The hearings in the bushfire royal commission begin today, at 10am. I'll be covering for @GuardianAus, you can watch the public hearings live here: 
Royal commission chairman, retired air chief marshal Mark Binskin, opens the hearings. He says the royal commission has visited many of the communities affected by bushfires. He says the ongoing effects of bushfires have been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Binskin says commissioners are working to a short timeline so the recommendations can be used for next season.

"The commissioners and I are acutely aware of the inevitability of the next bushfire season."
Binskin says all witnesses will give evidence by video link, or pre-prepared video statement. Only essential personnel will be in the hearing room.
Senior council assisting Dominique Hogan-Doran says recovery efforts for the bushfire have been "slowed and fragmented" and preparation for the coming system have been "interrupted because of the bushfire pandemic.
The bushfire royal commission has received 1,700 submissions. In April, it was just 400.

Fifty witnesses will give evidence over the next two weeks.
Hogan-Doran says that as of Friday, 73 notices to produce documents had been answered and 159 had been acknowledged.

More than 16,000 documents have been received to date, amounting to more than 200,000 pages.
State and territory governments were granted substantial extensions, because of Covid-19.

"The delay in the production schedule has influenced our choice and sequences for public hearings."
This week's hearings are on climate change. Witnesses today are from the CSIRO, BOM, and Geosciences Australia.
The first witness is Dr Karl Braganza from the Bureau of Meteorology. There are eight witnesses listed for today (seven witness blocks, but one is two people)
There will be powerpoint presentations.
Love a powerpoint.
We're looking at a satellite loop of smoke from the East Gippsland fires.
Ah, signal lost.
And we're back, without sound.
Sound back!

This presentation is not really news to anyone who has been paying attention to any of the climate change reports out in the past... 20 years.
Worth reiterating: Braganza just said BOM often gets "months notice" of expected bushfire season conditions.

We know this; a report is published in Sept/Oct each year.

But if you didn't know this: we know from late winter/early Spring how bad the fires will be.
Baganza, obliquely referring to people saying that Australia has always had droughts/fires/floods: "Natural climate variability is large in Australia. For us to see trends they need to rise above that background noise."
There were two weather drivers leading into the 2019-20 summer, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole and Negative Southern Annular Mode. First created drier winter and spring in S/E QLd, SA, NSW, Vic, Tas from May-December. Second created above av temp and below av rainfall in NSW/QLD.
We're going through a lot of temperature maps.

First is a graph showing the number of days that were in the 99th percentile for national daily temperatures. 2013 recorded 27 such days; 2019 43.

"It took several decades to accumulate just what we saw in 2013, for example."
Australia's average temperature has risen 1.4 to 1.5 degrees in the past 100 years.
In December 2019, Australia recorded a lot of temperatures that were in the 90th percentile or highest on record.

We were also in drought. By December 2019 some areas of the east coast were rainfall deficient by up to 600mm. Those areas correspond with bushfire areas.
He's now explaining the MacArthur Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI).

Calculated on temperature, wind speed, relative humidity, and the drought factor (measuring fuel availability, based on soil moisture deficit. often the Keetch-Byram Drought Index.)
The fire danger rating (that protractor of death going from low/moderate to code red or extreme) is largely based on FFDI, with other factors like firefighting resources and localised conditions included.
This slide is called "droughts are getting hotter".

Braganza says we are increasing temperature independent of rainfall. That gives "a little bit of an extra push to the extreme events."

2019 was the hottest and driest year on record, and in NSW 2018 was "not far behind".
Braganza said a decrease in relative humidity has been recorded globally in environments similar to Australia.
"This isn't a one-off event that we're looking at here. Really since the Canberra 2003 fires every jurisdiction in Australia have seen some really difficult fire events that have really challenged how we deal with them and challenged what we think of fire weather."
He says fire events are increasing - the frequency of fire events in the 21st century is higher than in the 19th or 20th.
Unsurprisingly, the fire season is extending the most in heavily forested areas - areas with lots of fuel that are used to having more rainfall and now have less. Areas that are used to being dry (arid, desert areas) haven't seen the same kind of increase.
Ah, this is a depressing graph. Looking at the start of fire season, which is the earliest day after 30 June with an FFDI of over 25.

It used to be in mid/late November in 1950s in both NSW and Vic, but it has moved back three months to August.
We had record high fire danger nationally in December 2019.
Some of the areas that burned in Black Saturday had their highest every fire danger day on record in December 2019.

Astonishing more people didn't die.
So we had rainfall deficiencies for three years leading into the summer bushfires, and an INTENSE period of no rainfall from July to December.

