Fast-moving and potentially deadly grassfires are the primary threat this bushfire season, with parts of southern Australia carrying dangerous fuel loads as the summer heat intensifies.
A thick carpet of vegetation has spread across parts of the south after Australia's second wettest winter on record, followed a wet September that broke records in parts of NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland.
A hotter- and drier-than-average December is expected to rapidly dry out that blush of green leaving plenty to burn when fires take hold over the summer.
Every state and the ACT is at increased risk of grassfires, with the fire-prone states of Victoria and NSW at particular risk, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre warns in its latest update.
The centre's CEO Dr Richard Thornton says complacency could prove deadly this fire season, and the danger grassfires pose must not be underestimated.
"People associate bushfires with images they see on TV, of forests burning, but the critical thing about the grassfires we're likely to see this year is that they can be very intense," he told reporters on Wednesday.
"They move very quickly and they can start very easily from something as innocuous as a farmer doing some work in the field, or a person parking a car with a hot exhaust in some grassy areas."
Dr Thornton cited the devastating grassfires that hit South Australia's Eyre Peninsula in 2005, killing nine people, and destroying more than 200 buildings and 30,000 head of livestock.
Most died in their cars as they tried to outrun the fire.
"On the really bad fire-danger days, with very high winds and very hot conditions, we expect fires to move very rapidly," Dr Thornton warned.
He said research has shown that while Australians understand this is a country prone to summer fires, they "don't extrapolate that, necessarily, to it being a risk for themselves".
"We've seen that in interviews with residents, post-fire events, when we asked them about their risk perceptions," Dr Thornton said.
"We're still finding people don't have adequate bushfire plans, they haven't practised those plans, they haven't written them down. And, importantly, they don't have fall back positions so that if the first plan doesn't work, what do they do next?"
Authorities are trying different strategies this year, in a bid to ward off a repeat of the Eyre Peninsula tragedy and the tendency of people to have an inflated sense of their ability to defend their homes from a major fire.
The new message is that the best place to be during a bushfire is somewhere else.
He said Australians in country areas also needed to understand that they may be the first to stumble across a grassfire, and that any warnings that are being broadcast might be out of date.
Dr Andrew Watkins, who heads the Bureau of Meteorology's Climate Monitoring and Prediction unit, says there's also an increased risk of heatwaves this summer.
In fact, one that could generate temperatures in excess of 40C is expected to affect southern Queensland and parts of NSW from the first official day of summer on Thursday.
"The risk of heatwaves is up, particularly for the December period," Dr Watkins told reporters.
"And that's because our weather systems are a bit further north, and they will be dragging air across the continent into eastern Australia."
FIRE RISKS THIS SUMMER, BY STATE:
- Above normal fire risk for most of the state
- West and South Gippsland possible hot spots for forest and grass fires
- Above normal fire risk in central and southern border regions
- Above average temperatures expected to increase danger as prolific grass growth dries out
- Above normal fire risk for the southeast of the state
- Drier and hotter than average December expected
- Normal fire risk expected across most of the state
- Above normal risk for parts of Upper South East, Murraylands and Riverland regions
- Normal fire risk expected in Gascoyne, Murchison, Goldfields, Central West and Desert regions
- Above normal risk level in Western Pilbara, Eucla, and South West regions
- Normal or below normal fire risk
- But dry conditions could change that in grassland areas from February
- Bushfire update did not include NT