26 October 2009

Rockhampton pix

Here are a few pictures of the recent Rockhampton bushfires that from a mailing list. The photographer is unknown.

Northern Australia

The bushfire situation in much of Eastern Australia has calmed down since last weeks peak. Currently, the main area of fire is the usual activity in northern parts of the country, particularly the Top End and Cape York Peninsula.

The image (click to enlarge), a composite of two overpasses from the Aqua satellite, shows this activity. The most striking activity from this viewpoint is that on Cape York. Many are burning in and around Lakefield National Park.

Further west, several large fires are visible in eastern Arnhem Land. There are also some hotspots indicated in the Gulf Country, both near Arnhem Land and just on the QLD border.

Another large cluster of hotspots is noted just to the south of Lake Argyle, near the NT-WA border. These are burning near the Ord River. To the east of that fire, the scar from the fire near Wave Hill is visible.

Weatherwise, it has been hotter than normal across most of northern Australia. In the WA fire region noted, maximum temperatures were 40+ C. Other than that, the normal high to very high fire dangers found in the peak of fire season in the area.

In the southern part of the image, a large cloud of dust is visible. Western QLD was struck over night, and the storm has carried through much of the day (apparently from the image...), at least in southern and central NT...

20 October 2009

Eastern QLD

Fire activity continues throughout QLD today, but conditions have moderated to some degree over recent days and firefighters are gaining the upper hand on the numerous blazes throughout the state. Conditions remain warm with moderate winds, but the higher humidity helps mitigate the fire danger.

The Mt Archer fire near Rockhampton has been contained. The approximately 100 homes that were under threat yesterday were successfully defended. The immediate threat has receded, but residents should stay alert. Fire authorities note that these fires will not be truly extinguished until it rains. Significant rain is not expected for the foreseeable future. The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin has a timeline of the recent activity in the region. Fire weather conditions do remain in the very high category in the area.

Another large fire, in excess of 30 000 ha is reported near Gaeta. This is about 200 km SSE of Rockhamtpon. Many crews from outside the area, including NSW, are being used to fight this fire. No 'property' is threatened at this time.

A brief news item also appeared today which described some of the impact that bushfires that don't threaten 'property' can have. Graziers in western central QLD reported over 50 000 ha burnt in lightning caused fires last week near Texas. Many prime grazing pastures have been lost in the area, impacting their operations. Just because suburban houses aren't destroyed doesn't mean that bushfires have no affect. All wildfire has some effect regardless of where it occurs, just not always on human values. Low-intensity fires can even have beneficial effects.

Northern Australia and more

The image (click to enlarge) shows the whole of Australia (sorry, TAS!) on 19 October 2009. The image is a composite of three MODIS images from successive overpasses of the Aqua, each at roughly 1300-1500 LT at the time the satellite is overhead. The hotspots indicate numerous areas of fire across the nation, particularly in the north.

The upper hand has been gained over much of the fire activity recently seen in QLD and northern NSW. High temperatures have moderated and afternoon humidity is not quite as low thanks to moderate easterly (onshore) winds. The widespread cumulus field extending inland shows this quite nicely. This has allowed fire fighters in NSW to gain control over most of the fires there. A few isolated hotspots are visible along the northern coast.

While many of the fires burning in QLD are now contained, the situation still remains dangerous. The Mt Archer fire near Rockhampton is still threatening homes and keeping residents on high alert. While the weather has moderated, fire bans remain in effect for much of the state through to next week.

The Top End region of the NT remains quite active. Numerous fires are visible throughout Arnhem Land. A particularly active cluster of hotspots, with a thick smoke plume, is noted in the southwestern Top End, west of Port Keats. Further south from there several large fires are also visible; these fires haven't been burning for a great length of time but have quite prominent fire scars in their wake. Breezy afternoon easterly winds, low RH and hot temperatures (upper-30s) have driven very high to extreme fire dangers across the area.

Much of the Kimberley region of northwestern WA remains quite active also. While the threat to the outskirts of Broome has receded, the fires have continued to burn in the area. Most of these are new fires, not continuations of those noted previously. The same is true in the northern part of the Kimberley; five or six large clusters of hotspots are burning. The fires further south, in the Great Sandy Desert also continue to burn. As in the NT, the air has been quite dry with moderate easterly winds.