The temperature map for 28 December in Vic/NSW is red with a patch of brown around Mallacoota/Eden/Cobargo
Braganza says we do not need the really hot weather on the day of the fires, even though that happened on Black Saturday. The south coast/Mallacoota fires kicked off on NYE/NYD - two/three days after the heat spike.
So, in summary, we are having a longer fire season, arriving earlier in spring; accompanied by more extreme heatwaves inc hot overnight temps; lower winter rainfall s/e and s/w; hotter drought periods; and more fire thunderstorms.
Brazanga is now showing a graph showing future climate predictions, one with a business as usual emissions production and one with emissions reductions.

Business as usual - about 5C increase by 2100.
Ah there is a lot of brown on these heat maps. (Brown is over 46C)
Dark brown is over 48C. The modelling of a future climate scenario for a heat wave similar to the Black Saturday heatwave, on 1-14 January 2020, has a big patch of dark brown above western NSW, NW Vic, Central SA and Central NT.
Binskin has a question. How did the advice provided by BOM and other bodies on the fire season match up with the fire season that we actually got?

Braganza: "This really played out the way our forecast models both in climate and weather suggested they would."
Commissioner Dr Annabelle Bennett would like a five-year climate prediction.

Braganza says it's difficult to predict more than nine months to a year out.

Excitingly, he says they're predicting a wetter season this year.
Braganza says that the longer-term climate projections (like the 2050 projection) is not a prediction, so that modelling is not super useful on a shorter timeframe. It's just showing the kind of thing that could occur and the kind of conditions that are possible.
Bennett is basically asking if BOM can provide info about the likelihood of an extreme fire event in the next year or two.

Braganza says rain conditions so far suggest "neutral or slightly wetter conditions" than last year. But he says they'll be watching spring rainfall closely
Commissioner Prof Andrew Macintosh wants to know when the fire season in south coast NSW is ending. Graph showed the earliest FFDI 25+ days were July or August.

Braganza says generally the season is a month longer - extending a month into autumn. So pushing into April.
Bennett again. She has questions about wind predictability during the fire season, coming off reports during the fire season of wind being unpredictable. (Not sure if she's talking convection columns, or?)

Braganza says topography, firestorms, etc can mess with wind predictions.
That concludes Braganza's evidence. The commission is taking it's mid-morning break and I am making a new cup of coffee.
Alright, next two witnesses are
Dr Helen Cleugh and Dr Michael Grose from the CSIRO.

They also have a powerpoint presentation.
Cleugh gets in early with a "climate is not weather" reminder.
Our old friends the climate drivers are back. Keep these acronyms in mind.

El Nino-Southern Oscilation (ENSO)
Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD)
Southern Annular Mode (SAM)
This is a horrible simplification and apologise to all meteorologists but here is my extremely basic summary of these drivers for the layfolk at home:

El Nino, IOD+, SAM- : fires

La Nina, IOD- SAM+ : floods
Cleugh: "Climate change means that the past is no longer a guide to future impacts and risks."
Cleugh is now explaining what scientists mean when they say they have a "very high confidence" in something occurring. It means there's a 9 out of 10 chance of it occurring.
So, she says, a statement like Australia will experience higher temperatures over the next 100 years due to climate change is a very high confidence statement.
The CSIRO have been doing long-term regional climate predictions since 1992, which Cleugh says means they can check their work.

"The observed climate over the last 10 years or more is very consistent with what was being prescribed in those projections."
[So: we knew this was happening, the CSIRO modelled it and their modelling has been proved accurate.

Just extrapolating here: that means the modelling being done now about the next 30 years is probably also accurate. Not alarmist.]
Cleugh: "Climate change is adding to Australia's natural climate variability."
These curves are not flattening.
Australia will "continue to warm substantially throughout the 21st century".

"That is a very high confidence statement."

So: nine out of 10 chance.
[I know it's more than 9/10 I'm just calling back to Cleugh's explanation of what very high confidence/high confidence statements mean, don't @ me]
The graphs which are flattening or trending down are for rainfall.
Again if you want this climate information in detail you can watch here: 
Just a note on when they talk about the extended bushfire season. The measure is a day with an FFDI of 25 or above. On the fire danger rating colour wheel, that's "very high". The yellow wedge.
We're now being shown a projection for sea level rise in Sydney.

"Rising sea levels are already and will continue to pose a threat to coastal communities... by amplifying the threat of coastal inundation and coastal sea surge."
Past 2100, sea level rise predictions "critically depend" on greenhouse gas emissions from now over the next few decades.
Binskin asks if Cleugh's summary basically means that even if we drastically reduce emissions from tomorrow, we will still expect worsening extreme weather events over the next few years.

