Firefighters brace for bad weekend in Victoria

Firefighters brace for bad weekend inVictoria

7 December 2006

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Australia — This is a transcript from PM, Reporter: Daniel Hoare

MARK COLVIN: As an enormous firefront continues its marchacross Victoria’s north-east, firefighters are bracing for a weekend that somepredict could prove worse than the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983.

Thirty-five separate fires are burning in Victoria’s Alpine region. Fireauthorities predict that they’ll merge into one monster firefront that couldburn out up to 600,000 hectares.

Temperatures are expected to reach the high 30s at the weekend. Two thousandfirefighters are working around the clock. The army has supplied tankers andbulldozers to help the cause, and a team of New Zealand firefighters has alsoflown in.

Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner, Bruce Esplin, has told PMthat firefighters are as prepared as they can be for this weekend.

Daniel Hoare reports.

DANIEL HOARE: The extent of the firefront in Victoria’ s north-east can be seenon a map provided by the State’s emergency services.

The areas at risk of bushfire damage take in a sizable chunk of that map, andauthorities know it’s an ominous sign.

They’ve never before been confronted with a potential firefront on such a largescale, so they’re drawing on all the resources they can muster.

2,000 firefighters are battling the series of blazes, and extra help in the formof 40 firefighters from New Zealand will arrive tonight.

Difficult terrain and road conditions are making it hard to co-ordinate theeffort, so army tankers and crews are helping provide fuel for firefightingtrucks and equipment.

Up to 50 fires have burnt through 90,000 hectares after being sparked bylightning late last week.

The Federal Government has offered to provide any assistance it can to helpfight the fires, which the Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, warns could get alot worse in the coming days.

STEVE BRACKS: We’re throwing everything we can at this fire. We’ve got moreaerial firefighting equipment than we’ve ever had. We’ve got more firefighterson the ground, something like 2,000 firefighters are on the ground.

We’re also keeping a large number of firefighters in reserve in other parts ofthe State because obviously with these conditions, as well as this firefront,there could be other fires that break out, and we want to make sure we’ve got acapacity to deal with it.

So, it’s going to be a very tense weekend in Victoria this weekend, and I thinkwe’re all on our toes just waiting to see what happens and making sure we’re asbest prepared as we can be.

DANIEL HOARE: Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner, Bruce Esplin, says thecurrent fires pose an unprecedented challenge for firefighters, and he’s in nodoubt, he says, as to why that’s the case.

BRUCE ESPLIN: I think it is occurring because of climate change. I think thatafter 10 years of drought, the fuel conditions are just so extremely dry.

Fire is just, fire behaviour is almost unprecedented. I spend a good percentageof my time out in the bush talking to people, understanding their views aboutthe fire service they’re getting, and a lot of the people I talk to, bothfirefighters, public land managers, and farmers, is that they have notexperienced some of the fire behaviour that they’ve seen last summer and they’reseeing already this summer.

DANIEL HOARE: When you say a different type of “fire behaviour”, canyou tell me a little bit about what you mean there?

BRUCE ESPLIN: Very active and aggressive fire at night when sometimes … andusually you would hope that a lower, a higher humidity at night-time wouldreduce fire behaviour, so that’s not occurring. Sometimes fires are actuallyworse at night. Extreme flame heights caused by just the lack of moisture in thefuel and the vegetation.

DANIEL HOARE: There are comparisons being made to Ash Wednesday bushfires of1983, do you agree with those comparisons?

BRUCE ESPLIN: I do. I think the climatic conditions are fairly similar, so Iagree to the extent of climatic conditions.

DANIEL HOARE: Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner, Bruce Esplin, warns itcould be a very busy summer, not only for Victoria’s firefighters, but for theircounterparts right across the country.

BRUCE ESPLIN: We’re only at the start of December and we’ve got this fire now.Generally, the really extreme fires in Victoria’s history come after Christmas.

MARK COLVIN: Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner, Bruce Esplin, endingthat report from Daniel Hoare.

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