Australia Bushfires Arrive Early, Destroying Historic Lodge in ‘Omen’ of Future

SYDNEY, Australia — The conservationists who built the secluded Binna Burra Lodge in Australia’s lush mountains more than 80 years ago hoped to protect and share the natural beauty of the surrounding rainforest.

But over the weekend, a bushfire destroyed the beloved getaway, one of Australia’s oldest nature resorts — drawing tears from neighbors and alarm from officials who warned that climate change and drought threatened to bring Australia its worst fire season on record.

“This is an omen, if you will,” said Andrew Sturgess, who is in charge of fire prediction for the state of Queensland, where the lodge had stood in Lamington National Park.

What is happening now “is a historic event,” he said at a news conference. “Fire weather has never been as severe this early in spring.”

Experts and some state officials, agreeing with that dire assessment, have been quick to identify climate change as a major cause — a controversial argument for some people here in a country that is heavily reliant on the coal industry, with a conservative government that has resisted making climate policy a priority.

But the recent flames spreading not just through the country’s dry middle but also into its rainforests are one of many data points that make the patterns and problems undeniable.

Fire season itself has become nearly a year-round trial, according to fire officials. Independent studies have also shown that the number of hot days in Australia has doubled in the past 50 years, while heatwaves have become hotter and longer. Extreme weather events, such as flooding and cyclones, have intensified in frequency and strength, as well.

“We’re seeing records breaking left and right,” said Robert Glasser, a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the former head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

“This isn’t the new normal,” he added. “We’re going to see much worse — the pace of the change is going to accelerate.”

Joëlle Gergis, a climate scientist and writer at the Australian National University, warned that Australia’s experience “is a sign of things to come.”

She said she was especially alarmed by the losses near the Binna Burra in the Gold Coast hinterland.

“It is devastating to see these usually cool and wet rainforests burn,” she said. “Although these remarkable rainforests have clung on since the age of the dinosaurs, searing heat and lower rainfall is starting to see these wet areas dry out for longer periods of the year, increasing bushfire risk in these precious ecosystems.”

Some experts believe an especially horrific fire season could be enough to push Australia to make climate policy more of a priority, at least in terms of planning for climate disasters.

In a radio interview Saturday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised continuing support for the affected areas and he said the federal government has been adding resources to help.

But already, the current fire season is straining firefighters and raising questions about whether Australia has the equipment and capacity to handle such extreme events.

On Monday, fire officials in Queensland and New South Wales identified dozens of bushfires still burning across both states.

Hundreds of firefighters are combating the blazes, and at least 20 structures have been destroyed over the past three days, including the Binna Burra Lodge. A volunteer firefighter was critically injured on Friday with burns to his hands, arms, legs, back and face.

And conditions do not seem likely to improve: Roughly 65 percent of Queensland and 98 percent of New South Wales is currently affected by drought, Ms. Gergis said, and meteorologists are predicting dry windy weather for the next few days, which threatens to spread the fires far and wide.

“It hurts many people of different generations, we all feel the pain,” said Steven Noakes, the chairman of the Binna Burra Lodge. Though his house was still intact, he said, many of his neighbors had lost their homes to the blaze and more destruction was expected.

“It’s a devastating impact and it generates a range of emotions,” he said. “It’s difficult.”