Australia's Summer 2023 Bushfire Outlook

The Seasonal Bushfire Outlook is published periodically by the Australasian Fire Authorities Council. (afac) The report is a crucial guide for Australians as summer approaches. It outlines expected fire risks and conditions across the country. Furthermore, it provides valuable information to help people prepare and stay safe during the season. The report emphasizes the need for proactive preparedness and heightened awareness among communities. It contains pivotal information for individuals, families, and authorities to develop effective strategies. This fosters resilience and ensures the safety of lives and property in the face of potential bushfire threats. The introduction sets the stage for a detailed exploration of the key findings and recommendations within the report.


National Overview: Understanding the Landscape

Australia is a continent of contrasts, but it is facing a significant challenge as it enters the summer of 2023. The risk of bushfires is elevated, and there are several factors contributing to this risk:

  • Weather Patterns and Dry Conditions: Australia experienced record-breaking dry conditions and above-average temperatures during early spring. These have set the stage for heightened bushfire risk. The abundant vegetation growth, driven by La Niña, is now drying out, contributing to the increased flammability of fuel loads. 
  • Areas of Concern: The risk of fire is high in several regions, including Queensland, New South Wales (NSW), and the Northern Territory (NT). Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia (SA), and Western Australia (WA) also have vulnerable locations.
  • Unusual Vegetation Dynamics: The 2019-20 fire season has brought about unexpected vegetation regrowth in certain areas. This poses challenges for firefighting strategies.


Climate Conditions: Navigating the Dynamics

Understanding climate conditions is crucial for predicting bushfire risk.

  • La Niña's aftermath: La Niña's caused cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. The weather phenomenon has had a significant impact on the country's climate. It has brought above-average rainfall, flourishing vegetation, and increased soil moisture. However, this abundance has also led to substantial grass and vegetation growth, which has set the stage for potential fire fuel.
  • Positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD): This climate driver brought warmer sea surface temperatures in the western Indian Ocean. It complements La Niña's effects, intensifying the overall impact. This has resulted in two years of increased rainfall, leading to flourishing greenery and heightened fire fuel.
  • Rainfall Rollercoaster: Rainfall was above average in the past 24 months, but dramatically decreased from August 2023. The country struggled with below-average rainfall, with 61% below the 1961-1990 average. Southeast Queensland experienced a record-breaking drought. This highlights Australia's climate's precarious balance between abundance and scarcity.
  • Record-Breaking Temperatures: Australia experienced its second-highest maximum temperature since records began in 1910. Temperature dynamics play a significant role in shaping the fire landscape.
  • Global Warming: Against this backdrop, global warming emerges as an overarching influence. Global surface air and sea temperatures have reached record-breaking levels. Consistent warmth was observed throughout the year 2023. This adds an extra layer of complexity to Australia's climatic tableau.


The analysis shows that Australia's climate is a complex combination of La Niña, Positive IOD, historical patterns, and the ongoing threat of global warming. These factors create the conditions for a dynamic and difficult bushfire season.


State-specific bushfire outlooks

New South Wales (NSW): Unprecedented Regrowth Risks

·        Summary: The aftermath of Black Summer poses unforeseen challenges.

·        Black Summer regrowth defies expectations, becoming a potential ignition source.

·        Summer 2023 holds an elevated risk of fast-spreading and aggressive bushfires.

Australian Capital Territory (ACT): Strategic Mitigation and Normal Risk

·        Summary: Vigilance prevails in the nation's capital.

·        Ongoing mitigation activities, including prescribed burns, underpin a prepared region.

·        ACT anticipates a normal bushfire risk, emphasizing community awareness and emergency plans.

Victoria: Contrasting Landscape Vulnerabilities

·        Summary: Nature's canvas paints divergent fire risk scenarios.

·        Tall, damp forests experience lower fire potential, while unburnt areas face heightened risk.

·        Contrasts in moisture and combustibility define Victoria's complex fire landscape.

