Coastal Devastation

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To begin a new year with such grief and sadness is not what we expect. Yet the past two weeks have been traumatic for many coastal communities in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. What has been happening is a continuation of fire storms that commenced in spring in southern Queensland and northern NSW and progressively moved to southern regions—was this not to be expected?

In late October at the NSW Coastal Conference we heard news of fires around Lake Cathie near Port Macquarie. At the conference was a community group concerned about the environmental health of the lake; they were not anticipating how that health was to be badly affected by fire. We received live photo feed from the area late in the conference. Quite dramatically we were witnessing an example of devastation of coastal ecological systems that included a large koala population.

The fire season now begins much earlier. But this year I was staggered by how it started across different topographical zones in southern Queensland and northern NSW. Quite quickly communities were battling blazes from the northwest slopes, New England Tablelands and down into coastal valleys. I always thought Casino was a town most vulnerable to floods—wrong, it and surrounding areas were under threat from fire!

A weather pattern emerged which hung in there till the new year—and persists? Hot air masses are generated inland and dragged east by northerly winds on the flank of a weather front, followed by a sudden switch to a strong southerly. But the front carries no moisture! The joys of heavy rain accompanying the southerly busters of past years were non-existent. Somehow the driving forces behind this weather pattern were different. I am not in a position to speculate on the reasons although one must consider that the alignment of those systems with acronyms IOD, SAM, ENSO, and IPO have been rearranged by global warming. If so, we are in for horrible times in future springs and summers.

The systems that drove the fire season sit in a broader context of higher day and night temperatures in recent years. Loss of soil moisture and drying of forests and grasslands under the current drought provided ideal conditions for establishing vast fire grounds across the continent. Of course these conditions have occurred before but the scale of such intense fires and the spread of smoke this time give rise to terms such as “unprecedented” and it is not over yet.

What I find hard to imagine is the occurrence of fires reaching the sea and shores of estuaries in places that I never would have expected. From Nowra south to Mallacoota in Victoria these lovely coastal villages have not just been threatened but partly destroyed. There are many stories in media and from friends informing us of escapes and damage. So much infrastructure destroyed and homes lost, businesses suffering loss of income, people traumatised, and holidays ruined. Yet the bravery and capacity of those fighting fires plus the preparation by many appear to have saved lives and property. We owe them all so much.

Now comes the time to think of the immediate and longer-term future. NSW coastal management framework embraces a risk-management approach. The fires that severely damaged Tathra nearly two years ago highlighted the vulnerability of homes close to the sea. So risk is not just to forces from the sea that we must think about. Vulnerability to dislocation in supplies of food, power and fuel are common to a variety of hazardous events. The ability to ensure safety in many of these relatively isolated villages must be seen as part of the overall plan to make communities more resilient. Fire, river flood, storm inundation and coastal erosion are now more and more likely to occur at more intense levels under climate change. This will require careful consideration in the design of houses that are to be re-built in these beautiful places. New technologies for the delivery of power and communications are available to ensure more resilient infrastructure. Reading how the Willinga Park property was secured at Bawley Point offers some guidance on risk mitigation under future extreme conditions (SMH, 8/1/20). The NSW Coastal Design Guidelines are being re-written and offer scope for being more inclusive of risk reduction than the previous version. It will be a challenge during this extraordinary time with so many calling for assistance, and with so much effort underway to assist all those in need,  to be aware of the need to plan for re-occurrence of what we are now experiencing more frequently, along with other extreme events, in future years.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author's thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2020, for correspondence about this blog post please email