The 2019/2020 mega-fires exposed Australian ecosystems to an unprecedented extent of high-severity fire

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Environmental Research Letters


Extreme fire seasons characterised by very large 'mega-fires' have demonstrably increased area burnt across forested regions globally. However, the effect of extreme fire seasons on fire severity, a measure of fire impacts on ecosystems, remains unclear. Very large wildfires burnt an unprecedented area of temperate forest, woodland and shrubland across south-eastern Australia in 2019/2020, providing an opportunity to examine the impact of extreme fires on fire severity patterns. We developed an atlas of wildfire severity across south-eastern Australia between 1988 and 2020 to test (a) whether the 2019/2020 fire season was more severe than previous fire seasons, and (b) if the proportion of high-severity fire within the burn extent (HSp) increases with wildfire size and annual area burnt. We demonstrate that the 2019/2020 wildfires in south-eastern Australia were generally greater in extent but not proportionally more severe than previous fires, owing to constant scaling between HSp and annual fire extent across the dominant dry-forest communities. However, HSp did increase with increasing annual fire extent across wet-forests and the less-common rainforest and woodland communities. The absolute area of high-severity fire in 2019/2020 (∼1.8 M ha) was larger than previously seen, accounting for ∼44% of the area burnt by high-severity fire over the past 33 years. Our results demonstrate that extreme fire seasons are a rare but defining feature of fire regimes across forested regions, owing to the disproportionate influence of mega-fires on area burnt.

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