For the eagle-eyed, some signs of activity are visible in the southern part of the country. A commercial orchard has been reported as destroyed in southwestern WA. The NASA Earth Observatory image of the day noted some thick smoke plumes in this area on the 16th. Looking back at the subsets, smoke is visible back until at least the 13th...A few hotspots and perhaps a thin smoke plume is visible today. Most likely these would be some sort of prescribed burning activity. Another prescribed burn is visible along the NSW/VIC border in the Moira Lake area. Another (likely) prescribed fire can also been seen in SA in Billiat Conservation Park, with hotspots and a thin plume of smoke.

17 October 2009

Rockhampton QLD

Rockhampton QLD is facing a bushfire emergency tonight, as the fire conditions worsen for the blaze to the east of the city, in the Mt Archer area. Authorities are recommending evacuation for some the suburbs of the city, including Frenchville, Koongal and Lakes Creek. Several homes are believed to have been lost, as the fire burns erratically on a WNW course through the area.

The image is from the Aqua satellite overpass this afternoon, around 1345 LT. It is a close-up of the Rockhampton area, about 100 km across the image. The fires are quite close to Rockhampton (R). A large smoke plume is obvious, also impacting the city

Fire weather conditions remain in the very high range. The area is very dry, with little rain observed over the past several months. Afternoon relative humidities are around 10%, with moderate winds. Conditions are expected to be similar tomorrow. Fire bans remain in effect for much of QLD until at least 19 October. Extensions are likely.

At 2100 this evening, residents in some of the affected suburbs are able to return home. The situation remains dangerous and residents are advised to be prepared to enact their bushfire plans.

Pictures of the fire and the fire fighting effort are available in this photo gallery from The Morning Bulletin.

15 October 2009

Eastern Australia + Broome

Bushfires have been threatening homes across the nation today. A summary article from the ABC provides the details.

The RFS reports three major fires in the north of state, in the vicinity of Grafton. Tow of these fires have burnt more than 1500 -2000 ha each and remain out of control. A third, smaller fire in the area is in the process of being controlled. (video report). Houses are no longer under threat tonight. Fire weather conditions are in the 'very high' range and are expected to persist through at least tomorrow. The MODIS image is from the Terra satellite overpass around noon local time. The largest fires are the northern two. Grafton, about 30 km from the coast, is at the G.

The are numerous fires burning in QLD. The most serious is to the east of Rockhampton, where fires have been burning for more than a week. This fire forced evacuations earlier this afternoon. The fire continues to burn this evening, but houses are no longer under threat. Hot temperatures, very low RH and moderate gusty winds acted to produce near-extreme fire weather conditions in today Rockhampton.

Fires continued to flare in the Kimberley region of northwestern WA. Broome saw homes threatened again today on its northern outskirts. NAFI shows that the fires there have expanded considerably since last noted. I estimate over 50 000 ha affected at this time. In general, the Kimberley as a whole remains quite active in terms of wildfire. Most of the fires noted in the region several days ago remain burning; NAFI shows their growth and evolution quite clearly. This includes the activity in the Great Sandy Desert, the Dampier Peninsula and the northern parts of the region. Fire conditions remain seasonally high and dangerous.

Images: Broome fire: Tony Hutchinson

Climate Change and Bushfires

That climate change should have a noticeable impact bushfire activity seems obvious; large bushfires are largely a manifestation of both short-term weather and climate convolved with vegetation dynamics (i.e. fuel), itself a function of weather and climate. What is less obvious are the exact details of how this interaction will play out.

One obvious effect is on the weather and climate. In many fire prone regions, heat waves and drought are projected to become more intense and/or more frequent. These trends will obviously increase the fire weather danger, producing more days with 'extreme' fire weather conditions. More days implies more chances for fires to ignite, more chances for existing fires to spread out of control, more chances for a dramatic human impact.

Less obvious is the effect on the vegetation side of things. As the climate changes, will the same types of vegetation continue to grow in a given location? If the forest burns down, will it always grow back? What about other, less-quantified effects like CO2 fertilization?

