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NSW on bushfire alert as above-normal fire potential looms

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Several bushfires have broken out in parts of NSW, prompting the Rural Fire Service (RFS) to issue advice alerts in a number of areas, including two that are burning west of Sydney today.

Over the weekend heat records in parts of the state set new peaks for November, with many areas recording temperatures of over 40 degrees.

NSW Police Minister David Elliott has urged against complacency, warning “what we are seeing this weekend is pretty consistent with what we will potentially see over the course of this fire season”.

“We cannot fall into a false sense of security. The community out there, unfortunately, thinks after the last season we are not at risk of bushfire,” he said. “The reality is 90% of the state is still untouched by bushfire.”

The RFS advice alerts come as the latest outlook from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre predicts large parts of NSW west of the Great Dividing Range faces above-normal fire conditions this summer.

Grasslands in the ACT and north-eastern Victoria as well as some southern parts of SA and WA are also at risk, having missed out on recent heavy rainfall and leaving huge forested areas in “very, very dry conditions”.

The arrival of La Nina, a climate event that brings with it higher-than-usual rainfall, is not enough to reduce the fire threat in coming months, the research centre says.

“With La Nina climate conditions reached in mid-September, the rainfall outlook through to the end of summer suggests above average rainfall is likely over much of the country,” the centre’s Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook: December 2020 - February 2021 says.

“However, these months are a drier time of the year for much of southern Australia. Satellite monitoring of vegetation health suggests some areas that have experienced above-average rainfall in recent months are now observing a significant increase in grass vegetation growth.”

The outlook says the long-term warming trend means that above-average temperatures now dominate most years, and recent months have generally followed this pattern.

“The tendency for fire seasons to become more intense and for fire danger to occur earlier in the season is a clear trend in Australia’s climate, reflecting reduced and/or less reliable cool season (April to October) rainfall and rising temperatures,” the outlook says.

“Fire season severity is increasing across much of Australia as measured by annual (July to June) indices of the Forest Fire Danger Index, with increases tending to be greatest across inland eastern Australia and coastal WA.”

In Sydney and other population centres there is a need to monitor fire danger associated with prolonged heatwaves that can occur during La Nina years as a result of more heat being retained in the atmosphere.

In Victoria the outlook suggests above-average rainfall across much of the state. It is likely this will lead to soil moisture that will persist in many areas and lead to normal fire potential, with the exception of the far north-east region.

Click here for the outlook.