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MARK COLVIN: If you thought last summer was bad for bushfires, prepare for another as bad or even worse.The onset of El Nino means authorities are predicting a severe summer bushfire season right across the continent.New South Wales started its bushfire alert season two months early, on August the first, and South Australia now looks set to follow.
Nance Haxton reports.
NANCE HAXTON: It’s a weather pattern that hasn’t been seen in such ferocity for 20 years. Almost the entire landmass of Australia is experiencing below average rainfall, causing fire fighters to brace for an extreme fire season, before summer has even begun.Queensland’s south-west is in the midst of an extreme fire warning, while Western Australia and Tasmania have ground fuel problems caused by unusually light rain throughout winter making vegetation cure faster than usual.Rarely heard of winter fires have already destroyed 7,000 hectares of land in New South Wales, resulting in the state taking the unprecedented move of declaring its bushfire season early.Cameron Wade from the Rural Fire Service says they are preparing for the worst.
CAMERON WADE: Vegetation is just so dry and the ground fuels are increasingly drier than what they have been over the last few months, or even last year. They’re drier, much drier now than they were last year and so as I said, all it’s going to take is a fire in those fuel conditions with some strong winds and we’ll be in for quite a troublesome fire season.
NANCE HAXTON: Almost a million hectares have been consumed by fire in the past week alone in South Australia’s remote far north at Mount Kenmore, Sentine Hill near the Northern Territory border, and near Mintabie on the Pitjantjatjara Lands.While no property or lives have been threatened yet, head of the regional fire fighting operation, Kevin May says they fear these fires are just the beginning of a dangerous summer which could lead to fires of a similar scale to Ash Wednesday 20 years ago.
KEVIN MAY: Yesterday afternoon these fires actually jumped seven and eight grader width marks on the ground. That’s how strong the wind was out there.
NANCE HAXTON: Is this one of the worst bushfire seasons that you’ve seen coming up?
KEVIN MAY: I’ve been around while and I think the potential is there for it to deteriorate into a bad season. Weve had very, very little rain in the fair part of South Australia and we’re getting winds at the moment, especially at Port Augusta here at the moment, about four to six weeks early blowing in from the north north-west, quite strong and pretty drying at the moment.
NANCE HAXTON: Long range climate forecaster, Dr Roger Stone, says it is extremely unusual to see such dry conditions throughout the country at once. He says with El Nino weather patterns traditionally not ending until the following autumn, there is no relief in sight.
DR ROGER STONE: It is very unusual, even within an El Nino year, to see the lack of rainfall so widespread across the whole country. There are a few patches that have had some relief rain, parts of eastern Queensland, parts of western Tasmania, but there’s not too much around you’d have to say.Certainly so far with this El Nino pattern the lack of rainfall has been obvious, not only in the usual parts of eastern Australia, but across almost the whole country.
NANCE HAXTON: The Victorian Country Fire Authority is hoping that rather than causing alarm, the current weather conditions will prompt people into action.
Chief officer Russell Rees.
RUSSELL REES: It is not just a case of the fire brigade being prepared. It is also a case that the community needs to prepare. This is a community responsibility to prevent fires and to take care with fire, and we need to understand that losses will occur unless people, and not just the fire brigade, take action now.
MARK COLVIN: The chief officer of the Victorian Country Fire Authority Russell Rees with Nance Haxton.