The 2019/20 forest fires in eastern Australia, referred to as the ‘Black Summer’ fires, burned over 5.8 million hectares of mainly temperate broadleaf forest between September 2019 and February 2020. Twenty-six people lost their lives as a direct consequence of the fires, while bushfire smoke is estimated to have caused 417 excess deaths in the fire-affected regions. Nearly 2,500 homes were lost and widespread damage to infrastructure and livelihoods has severely affected communities and regional economies. The fires killed millions of animals, burned critical habitat of endangered species and large fractions of threatened ecological communities, including significant areas of temperate rain forests. While the true impact of the ‘Black Summer’ fires may never be fully quantified, several formal inquiries have investigated the causes and factors that contributed to the fire season of 2019/20. The final report of the New South Wales Bushfire Inquiry was published in July 2020, with major contributions from the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub.
Here, I address three questions that have been at the core of the inquiry and the ongoing debate about fire risk management in SE Australia: i) to what extent were the Black Summer fires consistent with historical fire regimes in the region and with fire regimes of temperate forests globally? ii) what was the role of fuel loads versus fuel dryness in preconditioning the landscape for mega forest fires? iii) have fuel reduction treatments been effective in reducing fire extent, severity, or risk to communities?