Large areas of southern Australia at higher risk of bushfires this summer
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Bushfire researchers say vast swathes of Australia face above average chances of grass fires and bushfires this summer, after months of above average temperatures.
The Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre has released its seasonal bushfire outlook for the south of the country.
It found recent warm weather, coupled with generous rainfalls has led to a build up of dry fuel in grasslands and forests.
The last 12 months have been the warmest on record, according to the weather bureau, and most states recorded their warmest winter since records began.
Large parts of southern Australia, especially along the east and west coasts extending inland, face above normal fire potential this fire season.
However, fire authorities said the at-risk area is not as extensive as last season, when the danger zone extended right across the south of the country.
The risk of fire is above average throughout Victoria’s heartland and in the east, including east Gippsland.
“Forests are expected to be more flammable than normal due to the lingering effect of last summer’s extreme dryness and heat,” Bushfire CRC’s outlook said.
“Strong drying of soils and fuels has also commenced in east Gippsland, which may result in early bushfire activity if this trend continues.”
Fire authorities say spring rainfall patterns will dictate the severity of the fire risk and grass growth is being closely monitored.
“Certainly western, central and north-east Victoria would appear at this stage to be the highest risk areas,” said Victoria’s Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley.
“We have got areas that are forested and grassland environments that will be significantly impacted by the spring rains which will see growth and which brings additional grass in the grasslands that will dry out.
“The summer months are the critical periods for Victorians to be focused on fire.”
A normal fire season is expected in the Mallee, west and south Gippsland and coastal parts of south-west Victoria.
New South Wales
With the exception of north-eastern coastal areas and the far west, NSW is expecting above average bushfire conditions this season.
Above average rainfall over the past three years has led to a build up of grass fuel across parts of the state.
The Rural Fire Service says it has already had to deal with a significant number of bushfires after one of the state’s warmest winters on record.
The areas of most concern include the Tablelands, the Upper Hunter and west of the Great Dividing Range.
Forested areas on the central and southern NSW coast and ranges have been drying out due to below average rainfall since July.
“The areas around Tamworth and Taree and the Upper Hunter, as well as some parts of the southern part of the state around Shoalhaven, have brought forward the bushfire danger commencement to the beginning of September so obviously they’re seeing an increase in fire activity already,” said RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers.
“If you have a prolonged period of warming it tends to dry out the fuels more and it makes the fuels more readily burn.
“Fires take hold quicker and obviously it’s more difficult then for brigades to suppress.
“Particularly if there’s some of those extreme temperature days like we saw in the last summer, where we saw some records broken in temperature, that’s obviously of concern to us too, particularly if it’s very dry.”
The far north coast and north coast are also at a higher risk of fire. But the risk could be eased if there is above average rainfall.
Normal fire conditions are likely in the far west of the state.
Above normal fire potential is predicted in the North West Pastoral and Flinders districts due to abundant rain and the growth of grass fuels.
The rest of the state, including the agricultural areas, can expect normal levels of fire activity.
The Bushfire CRC outlook raises concerns about adequate fire-fighting resources in SA.
“The North West Pastoral and Flinders districts may pose resourcing issues this fire season, as was experienced in the North West Pastoral district last season, where firefighters and aircraft were committed for lengthy periods,” it said.
Normal fire activity is expected across Tasmania this season, but small areas in the Derwent Valley and the mid-east coast are currently drier than usual.
Most of the state has experienced average or above average soil moisture, reducing fire activity for the moment.
But it also provides ideal conditions for growth, which may be a trigger for large fires in the new year if it dries out.
Fire ecologist Professor David Bowman, from the University of Tasmania, says people need to stay alert.
“If we had heatwaves like we saw last summer in Tasmania we can have very quickly evolving fire weather conditions which go from fairly benign to quite extreme,” he said.
“I would urge everybody who that’s in bushland settings to be very, very conscious of bushfires.”
He said fuel management is a critical tool, but not the only tool.
“As we’re going into a warmer world we will be looking at other options that will be probably more targetted vegetation management, clearing, creating safer spaces around houses, maybe changing the vegetation types, changing the vegetation types, changing the sorts of houses we have,” he said.
High rainfall across the mid west and desert regions has led to high rate of grass growth and high fuel loads, and consequently, above average fire potential.
Above normal bushfire potential is also forecast in the south west.
A normal fire season is expected for the Wheatbelt, the Nullarbor, east of the Fraser Range.
An above normal fire potential has been predicted for areas between Dalby and Warwick, south to the NSW border and west to Goondiwindi.
Also at a heightened risk is the area to the west between Wallumbilla and Dulacca, south to St George and an area extending from the Sunshine Coast hinterland, into the western areas of the Wide Bay Burnett region.
Despite large-scale fires in the northern and western areas of Queensland during the last fire season, there are still vast areas with moderate to abundant grassland fuels and low stock levels that could experience large-scale, fast-running grass fires.
The seasonal outlook for the north of Australia is released mid-year, ahead of the dry season.
This includes the Northern Territory, as well as northern Western Australia and northern Queensland.