Smoke hangs over Tathra, on the south coast of NSW, which was evacuated in response to encroaching flames in March 2018. Photo: Fairfax Media

By Lisa Cox
15 August 2018

SYDNEY (The Guardian) – At first the smoke on the horizon “didn’t look like anything major,” says Joe Mercieca of that day in 2013. But then the wind picked up.

His house in the Blue Mountains, an hour and a half out of Sydney, was soon surrounded by the blaze. “I told my wife it was too late, let’s retreat,” he says. Mercieca, Merylese and their dog took shelter in the concrete fire bunker they had built beneath their house. “We sat in there and listened to everything explode.”

Overall, more than 200 houses were lost in the fire. The Merciecas lost four vehicles and their home office, destroyed when a flaming truck crashed into it. In the five years since, Mercieca has used his construction business to educate people about the importance of fire preparedness in their homes.

In the past, bushfire season the period of heightened risk declared by state-specific authorities, often accompanied by fire bans has typically begun in New South Wales in October and run until March. But an unusual period of months of exceptionally warm and extremely dry weather this year has prompted authorities to start the season early. Not only is Australia’s increasingly hotter, drier weather a cause for concern, but the country’s rapid urbanisation means more people are at risk than ever before.

For large areas in the north and west, bushfire season has been brought forward a whole two months to August – well into winter, which officially began 1 June. The rest of the state, including Sydney, will follow suit from 1 September, closer to spring but still four weeks earlier than usual.

The decision has already been justified. On the first weekend of August, a fire broke out at Doyalson on the NSW Central Coast, just north of Sydney, that crews had to fight to control. Two days later there were 11 uncontained fires in the state.

Rob Rogers, deputy commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, notes that last season fire crews were battling blazes as late as April. “That’s not really bushfire season, and yet we had a big fire on the outskirts of Sydney,” he says.

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (Bom), the January to July period 2018 was the warmest in NSW since 1910. Rogers linked these “unseasonably warm temperatures” with the deadly heatwaves in Greece and North America. “It’s fair to say that the climate is changing and longer fire seasons are something we’re starting to experience.” […]

In January this year Penrith – a major metropolitan area 50km west of the city centre – was the hottest place on Earth, reaching 47.3C while Sydney itself was 44C. Annually there are 14 heat-related deaths per 100,000 people in western Sydney, compared with five by the coast. The number of days above 35C a year is projected to increase by five to ten by 2030, while a recent study has predicted that summer heatwaves in major Australian cities are likely to reach highs of 50C by 2040. [more]

Sydney's bushfire season starts in winter: 'We may have to rethink how we live'

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