Six bushfires merge in Australia to burn 1.5 million acres

gigafire australia victoria new south wales
Six bushfires in two Australian states have merged, forming a huge megafire covering 1,532,484 acres (632,315 hectares). To get an idea of the scale, the distance between Canberra and Albury is 134 miles (216 km).  Map: NSW RFS

Six bushfires in two Australian states have merged, forming a huge blaze covering 1,532,484 acres (632,315 hectares) slightly smaller than the size of Delaware in the United States. The fires in Victoria and New South Wales met near Jingellic NSW between Canberra and Albury.

NAME            HECTARES
Dunns Road, 316,754
Doubtful Gap Trail, 48,918
Adaminaby Complex, 28,640
Green Valley, Talmalmo, 233,390
Mount Youngal, 1,000
Pilot Lookout, 3,613

TOTAL: 632,315 hectares (1,532,484 acres)

Below is an excerpt from an article at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation updated Friday night local time:

Firefighters are bracing for a difficult night ahead amid the formation of a second “mega-blaze” and a southerly change sweeping up the New South Wales coast, bringing gusts of up to 90 kilometres per hour.

Emergency warnings were issued earlier for the Dunns Road fire burning near Ellerslie and Tarcutta in the Snowy Valleys, as well as the Green Valley Talmalmo fire and the adjoining East Ournie Creek fire, burning east of Albury.

All three fires have now joined to form the state’s second “mega-blaze” and now covers more than 640,000 hectares, straddling the New South Wales and Victorian borders.

However, these blazes had all been downgraded to watch and act overnight. In total, four fires were at watch and act level last night, including the Erskine Creek blaze burning south of Leura and Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains.

NSW Rural Fire Service Inspector Ben Shepherd said warnings for the blaze had been upgraded in anticipation of the southerly hitting the area around midnight and he warned residents to monitor conditions as the front moved through.

In a Facebook post, Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill told locals it had been a “hard day” for the region ahead of a “night of vigilance for us all”.

“We were worried it would be a hard day. That has been the case,” he wrote.

“We have had fire activity in the Grose Valley a few kilometres from Faulconbridge. This was air-attacked throughout the afternoon. Work will continue tomorrow.

“Crews are working hard to manage this activity. They will have a long night … I am sorry the news is not better but tonight is a night of vigilance for us all.”

NASA has released an animation showing smoke from the Australian fires reaching across the Pacific to South America.

NASA’s description of the video:

“The animation shows RGB color images from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite for December 31, 2019 through January 5, 2020. A plume of brown smoke extends from the southeastern coast of Australia, over the Tasman Sea and beyond into the Pacific Ocean.

“The overlaid vertical cross sections show CALIPSO lidar observations for these same days. The bright colors indicate the presence of small particles (aerosols) and the white color indicates clouds. Visible in each of the cross sections near 40 degrees south is a thick layer of smoke from the fires at altitudes above 9 miles (14.5 km). The dark shading below these layers is due to the absence of lidar signals below the opaque smoke layers. These layers contain very small particles and have optical properties similar to smoke.

“The sequence of CALIPSO and MODIS tracks in the animation indicates the continued transport of the smoke layer to the east. As of Jan. 5, 2020, smoke was detected more than 4,000 miles from the source.

“Credit: NASA Langley/Roman Kowch”

Fires west of Sydney burn over 2 million acres

The Gospers Mountain Fire northwest of Sydney, Australia has burned 1.1 million acres

bushfires New South Wales map satellite photo
Satellite photo showing smoke from bushfires in New South Wales, Australia Dec. 21, 2019 local time.

Firefighters in New South Wales, Australia had another challenging day Saturday as a weather front came through which changed the wind direction. The 17 mph northeast wind shifted at about 5 p.m. local time to come out of the south at 36 gusting to 45.  The only factor that was in their favor was the relative humidity was not extremely low —  46 percent rising to 80 percent after the frontal passage.

Major changes in wind direction can force a wildfire to begin spreading in a different direction. If it is unexpected, firefighters at the heel of a fire can suddenly be facing a fire spreading toward them. On the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 a passing thunderstorm forced a wind direction change that entrapped and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The wind shift in New South Wales Saturday was predicted — as was the passage of the thunderstorm at Yarnell Hill.

Very early Sunday morning local time the New South Wales Rural Fire service provided updated information: “Both the Gospers Mountain fire in the Hawkesbury area and the Currowan fire in the Shoalhaven area have been downgraded to Watch and Act. The winds from the southerly change have now eased, reducing the erratic fire behaviour.”

The largest fire in NSW started two months ago. The huge Gospers Mountain Fire northwest of Sydney has burned 1,156,000 acres. It has merged with three other fires, Kerry Ridge, Little L Complex, and Three Mile, to cover a total of 1,742,000 acres. The Green Wattle Creek Fire southwest of Sydney has been mapped at 467,000 acres to bring the five-fire total to 2,209,000. If they continue spreading as they have for weeks, the Green Wattle Creek Fire could merge with the other four.

We tend to call fires that reach 100,000 acres “megafires”. We need a new term for million-acre fires.

This is not normal.

bushfires New South Wales map
Map of bushfires in New South Wales showing projected spread and ember attack, Dec. 21, 2019.

There are other large fires north and south of Sydney and also in Eastern Victoria.

