By this time last year we were glued to our ‘Fires Near Me’ App, while anxiously clearing around our homes and setting up make-shift sprinkler systems. Twelve months later we have again experienced the tell-tale smoke hovering over our region, as Kalang residents already combat fires in the valley.
Are we right to be anxious once again, despite higher rainfalls this year? What should we be doing to prepare our properties? We turn to our most qualified ‘fire man’ -Tony Prior, who has been working in fire management roles in the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) for 27 years, the past 10 as Team Leader Fire for the North Coast Branch of NPWS. We interviewed Tony late last year, who predicted the unprecedented fire events that followed to our South. He knows his stuff.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service felt the brunt of public opinion about fire mitigation and management strategies in the wake of last year’s fires. However, as Tony again predicted, the NPWS has been exonerated of any blame for the catastrophic event. The NSW Independent Bushfire Inquiry has found that the worst fires in NSW history were attributable to extreme weather and climate change, not elevated fuel loads.
Let’s hear from the expert……
The Bellingen Shire community are concerned about the number of bushfires we have already encountered this year in the Shire. Are these fires very early for our fire season? What has been the primary cause of these fires?
Fires at this time of year are a common occurrence in the Bellingen Shire. Late Winter and early Spring are generally our driest time of the year in the Bellingen Shire and this combined with the drying effect of the south west and north west winds common during August, help prepare the landscape to carry fire.
Unlike last year when the Bellingen Shire entered Winter with an already extremely dry landscape, this year we have seen better rainfall through the Autumn resulting in higher soil moistures and hence wildfire is easier to contain and less of a threat to communities. So, depending on how dry the forest fuel-soil is (soil moisture deficit) this will determine how the fire will behave. When the right level of soil moisture is present the fire will go out overnight, which is good for planned hazard reduction activities.
Unfortunately, the Bellingen Shire has now moved past this period due the lack of rainfall in recent weeks and fires are now burning through the night. This year in the Shire while still dry, it is not at the extreme levels of last year. This moister landscape combined with the relatively good weather has been providing land managers and landholders with an opportunity to carry out hazard reduction burning. The catch is conditions can also change rapidly at this time of year through the wind events associated with frontal systems. These can regularly occur at this time of year and bring winds and unstable atmosphere resulting in erratic fire behaviour. This can catch people out and fires escape and become wildfires, which need to be put back into containment by authorities.
So, to put it in a nutshell, care and good planning is required. That is why permits are introduced at this time of year by the Rural Fire Service to ensure people are well prepared and have considered the weather, not just on the day but for the days following.
We also have arson at this time of year, which results in wildfires that the fire agencies (including National Parks & Wildlife, Forestry Corp and Rural Fire Service) must respond to and contain. As occurred with the recent Providence Road Fire in the Kalang Valley.
Do you believe the risk of bushfires in the Shire is different from last year and why?
As mentioned previously, the Bellingen Shire has been wetter through Autumn this year, which has set the valley up for less of a fire threat this Spring and early Summer. However, in recent weeks things have dried rapidly and if it continues, we could still see a Spring fire season and more wildfire events. It can also change with a regular rainfall events which are predicted this year.
The predicted outlook from the BOM is for a warmer and wetter Spring and Summer for the North Coast. Eastern Australia entered a La Nina during August, meaning wetter and warmer than average conditions. This will also result in warmer days and nights. It is expected that we could see the most favorable bushfire conditions in NSW since 2011.
The rainfall obtained over the next three weeks will determine the risk from wildfire in the Bellingen Shire, but the predicted outlook is good.
What can the average property owner do to mitigate the risk of damage from bushfire? Is it time to act now?
Yes, all landholders who interface with the forest and remnant bushland should prepare themselves and their home for the fire season.
Firstly, landholders should prepare a Bushfire Plan and then prepare their home. Things such as cleaning your gutters, installing gutter mesh, checking and closing gaps in the homes structure with fine metal mesh to prevent embers entering, cleaning fallen trees and debris within 40 m of your home and slash-mow the grass to construct a defendable space for yourself and fire fighters.
Ensure you have planned where you will go and the triggers for when you will leave. You should know your local refuge or safe-place in an event of a fire. If you plan to defend your property ensure you have a plan, the fire-fighting equipment along with the personal protective equipment to ensure your safety.
Does September 1st mean you now need a fire permit? What does this entail?
Every year in August the National Parks & Wildlife Service, Forestry Corporation and the Rural Fire Service deal with the Fire Permit panic as people think that must burn now or they will not be able to. Fires escape through poor planning and cause issues for fire authorities.
September 1st does mean landholders now need to obtain a Fire Permit from the Rural Fire Service at their Local Fire Control Centre before undertaking any burning or hazard reduction. Due to the current locally dry conditions, all Bellingen Shire residents now require a permit for burning. Permits do not mean no burning, it just ensures you have planned and if required, gotten advice from your local permit officer on how to safely undertake burning.
When burning, pick the right conditions and ensure you look a day or two ahead a larger burn. Plan how you will undertake it. For example, have a mineral break around the area to be burnt. If you cannot have this then a water source and the ability to apply it if required to ensure you can contain or put out if required. Take care in lighting by introducing fire in stages.
So plan your burn with the weather outlook, talk to the Rural Fire Service, get a permit and advise your neighbours. Doing this will help you carry out your burning successfully and not cause problems for others.