Fire is an ecological force. The combination of fire frequency, vegetation and plant types along with the weather and climate describes the 'fire regime' of a location. What is clear is that the fire regime of places will change with the climate. This depends on the location and the exact details of the change that occurs. For example, one place may witness a change from forest to grassland, perhaps resulting in more frequent, lower intensity fires. In another case, forest persists in the face of more frequent or more severe droughts, resulting in high fuel loads and hotter, more dangerous fires. In both cases, the fire regime changes. This is what happens with climate change. Organisms that fail to adapt to the new regime die or move on, the previous character of the locale is gone forever...

There is evidence of these changes in fire regime around the world; most obvious to identify is unusual or increased fire activity. In the western USA, fire activity and cost to society has increased dramatically since the turn of the century. Athens, capital of Greece, has seen two major fires wildfires in two years. In many places around the world, there has been an apparent uptick in fire activity and consequences.

Australia is no exception. The 21st century has to this point seen several major bushfire disasters, particularly in the southeast portion of the continent. Most recent are the events of 7 Feb 2009, Black Saturday. The Canberra bushfires were in 2003, while Victoria also saw a fire of over a million ha that year (as well as another in 2006-7...). Are these events 'caused by' climate change?

The question is difficult to answer with certainty. Some would argue that the relative lack of prescribed burning or the general incompetence of fire management authorities are to blame. There is at least a grain of truth in those arguments, at least as far as the scale of the disasters. There is also an uncertain history of fire in Australia. Fire is undoubtedly a major part of the ecosystem; the local history and mythology is filled with anecdotal tales of bushfire. But nothing is definitive; the data necessary to quantify the problem are lacking.

A highly improbable event like Black Saturday cannot be definitive of a climate change influence. We know that days with similarly outrageous fire danger scores have occurred before, for example, Ash Wednesday in 1983 was close. How often they happen is uncertain; once every 30 years or so is probably not a bad guess. These type of events occurring more frequently, say once a decade would provide more certainty. But that certainty is 20 or more years away, a long time to wait...That said, there is a tendency in the last 30 years or so towards overall higher fire dangers in many locations in Australia, particularly the southeast.

Despite this lack of certainty, I strongly believe that anthropogenic climate change is a reality that needs to be acted upon. Despite quibbles about the vagaries of the mean global temperature tendencies, there are many other independent lines of evidence. Many changes are underfoot. Globally, animal species are on the move, Ice caps and glaciers are melting, droughts are intensifying and becoming more frequent in many locations. All of these have their roots in human activity, not just climate change but other environmental misuse as well.

We know that we are making major changes our physical environment; we are changing the chemistry, physics and biology of the system. The final outcome of the Great CO2 Enhancement Experiment (40% and rising...) is not yet known, but early signs suggest that the result is unlikely to be favourable for either our civilization or the ecosystem upon which we depend. True, our action today may very well be too late or otherwise ineffective, but inaction guarantees a more difficult life for future generations.

This post was written in support of Blog Action Day.

If you like this post, then go and read my (currently inactive) blog planet doom?. It has heaps of posts about climate change and other human effects on the world around us, There are multiple posts on wildfire and climate change available.

13 October 2009

Broome WA

Here's a somewhat unusual report: bushfires threatening houses on outskirts of Broome. It's unusual in that while the overwhelming majority of bushfire in Australia occurs in the north, rarely are human values like homes threatened. In fact, there have been few, if any bushfire-destroyed homes reported in northern Australia.

The linked story (very brief) reports 6 houses under threat from a fire 15 km east of Broome. It also notes 10 000 ha burnt. I estimated a much smaller amount of 3000-3500 ha using NAFI, but it is hard to tell exactly. The fire is not burning toward Broome at this time.

The image is the Aqua overpass from 13 October 2009, a close-up of the Dampier Peninsula in northwestern WA at 250 m resolution. The fires near Broome (B) are seen in the lower left corner. A smoke plume with several sources is visible, moving offshore to the west.

