Australia — Victoria faces its worst bushfire season in more than a decade, and it is likely to come earlier than in previous years, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. The State Government is also warning that parts of the Victorian Alps region are at risk of “catastrophic” or “major” consequences if there is a fire, largely because of nearby townships and infrastructure.
The warnings come as Melbourne faces its driest spring on record, with September-October rainfall just 26 millimetres just two-thirds of the previous record low, set in 1914. The long-term outlook for the rest of the year is also drier than average.
According to the bureau’s 2008-09 Seasonal Bushfire Assessment areas such as the Dandenong Ranges are at increased risk. “Forested areas have the largest risk an early start to the fire season is likely in much of this area,” it says.
“There is a long-term underlying dryness across much of the state that has developed from 12 years of rainfall deficiencies fuel loads indicate that far-east Gippsland and Melbourne’s water catchments are two forested areas with accumulated forest fuels. (These) are areas of particular concern, as are the Otway and Macedon Ranges.”
The report also says that a small region of western Victoria, centred on Little Desert National Park, also has “above-normal fire potential”. It says the heathlands of the park are drought-affected and at risk of burning.
Much of the Victorian Alps are an exception to the fire risk as they were burnt out in 2002/03, according to the assessments of both the Government and the bureau.
But the lead author of the bureau’s paper, Chris Lucas of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre, said that years of chronic rainfall shortage had left the forests in Melbourne’s water catchment areas “ready to burn”.
“Twelve years of drought have done a number on the forests and they are really dry and ready to go,” Dr Lucas said.
He said Victoria was lucky last year “there were a few big fires around but nothing near populated areas” but may not be so fortunate in the future.
“Wind is the most crucial factor. It’s going to be hot in summer and it’s going to be dry, but we get those hot northerlies 40 degrees with a 30km/h wind and it gets really dangerous.”
Dr Lucas said it was hard to compare this year’s bushfire season, which begins this week, with past seasons.
“It’s hard to rank and compare them, it basically comes down to how lucky you are in the end and whether or not you get something to start the fire.”
Dr Lucas blamed a substandard La Nina for Victoria’s dry weather, saying “La Nina was supposed to bring rain and make everything good and it didn’t.”
“La Nina in some ways failed Victoria and didn’t bring what we needed to break the drought (whereas) Queensland got dumped on,” he said.
The chief officer of the Country Fire Authority, Russell Rees, said Victorians were “looking at a very serious season it’s certainly shaping as one of the earliest onsets we’ve had for some time”.
“In terms of forest risk, almost all of the state (is in danger). The south-west of the state is the only part that we’re saying at this point is green and in good nick. The rest is quite variable and it is deteriorating rapidly.”
Mr Rees said it was too late for the state to recover.
“It doesn’t matter what happens with rain. It’s too late. It’s gone it’s too dry to recover. We would need 10 to 12 inches (250 millimetres) of rain.”
He said the Department of Sustainability and Environment’s proscribed burning program had been a success, with this year’s program exceeding the planned area of 130,000 hectares by 18%.
He said the CFA’s strategy would be to “hit fires early” and urge the public to be careful when lighting fires.
“Every big fire was once a small fire,” he said. “We can’t do much about lightning strikes, but after that, the next major causes are men, women and children,” Mr Rees said.