Tasmania: Southeast Drought Raises Fire Potential

·        Summary: Below-average rainfall in the southeast amplifies fire risk.

·        Rapid grassland curing intensifies fuel connectivity, heightening the potential for large-scale fires.

·        Concerns rise as drying trends extend to encompass more areas during summer.

South Australia (SA): Early Dry Conditions Extend Fire Danger

·        Summary: An early transition to dry conditions sets the stage for extended fire risk.

·        Rapid shifts in spring elevate fuel dryness and stress, particularly in spear grass areas.

·        Despite post-harvest risk reduction, vigilance is urged across the wheat belt.

Queensland: El Niño Intensifies Fire Season

·        Summary: El Niño tightens its grip, paving the way for an extended fire season.

·        Below-average rainfall and heightened fuel growth create a challenging fire scenario.

·        Southern regions, grappling with rainfall deficiencies, face increased fire susceptibility.

Western Australia (WA): Rainfall Delay Impacts Forested Regions

·        Summary: Delayed rainfall onset in key regions amplifies fire danger.

·        Kimberley and Pilbara regions await rainfall, influenced by El Niño conditions.

·        Severe rainfall deficiencies in southern forested areas heighten fire danger, requiring strategic mitigation.

Northern Territory (NT): Grass Fuel Loads Pose Landscape-wide Risks

·        Summary: Drying conditions amplify fire risk, particularly in Central Australia and Barkly.

·        Average grass fuel loads in NT and Top End present a normal fire potential.

·        Wildfire risks across Central Australia and Barkly regions are exacerbated by dense grass loads.

The interplay of climate conditions, and regional dynamics creates a diverse narrative. Each state and territory faces unique challenges in Australia's evolving bushfire landscape.


Climate Drivers and Forecasts

The outlook for bushfires in Australia is closely linked to climate drivers, with El Niño and global warming playing important roles. The current active El Niño event, forecast to peak in December or January, aligns with historically drier and warmer conditions. Global warming, evident in record-breaking sea surface temperatures, underscores the changing climate landscape.


Long-range forecasts, based on comprehensive climate models, project a complex scenario:

·        Reduced Rainfall: Greater than 60% chance of below-median rainfall in northern Queensland, parts of the NT, and much of WA. Anticipated prolonged dry spells, raising concerns for water availability and vegetation moisture.

·        Elevated Temperature Trends: Above-median maximum temperatures are predicted for almost all of Australia from December to February. Unusually high temperatures are expected, exceeding the top 20% of records, amplifying fire risk.


The synergy of reduced rainfall and elevated temperatures poses a critical challenge:

·        Enhanced evaporation: The combination intensifies evaporation rates, contributing to soil moisture depletion. Anticipated drier-than-average root zone soil moisture by late summer in eastern Australia and southwest WA.

·        Increased Fire Risk: Dry soil conditions make high fuel loads more flammable, particularly in the southern states.


Understanding the correlation is crucial for effective fire preparedness and mitigation strategies.


Reflecting on the Seasonal Outlook

In conclusion, Australia faces an elevated bushfire risk for the summer of 2023. Climatic factors and regional conditions will induce the risks even further.

1.   Varied Regional Challenges: Diverse threats demand tailored responses. If increased fire potential like in NSW, or normal risk in the ACT.

2.   Climate Drivers Impact: El Niño and global warming heighten risks, emphasizing the need for adaptive strategies.

3.   Long-Range Forecast Challenges: Forecasts predict reduced rainfall and above-average temperatures. As a result, fire risks will amplify.

4.   Regional Vulnerabilities: Each state faces distinct factors, influencing bushfire risks. E.g. regrowth in NSW or delayed rainfall in WA


As we head into a challenging season, communities must stay informed and bushfire-ready. Vigilance and preparedness are our strongest shields against the impending fire threat.

Source: afac 2023, Seasonal Bushfire Outlook | Summer 2023, accessed 5 December 2023 at afac-seasonal-bushfire-outlook_summer_2023.pdf

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