Victoria fears fires will be worse than Black Saturday

Victoria fears fires will be worse than Black Saturday

15 September 2009

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Australia — Southern Australia is bracing for a potentially devastating bushfire season after an exceptionally dry winter that left much of the country with dangerous fuel loads.

Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre head Gary Morgan said yesterday their fourth annual assessment of bushfire risk had found that all signs indicated a bad fire season was highly likely.

Mr Morgan said this summer looked worse than the last, with all of Victoria at risk, along with southern and eastern South Australia, southern and western NSW, southwest Queensland and most of southwest Western Australia.

Only Tasmania, which enjoyed a very wet winter, looks like being spared.

Mr Morgan said Victoria faced an early start to the fire season, and was in its 13th year of below-average rainfall. “We look back on the 2008-09 fire season and you would say that happens to be the worst on record as a result of the Black Saturday bushfires. But the potential hasn’t ameliorated at all,” he said. “In fact, it has got worse for the whole of the state.”

Mr Morgan said the assessment was based on the climate history and forecasts, fuel loads, recent fire history and the resources the agencies have available.

Country Fire Association operations manager Neil Bumpstead said the CRC report reflected the fears of Victorian firefighters.

“The 13 years of drought in Victoria is a very key contributor. Down in Gippsland, it’s the driest I’ve seen for years,” he said.

The report named Melbourne’s water catchments as areas of particular concern. Mr Bumpstead agreed.

“The catchment areas are certainly very dry. There’s just been no rain. The fuels on the ground are very dry.”

Grant Beard from the National Climate Centre said the outlook for spring across southeastern Australia, “is going fairly strongly for below-average rainfall”.

Australia just experienced its second-warmest winter on record, and the outlook was for a warmer than average spring, with an El Nino now in place.

“We know that with El Ninos, we tend to have a higher number of days that are conducive to severe bushfires conditions, that is, hot, dry and windy,” Mr Beard said.

In NSW, the bushfire season has started early, with 60 blazes along the coast as much of the southeast experienced a very warm, dry and windy weekend. Kevin Tolhurst, senior lecturer in fire ecology and management at the University of Melbourne, said the long, dry spell was going to make any fires quite severe.

Dr Tolhurst said fuel, particularly the fine fuels that carry the fire in the first instance, were already quite dry, although the fire season in Victoria did not usually start until after Christmas.

“Once those fine fuels have dried out and the grass has cured, there is really not much to stop the spread of the fire across quite large areas again this year, as we saw last year and in 2006 and 2007. It is becoming quite a regular event,” he said.

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