Cleugh: "Some of this is locked in, yes." But she says there can be some "amelioration".
The royal commission seems particularly focused on what is going to happen in the next few years, really within the next decade. It's less interested in longer-term forecasts.
Commissioner Bennett asks another question about wind. She wants to know what can be predicted from the SAM about winds in the next few years.

SAM affects the latitude and strength of the westerly wind belt across Australia, contributing to bushfire conditions.
Leesa Carson from Geoscience Australia is up now.
Leesa Carson is the branch head of community safety at Geoscience Australia. Her speciality is on disaster risk reduction.
I'm always interested in the split between oath and affirmation in legal hearings.

Everyone today has chosen an affirmation.

When I cover deaths in custody inquests, it's mainly oaths. I've never seen a police officer choose affirmation over oath.
Anyway. Carson is delivering a presentation on earthquakes and tsunamis in Australia.
Alright, we're back. The next three witnesses are speaking in a panel.

It's Sharanjit Paddam from the Actuaries Institute of Australia, Mark Leplastrier from Insurance Australia, and Dr Ryan Crompton from Risk Frontiers.
Leplastrier is from Insurance Australia Group's natural perils group. He's up first, and the first question is if there's a difference between natural hazards and natural perils.

There isn't. Insurance industry just prefers the word "perils," and why wouldn't you?
He says they are predicting a broadening of cyclone activity. So southwest WA, northern NSW, areas that are just outside current cyclone areas starting to see more cyclones.
Still on tropical cyclones: "What we expect in a warmer world in some of those climate change scenarios is that the intensity will likely occur further south and the intensity is likely to decay less."
Now to hail trends. It's shifting southwards, with a higher frequency of more severe hail.

"You won't find this detail in public literature, typically."

He is talking about "large and giant hail". "We have concentrated on the stuff that damages property."
Leplastrier says the insurance industry is "encouraging feedback from the scientific community" on its hail predictions.
To bushfire risk assessment: a report from Leplastrier tabled in the commission says that bushfire risk is predicted to increase at almost every location nationally.
He writes that bushfire is one of the fastest growing risks in Australia, but there's little information in the literature about trends in extreme and catastrophic bushfire risk which drive most of the property damage.
Dr Ryan Crompton from Risk Frontiers is talking now. He prepared a report for the royal commission.

He writes that the 2019-2020 bushfires are the biggest (in terms of the area burned) since satellite imagery became available in 2000.
The area burned in NSW in 2019-2020 was 4m ha, "nearly three times larger than any previous season" going back to 2000.

The Vic fires were also the largest in size since this satellite imaging became available, but at 1.2m ha is only just bigger than the 2002/03 fires.
In terms of building damage, he says the 2019-2020 summer is expected to be "comparable to the most damaging seasons (if not the most damaging) in Australia since 1925".
We don't know yet because data from earlier seasons includes all building types and data from this summer is pretty much houses only. According to AFAC, it's 3094 houses
Again if we're looking at just NSW, it's "by far the most damaging season". Property loss 2.5x higher than the second most damaging season. In Vic, the damage is "very low relative to other seasons".

Remember Vic had Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday and Black Friday in that period.
There's historically a low rate of comparison between total area burned and amount of property lost.

For example, Victoria lost heaps of property on Black Saturday but the total area burned was not especially large. This summer, Vic had low property loss but a large area burned
"Distance to bushland is demonstrably the most important variable that determines damage from bushfire."

38% of the homes destroyed in the NSW south coast fire were within 1m of bushland. "There was almost no separation whatsoever.

80% were within 100m of bushland.
1km is generally the largest distance between bushland and house, where property damage was recorded.

But in the NSW south coast fires this summer, some properties 1.3km from bushland were damaged.
It's not always the case. In the 2003 Canberra fires, none of the properties destroyed were within 40m of bushland.
"The research does highlight the importance of land use planning in bushfire management."
Crompton has also analysed deaths from bushfires and found the most at-risk groups.

They are:

-Men 60+ who are trying to save their own whom, esp with underlying cardiac issues
- Men 55+ who wait too late to flee
-Men and women 55+ who die in their homes
"Heatwaves are clearly Australia's deadliest natural hazard."

Almost 46% of all deaths from natural hazards, compared to 19% from flood and 10% from bushfires.
Sharanjit Paddam from the Actuaries Institute of Australia is up now. He is asked to explain what an actuary does.

They assess risk, basically.
Commissioner Bennett is asking questions now.