And then there is Western Australia. Last weekend the country’s new-to-them 737 air tanker, N137CG, flew 2,000 miles west across the continent to assist firefighters dealing with a fire about 100 miles south of Perth.

There were more injuries to firefighters Saturday, including one who was hit by a car during very smoky conditions. Thankfully he was not seriously injured.

kangaroo bushfire

Wallangarra bushfire burns over 100,000 acres in NSW

It is burning in both Queensland and New South Wales, Australia

Wallangarra bushfire NSW Australia
A bushfire in New South Wales and Queensland is near Wallangarra, Tenterfield, Stanthorpe, and Jennings. NSW RFS photo.

A very large bushfire has burned at least 43,800ha (108,232 acres) in Queensland and New South Wales in Australia. Smoke from the fire is affecting Wallangarra, Tenterfield, Stanthorpe, and Jennings.

At 8:55 a.m. local time on February 19 the New South Wales Rural Fire Service reported that the fire continues to burn west of the Bruxner Highway in the Girraween, Bald Rock, Boonoo areas.

Most activity overnight was on the southwest side of the fire near Sunnyside, on the northwestern side of the fire in Girraween National Park (Queensland), north of Wallangarra, and on the southeast side near the Bruxner Highway.

During the night crews conducted backburning operations which increased the fire activity and the production of smoke. This smoke is likely to settle around the areas of Tenterfield, Jennings, Wallangarra and Stanthorpe (QLD), but will begin to clear late Tuesday morning.

Wallangarra Fire map
Satellite photo of the Wallangarra Fire burning in Queensland and New South Wales. The red dots indicate heat. NASA photo.

Bushfire in Australia burns over 2 million acres, becoming a “gigafire”

Bushfire Broome, Western Australia
Bushfire south of Broome, Western Australia. Photo: Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

A bushfire that started October 11 in Western Australia 120km southeast of Broome burned 880,000 hectares, or 2,174,527 acres. Dry winds from variable directions and high temperatures made it very difficult to suppress. The remote location and a lack of water restricted the tactics to fighting fire with fire, constructing firelines with heavy equipment, and using aircraft.

When the wind direction changed last week, firefighters had to shut down the Great Northern Highway, National Route 1.

bushfire Western Australia
Satellite photo of bushfire in Western Australia, October 15, 2018. NASA.

When we coined the term “megafire” for wildfires that exceed 100,000 acres, it was in the back of our mind that if a fire reached 1 million acres it would be called a “gigafire”.

In spite of the enormous size of the blaze in Western Australia there were no fatalities or damage to major structures.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) urged residents at Thangoo Homestead, Barn Hill Station, and Eco Beach last Tuesday to evacuate or actively defend their property.

DFES West Kimberley area officer Ben Muller said there were approximately 100 personnel fighting the fire.

The city of Broome was given the all clear Thursday morning.

Below is an excerpt from an article at TheWest.com:

Thangoo Station manager Rex McCormack said about half of the pastoral station was burnt but people and livestock were unscathed and water tanks and other important assets were undamaged.

“It is one of the biggest fires I remember from the last 10 years, but we felt safe in staying and defending the property,” he said.

“I didn’t feel scared in staying, I would have been more worried about that damage that could have occurred if I wasn’t there and it was more about being a resource to DFES.

“We were out back burning the property until about 1am last Wednesday, then up again at 6am.

Bushfire Broome, Western Australia
Bushfire south of Broome, Western Australia. Photo: Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

(UPDATED November 2, 2018)

TEDx: “Living (dangerously) in an era of megafires”

Why are fires getting bigger?

One of the talks at the TEDx hosted in Bend, Oregon in May was about wildfires. U.S. Forest Service Research Landscape Ecologist Paul F. Hessburg, Sr. gave a 15-minute presentation on megafires, explaining how fires have changed, and why, over the last 100 to 150 years.

Here is an excerpt from the official description of his talk:

Paul tells a fast-paced story of western US forests–unintentionally yet massively changed by a century of management. He relates how these changes, coupled with a seriously hotter climate, have set the stage for this modern era of megafires. He offers clear tools for changing course, a sense of urgency, and a thought-provoking call to community action…

Preliminary data indicates there have been 18 megafires this year

Okanogan Complex of fires
Structure protection on the Okanogan Complex of fires, August 21, 2015. InciWeb photo.

The National Interagency Fire Center has officially adopted the definition of a megafire (that we have been using for years) as a fire that burned at least 100,000 acres. Their preliminary data for 2015 shows 18 megafires —  so far. This includes complexes (counted as 1) and individual fires. According to NIFC this ties the record that was set in 2006, for most megafires in one fire season.

However their data for 2006 is different from the information we received from the U.S. Forest Service last May:

Fires larger than 100,000 acres (megafires)
2005 – 10
2006 – 15
2007 – 13
2008 – 5
2009 – 12
2010 – 3
2011 – 14
2012 – 14
2013 – 8
2014 – 4

100000+ acre fires megafire
This graphic is unusual, in that the megafires are in groups of three years. If you click on the image to see a larger version, you’ll see the three-year groups across the bottom.

While the number of megafires has increased since 1983, the number of wildland firefighters working for the five federal land management agencies has decreased by 17.5 percent in the last four years according to testimony by USFS Chief Thomas Tidwell before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2011 and 2015:

Federal wildland firefighters
2011 – 16,000
2015 – 13,200