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Bushfire risk in regional Australia: 2021 trends and predictions


Bushfire risk is increasing as Australian summers are set to get drier and hotter.

As the Earth’s temperature rises, Australian summers are set to get hotter with recurring periods of prolonged dry conditions, increasing the risk of catastrophic bushfires. Forty years of data on the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI), from 1978-2017, shows bushfire seasons have already become longer and more extreme for most parts of Australia and it is predicted fire seasons will continue to start earlier and run longer than was historically the case.

What fuels a fire and why are the risks rising?

Across the country, bushfire risk is increasing, mainly due to higher daytime temperatures coupled with lower humidity and higher evaporation rates. This is exacerbated by recurring periods of dry conditions and severe droughts which create drier vegetation. The dry vegetation leads to more intense bushfires when it burns.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, severe bushfire conditions are triggered by a range of weather systems. The most severe weather systems tend to be those that draw hot and dry winds from central Australia across the forested parts of Australia.

The dry summer months leading into autumn are the times of greatest bushfire danger for southern Australia, while northern Australia is most at risk during winter and spring. For New South Wales and Queensland, the greatest danger occurs after a dry winter, with the highest bushfire risks extending through spring and the hot summer period.

Bushfire seasons are getting longer and outbreaks of severe bushfire weather are becoming more frequent. The risk is increasing at different rates across the country. But the underlying trend in most parts of Australia is an overall increased risk of extreme bushfires in the future.

These predictions are a warning sign for farmers. Understanding your bushfire risk will help you make the right decisions to improve your property’s bushfire resilience, reduce the risks across your property, and make sure you’re prepared for a bushfire well ahead of an outbreak. 

2021 predictions and future trends

Parts of Western Australia and New South Wales are susceptible to a faster increase in bushfire risk mainly because of persistently hotter and drier weather caused by winter frontal systems shifting southwards, increasing the frequency of drier winters in the lead up to the fire season. For many parts of Queensland the increased heat, coupled with recurring El Niños, can lead to longer periods when the conditions are conducive to severe outbreaks of bushfires.

The Bureau of Meteorology has released the seasonal climate forecast for June to September 2021, and although it’s set to be a wetter winter through large parts of central Australia and inland New South Wales, the west coast of Western Australia, Tasmania and the south of South Australia and Victoria are expected to be hotter than normal.

Preparing for what’s to come

As we’ve seen in recent times, bushfires can cause significant loss to crops, livestock and infrastructure such as machinery and fences. It is not just blazing fires that cause physical damage. Smoke from bushfires can taint and damage fruit and vegetable crops - wine grapes are particularly vulnerable. Persistently smoky conditions also pose a serious health risk.

Higher frequencies of grass fires are another growing threat. Because farms have large areas of land used for broadacre cropping, grass fires can threaten a farmer’s property and livelihood very quickly, and even the most seasoned farmer can get caught out by the speed of approach of out of control fires.

Prevention is key. In the lead up to bushfire season, the Rural Fire Service suggests you mow, graze or plough around crops, valuable assets and fence lines to prevent fire entering your property and making its way onto neighboring properties. Two heads are better than one, so why not team up with your neighbours to construct the most effective firebreaks and fire control strategies for your farms.

If you do find yourself affected by a bushfire or extreme weather event, you may be eligible for support services from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment who are working across government to provide support such as grants and rural financial counsellors.

In the event of a bushfire ensure the wellbeing of your family comes first. Stay calm, call 000, comply with emergency services and take the appropriate steps to keep everyone safe.

About Bruce

Bruce is the Principal Research Analyst for Climate at Insurance Australia Group (IAG), Australia’s largest general insurer and operator of some of Australia’s leading insurance brands including WFI and NRMA insurance. With over 40 years’ experience, Bruce provides a wide range of technical advice on all aspects of meteorology and climate change. He is an expert in the field, holding a PHD in Mathematics (Numerical Weather Prediction) from the University of New South Wales. Bruce is passionate about encouraging actions to combat the adverse effects of climate change and remains actively involved in initiatives from the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

Connect with Bruce on LinkedIn.

About WFI

WFI has been insuring Australians since 1919. It is a leading rural, business and strata insurer with more than 150 local area managers situated across Australia.

For more than 100 years, WFI has been there for its clients, providing support and assistance when they’ve needed it the most.

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Rural Bank is a division of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank Limited ABN 11 068 049 178 AFSL 237879. Bendigo and Adelaide Bank have a referral relationship with Insurance Australia Limited ABN 11 000 016 722 AFSL 227681 trading as WFI, and if you acquire a product issued by WFI, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank may receive commission payments. In relation to the referral arrangement, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank may receive incentives associated with the volume of total business written and quality of referrals to WFI.

By Bruce Buckley, Principal Climate Research Analyst at WFI.