She is asking questions about the insurance council modelling, which used climate data from the US.

"Overseas events, overseas information... does that have any impact on the assessment of risk in Australia?"
Leplastrier is explaining how the insurance industry works. The insurance industry buys insurance capital on global markets, which is affected by global events. But the risk assessments are local.
I think.
Binskin asks whether the insurance lobby takes natural hazard risk data to local governments and tries to get them to change planning to reduce risk.

Leplastrier says they have done that with floods, but says bushfire is "not quite as mature when it comes to the risk framework".
Binskin asks about the impact of state borders on bushfire management. He's looking at a graphic showing bushfire risk for LGAs.

"If I look just east of Albury on the border there, in Victoria we're very high but in NSW it's medium. Now I've seen the Murray, it's not very big."
Crompton says it is because fires are managed on a state-by-state basis so information and risk assessment is not consistent across jurisdictions.

That's an area where the federal government could step in, he says.
The panel is asked what they would change/what data they would want in order to do their jobs better.
Paddam says that bushfires, from an insurance perspective, don't cause that many losses when you consider all losses. "In terms of financial risk, floods and tropical cyclones are far bigger financial risks."
Bennett asks whether the Insurance Australia Group makes all their data available to anyone else.

They do not.

This is after she asked a question of IGA, asking if there was any data they wanted to have access to. (Govt data, local govt, etc).
Crompton says some of the data they collect was only able to be gathered by driving around a bushfire area and going from house to house.
The next and final witness for the day is Prof Sue Townsend, an associate professor at UNSW and Wiradjuri woman, who lost her house on 31 May. She pre-recorded a witness statement in Holbrook before junior counsel assisting Kess Dovey on 11 May.
The royal commission is trying to do a number of these pre-recorded statements to ensure that people who can't travel due to the Covid restrictions, and may not be comfortable giving evidence over zoom, are able to be heard.
God, this is a remarkable story.

Prof Townsend put herself through university at the age of 26, after a traumatic childhood and abusive marriage. Her son had cancer during her undergrad, she had cancer during her postgrad.
They bought a two bedroom worker's cottage about 10km out of Tumbarumba. It backed on to a forest, and had a bitumen road.

They moved in 18 months ago.

They owned a larger block at Wagga and had planned to build there, but couldn't get road access through the forest.
So they decided to extend the 2br cottage. They decided not to insure it until they had built the extensions. They built the materials and were planning to start in January.

It burned down on 31 December.
Townsend says they had not heard much about fires happening locally.

"Almost sillily, I assumed we were safe. Even though on a logical level I knew that we were near the forest, that we were in the bush... it just didn't seem like there was such a threat there."
"Tumbarumba was so wet and green," so it wasn't really on her radar.

She said locals did say there had been fires in the past, and "if a fire came through it would be a big one".
They had gone away for Christmas, went on a 10-day cruise to New Caledonia. They decided they should go away every year. "That's off the table now".

"On the boat, when people found out we were from NSW, they said 'oh the fires' and I said 'no, we're fine'."
They got home at 6pm on 29 December.

"We were just shocked. Everything was dry and it was brown. The leaves on the trees were dry. It was just scorched. The next day we heard there was a fire, the Dunns Rd fire... but we didn't think too much, it was quite a distance away".
"About 11pm on the night of the 30th I said to my husband 'I think we might need to think about these fires', not immediately but over the next few days, and my husband thought I was panicking."
"At 2.30 in the morning we were woken by a knock on the door by the RFS saying that we needed to go... they said it wasn't a question of if it came, it was coming, and we had two hours."
Husband cool and calm. Have a clydesdale who "doesn't like to be floated." They had to walk him out to the end of the road, then leave him in the paddock - they returned for him and walked him out at 3pm the next day, after the front.
By 4.30am, friends came up to help them and she went to stay at their house until 8am, when the RFS told them to evacuate there as well and they went into town.

Her husband and a friend stayed behind to wet down the property until about 11am, when it got too dangerous.
At 11am, Townsend's husband said, there was flame on three sides of the house. "He was very lucky to get out."
A lot of their neighbours left for Albury or Wagga on the 31st, but Sue and her husband stayed until the Friday, 3 January.

"They said they wanted everybody out of Tumbarumba by lunchtime on Friday. They didn't think they would be able to save the town."
They knew, on the afternoon of the 31st, that they'd lost the house. On the 3rd they went to stay with Sue's daughter in Wagga.

They weren't able to get in for a few weeks. Seeing the house again was "really hard," she says. Harder than learning it had burned.
Townsend said they had friends who were affected by the fires and were already on welfare payments. "They went into Centrelink and got a $9 loan."

