Normal bushfire season expected, outlook reveals

Victoria’s upcoming fire season is predicted to be relatively ‘normal’ according to the Australian Seasonal Bushfire Outlook, but local fire authorities say communities should still be on alert, particularly as firefighters deal with the added impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The outlook — developed by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre with the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and relevant state fire and land managers — was released recently and indicated while spring rainfall will likely have an impact on fire potential in the lead up to and over summer, indicators point to a normal 2020-21 fire season for the state.

While the outlook predicts above average winter rain has substantially reduced the risk of campaign fires in the east of Victoria for September to November, parts of the mallee, wimmera, north east and far south west are drier than normal.

The Central Goldfields Shire did experience a drier than average winter according to the BoM — the total winter rainfall average for Mary-borough was 131.2 mm, almost 20 mm less than 2019.

In fact in July, just 28.4 mm of rain fell, making it the driest July in almost two decades.

Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said the outlook was an early indication of what Victoria can expect this summer.

“The severity of fires in the west half of the state will depend on several factors including the amount, location and timing of rain during spring and over summer,” he said.

Despite the dry weather, Goldfields Group Officer Robert Ipsen said the local area is in a relatively good position heading into summer.

“The majority of the area is doing very well,” he said.

“Certainly there’s a fair bit of grass growth which raises the fuel load levels and means potentially a higher fire risk.

“The BoM is talking about a higher than average rainfall for September to November (a predicted 133 mm) which lessens our fire risk but on the other hand also raises it as more vegetation will grow.

“If it keeps wet it does reduce the risk in that while vegetation is green it won’t burn, but eventually it’ll dry off and that gives you your high fire danger periods.

“If in November and December it’s wet, that’s a godsend because we’ll get through the most dangerous part of our fire period when it’s wet. If that doesn’t happen, we’ve got a fairly big load to carry.”

There are a variety of reasons fires start and Mr Ipsen said while some can’t be planned for, COVID-19 may play into the CFA’s favour.

“There’s a fair mix of reasons why we get fires,” he said.

“You always get things like machinery malfunctions, that’s just the nature of the beast and working in hot conditions.

“But it’ll be interesting because fires which start on Mondays to Wednesdays tend to be people-orientated, whether it’s a campfire that’s been left from the weekend and not extinguished properly, or someone burning rubbish when they shouldn’t be.

“One of the benefits with COVID and the lockdown — although I hope by November/December it won’t be locked down as much as it is now — is that while you’ve got no people around and restriction of activities, that reduces the risk because people aren’t out doing silly things.”

However, despite the potential bright side, Mr Ipsen said with COVID-19 in the mix this summer new challenges will be presented.

“It’s a whole new ball game,” he said.

“The biggest thing for us right now with COVID-19 is how we deal with crewing appliances and trying to keep people isolated but working together, that’ll be a real challenge.

“When there’s a crew changeover on a fire ground, the crew and truck will go back to the station, the truck will be decontaminated and a fresh crew will be put on. During that time, you’d bring a crew from a neighbouring brigade in to keep things under control.

“Training has also been non- existent for the last four months, but the main people who turn out to fires do it pretty regularly and know their stuff so it’s not detrimental, and we’ll have people trained up in their minimum required skills.”

Mr Ipsen said more than ever, fire brigades will be relying on communities to do the right thing this fire season.

“We’ll rely on the community to do the right thing in regards to preparation and making their property as safe as they can this summer so brigades and volunteers don’t have to go out too often,” he said.

“The less number of times we turn out to fires, the less we have to get people together in close contact.”

CFA Acting Chief Officer Garry Cook said even a normal fire season in Victoria presents a high risk to communities and echoed Mr Ipsen’s request that communities prepare themselves and their properties.

“We have to stay home as much as possible at the moment due to COVID-19 restrictions — why not use the time to clean up your property and make a plan on how to keep yourself and your loved ones safe this summer?,” he said.

“Preparing your property means you minimise the chance of property damage during a fire, even if you plan to leave early. You also need to plan and prepare for your safety so that you, and everyone in your household, know what to do on hot, dry, windy days when fires will start and spread quickly.”