A much larger fire is also seen in the centre of the peninsula. A recent fire scar is apparent in the middle of the hotspots, as well as a thick plume of smoke. A very rough estimate of over 50 000 ha affected to date there. A few clusters of hotspots are also noted further north

Both of the main bushfires have been burning since Sunday. Both are visible in the yesterday's post on the Kimberley region at-large. The northern fire in particular had a dense plume in the image then. The weather is fairly typical for this time of year; temperatures in the upper-30s, low RH in the afternoon in areas not affected by the sea breeze and moderate, gusty winds often from the southeast. Fire dangers are running in the high to very high range. It is the peak of the fire season here

Kimberley WA

Several large fires are burning in the Kimberley, in far northern WA. This area of Australia is remote and sparsely populated. Many of these fires have been burning for several days, the largest was first noted (briefly) in this post.

The image (click to enlarge) shows the Aqua MODIS true colour image from 12 Oct 2009 at 0505 utc, roughly 1300 LT. Image is about 900 km square, quite a large area. Broome (B) to Halls Creek (HC) is roughly 600 km. The most prominent fires are burning in the top-centre of the image, a swirl of smoke and cumulus. A closer look at the NAFI for this region shows (via the colour-coded fire scars) the effect of earlier prescribed burns; the current fires (and also those nearby in the recent past) are hemmed in by a loose boundary of earlier fire scars.

Further south, at the bottom of the image, lies the Great Sandy Desert. There are 4 significant bushfires readily apparent in the image. Bushfires in these normally arid regions aren't an annual occurrence, but rather happen when fuel loads are high as a result of abundant rainfall in the area. This has been observed across much of this area over the past several years. The smoke plumes from these fires are quite dark, and very diffuse. The fires are likely of low intensity, and it is entirely possible that these fires are some form of fuel reduction burn.

Across the border in the NT, several fires can be seen. The large dark scar with a few hotspots on its northern edge is the fire reported previously (but not shown) near Wave Hill. My estimate of the affected area is now on the order of 250 000 ha. A few fires are also noted further north, in the eastern Top End.

Weather conditions are fairly typical for the time of year. Maximum temperatures are running near 40oC, low afternoon relative humidity with generally light winds. The lack of wind yields only moderate fire dangers.

Even fires in remote areas such as this can have an impact if conditions are right. While population is low, travellers can be affected. The fires in southern WA (current the subject of a coronal inquest) two years ago attest to the danger that seemingly remote bushfires in the desert can have.

08 October 2009

Northeastern QLD

Today was a busy day for wildfire across Queensland; bushfires were reported across the state with many threatening houses and 'property'. Significant fire activity was noted near Rockhampton, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast hinterland. A fire ignited this morning on Bribie Island, in the vicinity of Brisbane.

Further north, the long-running fires continue. Firefighters from the southern part of the state are moving north to provide some relief for weary crews. Fires of note in the region include the 9000 ha Bluewater fire, about 30 km from Townsville, and a several fires in the Atherton Tablelands threatening a B-n-B, among other things. Here is a lengthy (85!) photo gallery of some of these latter fires can be found here.

The image is from the Aqua MODIS around 1445 of 8 October, showing the stretch of coast between Cairns (C) and Townsville (T). The Atherton Tableland fires are visible in the north; the Yungaburra fire is the one closest to Cairns. The Bluewater fire is producing quite a thick smoke plume in the south, curving as it moves offshore and blowing over Magnetic Island, just off the coast from Townsville.

Fire weather conditions today were worse in the southern part of the state, but probably only in the very high category. RH was quite low in the afternoon in those regions, but winds and temperatures were moderate. In the north, conditions were fairly typical for the time of year.

07 October 2009

Top End NT

The image (click to enlarge) is a spectacular view of the Top End region of the NT captured today around 1410 LT, the early afternoon overpass of the Aqua satellite. Multiple large wildfires are readily apparent, with several large plumes of smoke moving off towards the west. A lower resolution full image is here. Darwin is located at the 'D'.

Most of these hotspots and fires represent activity which was first noted yesterday. The fires flared again today, as hot, dry air persisted over much of the area; RH values were down to 2-3% for an extended portion of the afternoon at Katherine (the K). Afternoon temperatures were in the mid-30s with moderate easterly winds.

The largest of fires in the vicinity of Katherine have burnt roughly 50 000 to 60 000 ha. The particular smoky one about halfway between Darwin and Katherine just got organized today.

Several large fires are also evident in Arnhem Land. The fire in central portions of the region is producing a lot of smoke. As further west, many of these fires have been burning for several days, part of the seasonal peak in activity.

Off the image, fires continue in the NT Gulf country (actually, some of these are just visible in the SE corner...). The fire further south, near Wave Hill, also continues to burn today. Finally, a large wildfire in also noted in the Kimberley region of WA.

Fire weather warnings are in effect for most of these regions for tomorrow (8 Oct) as dry gusty conditions are expected to persist.

06 October 2009

Eastern Australia 3

Just a quick update on the situation in the northern half of NSW and the east in general, last reported several days ago. In general, the situation is much calmer than previously noted.

Much of the coastal strip of NSW has seen moderate amounts of rain over the past 3 or 4 days, with several areas with over 25 mm (an inch) of precipitation in multiple locations (explore here). This has greatly reduced the amount of fire and the potential fire weather danger for at least the next several days (and likely the 10 days or more...). The easier conditions and rain have allowed the numerous fires which were burning to be brought under control.

Fire in SE QLD in particular have also been brought under control, although it didn;t rain as much there. This includes the Fraser Island blaze, which has been burning for several weeks. Nearly 20 000, about 12% of the World Heritage listed area has been exposed to wildfire, although fire can have a benefit to the local ecology. According to the regional manager of QLD Parks and Wildlife, the damage '...by and large doesn't look too bad'. The Carnarvon National Park fire is still apparent on MODIS imagery, but in an overal calmer state.

While the situation in the southern portion of QLD has calmed, the north is still facing some danger. Fire bans remain in effect for another week (until 12 Oct) across much of northern QLD. Fires remain burning in the high country inland from Townsville and Cairns (Atherton Tableland and points south).

Northern NT

Bushfire activity has flared in the northern NT, as extremely dry air and moderate winds joined the (normal) heat to produce dangerous fire weather conditions over the past two days. Conditions were particularly strong today.

Unfortunately, much of the region was missed in the this afternoon's Aqua overpasses, with the region falling between the swaths. What was visible conveys the severity of the fires well.

Fires in eastern Arnhem Land were especially active this afternoon, with numerous smoke plumes throughout the area. Fire has been observed in this general area for much of the last several months, but many of the current fires look to be of recent origin.

The broader Katherine area, particularly to the west are numerous fast moving fires which have started in the past day or two. Relative humidities were below 10% for much of the day, with 20-30 km/h winds. The fire weather is expected to be near extreme tomorrow as well, and fire bans are in place.

The Gulf portion of NT has also seen a revival of activity in many of the same areas as seen earlier this season. Several going fires are indicated in the general Borroloola area. AS in the Top End, RH was below 10% for much of the day today.

A large, fast burning fire is also apparent in central NT,in the vicinity of Wave Hill. The fire has consumed roughly 100 000 ha in just over two days. Conditions there are similar to elsewhere, with extremely dry air over the area since yesterday.

Tomorrow is likely to be another dangerous fire weather day across much of the northern NT, meaning these fires are likely to expand again tomorrow afternoon. The point should be explicitly made that these fires are burning in remote regions, of little direct consequence to human values.

02 October 2009

Northern NSW

Multiple fires across NSW today as warm and dry weather and gusty westerly winds brought dangerous fire conditions to much of the state. Fire bans were in effect for some part of the area.

A general overview of the situation in the state is here. More detailed stats can be found at the RFS current incidents webpage (also on sidebar...). Some of these fires were noted on this site a few days ago; many additional have started since then.

The image (click to enlarge) is the Aqua overpass for this afternoon. For scale, the picture runs from about the NSW/QLD border down to Sydney, just visible at the bottom -- roughly 500 km. Most dramatic from space are those in the Clarence Valley, in the north. Activity further south near Gloucester and the Great Lakes area. An impressive smoke plume is visible from a fire near Rylstone, list as going.

Also interesting is the date: 1 October is the traditional start to bushfire season in much of NSW. Unfortunately, major fires have been observed for at least a month, and lesser activity as early as June in the southern parts of the state. That there is as much fire activity as there is testament to several factors – a long-term drought in the south, and quite low rainfall amounts across the most of the state (and especially in QLD) for the past three months. The low rain amounts are likely a result of the influence of a weak to moderate El Nino, forecast to persist through summer. Historically, this means low rainfall and long fire seasons in much of eastern Australia.