A Townsville expert tells his audience about what the city could look like if climate change keeps getting hotter

Local communities living in the middle of Australia’s bushfire season have heard a message about how it can rapidly get worse if climate change continues.

The Australasian College of Fire Officers held its annual general meeting in Townsville on Tuesday, drawing attention to extreme conditions.

The college received a presentation on the looming fire season from a local ecologist, Ainsley Pearson, who said it was a “rapid change” for Australia, adding: “Everything is likely to get worse.”

Dr Pearson said areas with small populations tend to get less media coverage, but that the average temperature in Townsville had increased by around 1C in the past 50 years. The extreme heat, combined with dry conditions and a lack of rainfall, meant forests were drying out and fires would tend to spread quickly across growing areas.

“Areas of the countryside that are now seeing bushfires are likely to see them much, much earlier in the year,” he said.

Temperatures in Townsville are due to hit 37C, the maximum the city has recorded during the last nine months. The Tasmanian fires of 2012 were set alight in February, the hottest on record, and a similar pattern is likely to occur this year, Pearson said.

“You’re going to see fires get out of control if we see this weather pattern,” he said.

Townsville is well aware of the threat, and its mayor says the city is making preparations for an ever-deteriorating climate.

Penny Hallett said the council had earmarked $4.6m this year for bushfire preparedness, and that the recent bushfires had brought home the importance of it.

“We’re being forced to look to Queensland’s future to adapt to climate change,” she said.

Hallett said that in most of the electorate, on average, there would be at least one fire a year, but that if citywide population growth was taken into account, there could be an average of five fires a year.

She said the council has increased plans for vegetation management in areas where bushfires are likely to develop, particularly around train stations.

“We’re particularly aware, and we’re really conscious of the fact that the average temperature across the city, up to 1600 metres and up, is going to get significantly hotter, and that is going to be a pretty significant fire risk in the city,” she said.

The council and the Department of Natural Resources are currently in the early stages of planning for the release of an area south of the cities, along the coastline from Gladstone to the north of Bundaberg, that is likely to see a similar issue to last year’s bushfires.

Pearson, a QUT research ecologist, said burning of vegetation to create fuel for fires was now the biggest cause of urban fires, which he found “alarming”.

“As we see bushfires on the coast, we need to get real about the disaster area up that coast and start thinking about how to reduce the risk of fires up that coast and not fragment urban areas,” he said.