Australia’s wildfires burned 21 percent of the country’s temperate forests

Feb. 25 (UPI) — New research suggests Australia’s devastating wildfires were unprecedented in their scope.

Analysis conducted by scientists at Western Sydney University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment showed approximately 21 percent of Australia’s temperate forests burned during the summer of 2019-2020.

When researchers surveyed historical records for evidence of comparable wildfire seasons — not just in Australia, but across the globe. They found nothing approaching the scope of Australia’s devastation.

They published the results this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“We analyzed the major forest biomes across Australia, Asia, Africa, Oceania and North and South Americas to determine the extent of annual areas burned by forest fires,” lead study author Matthias Boer, bush fires expert and professor of ecology at Western Sydney University, said in a news release.

Wildfires in Australia and elsewhere typically burn up 5 percent of the forest, and wildfire in a few regions of isolated forest in Africa and Asia experience burn rates of up to 8 or 9 percent.

The fires that ravaged Australia for much of the 2019-2020 summer burned 21 percent of the continent’s temperate forests.

“This is a globally unprecedented scale of burning, not observed in any other forest biome over the last 20 years,” Boer said.

The temperate broadleaf and mixed forest biome covers millions of acres in Australia. The biome’s forests are some of the most vulnerable to fire brought on by drought and heatwaves.

Typically, damp ravines and south-facing sloops slow the spread of fire through Australia’s temperate forests, limiting the odds of a megafire. But the years preceding the summer of 2019-2020 were especially dry. Researchers suggest fuel conditions were the driest they’ve been in 30 years. The combination of extreme heat, fierce winds and dry tinder encouraged the spread of fire.

Numerous studies suggest climate change is likely to increase the risk of large, intense fires across largest swaths of the globe.

“Climate change predictions warned of higher temperatures, longer more widespread droughts and more extreme fire behaviors, and it seems that the future we feared has arrived sooner than expected,” Boer said.

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