Firies are gearing up for high risk fire season in 2018/2019. (Supplied: Wallcliffe Volunteer Fire Brigade)
As fire chiefs from around the country stand ready to announce the Southern Australian Bushfire Outlook for 2018/2019, there is a grim sense of inevitability.
Fires have already ripped through southern New South Wales during winter, the spring outlook is dire, and there is twice the normal likelihood of an El Nino this summer.
This year is looking bad and the line-up of official uniforms and shiny badges seems to be saying: ‘this is your official warning’.
Areas with above-average bushfire risk this summer are marked in red. (Supplied: Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC)
Dr Richard Thornton, CEO of the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) said the season was looking “fairly bleak” in parts of Australia and particularly in the eastern parts.
“We are seeing an outlook that is really dominated by the drought conditions, particularly in Queensland, New South Wales and Gippsland, in Victoria,” he said.
State by state outlook
New South Wales is a tinderbox. Last summer was dry, autumn was dry, winter was dry and the entire state has been drought-declared with spring not looking any better.
The whole of the east coast, from border to border, is expecting above-normal fire potential — and that’s forested country where the most people live.
“We haven’t seen conditions like this for quite some time in New South Wales,” said Anthony Clark from the NSW Rural Fire Service.
“While we have had good rain in the last few weeks in some locations, it simply hasn’t been enough.
“We need a lot more to make any meaningful impact on the current bushfire season.”
Normal conditions are expected for most of Victoria, with the exception of east Gippsland.
However, authorities are stressing that even in a normal year, Victoria is one of the most fire-prone regions in the world and communities need to prepare accordingly.
Most of South Australia is expecting normal fire conditions apart from areas of concern in the north such as the APY Lands, the Flinders Ranges, the mid-north and through to the Riverland and the Murray.
Conditions in Tasmania are expected to be similar to last year but with a strip of elevated bushfire risk down the very east coast.
Chris Arnol, the state’s chief fire officer said Tasmanians needed to prepare and is encouraging people to consult fire protection plans for communities across the state.
“If you own the land you own the risk,” he said.
The Australian Capital Territory is expecting an above average fire risk throughout the summer.
The Emergency Services Agency’s commissioner Dominic Lane brought up the deadly 2003 bushfires.
“Make no mistake, in Canberra we face the same scenario going into this year,” he warned.
Western Australia is facing a different problem.
The south-west corner has had good rainfall over the last few months but this could turn dangerous if new growth dries out and produces massive fuel loads in the Mallee, Coolgardie, Nullarbor, Hampton and Great Victoria Desert regions.
However, as a result of previous bushfires and prescribed burning, shrublands across the Darling Range have been fragmented into parcels.
Deputy commissioner Doug Smith of Queensland Fire and Emergency Services said the season had started early in the sunshine state.
“The last two weeks alone suggest we had over 1,000 fires to respond to,” he said.
He said most of these fires were in the south-east part of the state, from Rockhampton south to the border of NSW.
“With above-average fuel loads in that area and low soil moisture, and a low probability of any rainfall of significance, the fire outlook for that part of Queensland is very serious,” he said.
Why are conditions so bad?
Drought in NSW has been the story of the season as dominant high pressure across the continent and cool oceans in the north-west this winter have stopped moisture from reaching most of the state.
But it has not just been dry, it has been hot too.
Nationally, it has been the hottest year to date on record, sitting at 1.3 degrees Celsius above the long term average.
What should you do to prepare?
Today the states and territories presented a united front.
“When it comes to fires and emergencies, the state boundaries are effectively rubbed out,” said Greg Nettleton, Country Fire Service South Australia chief officer.
But Steve Warrington, chief officer of the Victorian Country Fire Authority said there were “issues right across the country” this year.
And he said this could make it hard for states agencies to support one another.
“This year, potentially, we could be challenged. Already NSW has had 100 fires,” Mr Warrington said.
“We have had fires, Queensland has fires, so their ability to support other states will be limited by the fact that they are in their own game [so] we might struggle.”
Mr Warrington called upon the public to work with authorities because they are unable to get to every house.
“Work with us to ensure everyone stays safe this summer,” he said.
“We have already seen a number of fires occurring August which is highly unusual.”
Dr Thornton said it was “highly unusual” to see so many fires so early in the season and is urging communities to begin their fire preparation.
“Having a plan, working out where to go if they are going to leave, and importantly, [identifying] the triggers for them to leave and not leaving it until the fire is at the end of the street,” he said.
The united message is clear: prepare now. We have been warned.