunities that climate change will present, but also adapt so the impacts of climate change are less bad."