That's not a typo. $9.
Townsend: "If you didn't go into the Centrelink office and you rang the assistance line, you got help. But people thought it would be easier to do it in person... they were treated appallingly."

Accommodation was only given a couple of days at a time, then you had to reapply.
"There were people on the ground who were trying really hard, but it was bedlam."
She says there was different information in the radio, in other sources. Part of that is about where you are - in Tumbarumba for the first 3 days there was no tv, no internet, no calls.

"You had to have someone tell you if there was a meeting in town."
She says they were knocked back from Red Cross payments because they had no utilities bill.

"Your house is burning down, the last thing you think of grabbing is a utilities bill."

"You have to jump through so many hoops," she said.
They ended up getting $20,000 from the Red Cross.

Local branch of St Vincent de Paul contacted them and gave them $1,000 (that's the govt ERF funding) and then a few weeks later gave them $3,000.
"The government taking over the clean up on the one hand is a blessing and on the other has been an absolute nightmare."

It took 8-10 weeks to learn if they had asbestos on their property, so they couldn't move back in with the caravan they'd bought from the Red Cross funds.
Meetings were often advertised on social media, "so if you're someone who doesn't use social media you don't know about them".
They're in the process of moving back. They have the caravan on site and Sue's husband built a long-drop. But they don't have water, so they need a water tank.
"Once the clean-up's finished, get that in, then look at getting water into that water tank."

This conversation happened on 11 May. At that stage, the clean-up crew had been in Townsend's property for two weeks. They were initially told it would take three days.
She expected the clean-up would be finished that week.

But her husband was scheduled to have surgery on May 20, will be laid low for 6-8 weeks. So realistically, August before they get back there.
Townsend: "It's very expensive being homeless."

They had to replace all their clothes, pay to board animals, etc.

The clydesdale died recently :(

"It's not just your normal living, it's much more expensive to live like this."
In total, they've received $50,000 from various charities and grants.

It's doesn't cover it, Townsend says. "I am very grateful for what we have received... but it hasn't been enough."

There's no info about what's happening, no coordination between services.
"Some of these organisations are large international aid organisations. They should be able to manage this."
"People shouldn't have to, when they are in distress, jump through hoops to get help... we should not have to prove that our house burned down. I have had to prove it at least once a month for the last five months."
Townsend says she feels guilty at asking for charity, and also angry that she has to ask.

"I have worked really hard all my life not to be dependent on anybody else... I've lost everything I've worked for, and it's not just the material things."
"For me not being welfare dependent is a really big thing because I grew up welfare dependent."

It's about "not feeling degraded as I did at the time."

On the day they lost the house, the local cop told them they needed to go and register as being "destitute".
They can't change that fact - they lost their house, but they can change how it's done. Centralise it, coordinate the grants, so people know what's happening and don't have to keep re-applying and re-justifying why they need help.
"Having the virus come in on top of the fire is I think a double whammy because it's isolated us from each other. And even before the virus I was feeling quite isolated."
Townsend is asked about mental health services that were put in place. Those services have been good, but also not really good enough, she says.

"People just don't know how to react and that includes some professional people as well."
"People just don't know whether to leave you alone or to suffocate you."

"In the early days people really wanted to help, both with emotional support and with giving you furniture and things."
"With the furniture it was really just like, what am I going to do with it, I have got nowhere to put it? And even with the emotional support I was just like, get off me I have to keep moving."
But you can't keep moving forward - because it all takes so long. The clean up took too long.

"You can't keep moving forward. There has just been too many things that haven't happened... that you're sitting there in limbo. That's what I really can't deal with."
Townsend says the trauma of the fires compounded her past traumas, and she felt many people in the Wiradjuri community were in a similar position.
A lot of people in the local Aboriginal community are quite poor. They may not have lost their house, but the power was turned off for days — so things went rotten and they had to throw the fridge out. But there's no assistance for that.
Townsend says she anticipates there will be some "friction" between certain areas of the community as the conversation turns from recovery. At the royal commission community meeting in town, people were raising cattle grazing in the high country —  the old fractures coming back.
"Over the next couple of years it's going to be quite a fragile place both emotionally and for relationships between people... I think we are going to have to live through all of that and come out the other side."

Some relationships won't survive that, she says.
Townsend's final thoughts are that the process for getting aid needs to be coordinated and streamlined, and we need to tackle climate change.
You can follow @callapilla.
Tip: mention @twtextapp on a Twitter thread with the keyword “unroll” to get a link to it.

Latest Threads Unrolled: