Don’t let recent rains in NSW cause complacency about bush fire risk: RFS Commissioner

A Rural Fire Service volunteer stands beside his tanker on the M1 motorway watching a bushfire on Maddens Plain on the Illawarra Escarpment. Photo: Kirk Gilmour Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC outlook. Photo: BNHCRC

A hot Christmas ahead: NSW RFS firefighters battling high temperatures and strong winds in the fire at Maddens Plains near Bulli. Photo: NSW RFS Facebook

Heavy rains that hit NSW in the first two weeks of November have left people in bushfire-prone areas complacent about the risk of fire, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says.

After one of the hottest and driest October’s in NSW, significant rainfall at the start of November brought cool relief to much of the state, but Mr Fitzsimmons said he was concerned the wet weather had brought on an “element of complacency”.

“That rain delivered all sorts of mixed results for farmers, but it certainly resulted in a green landscape, in a lot of fuel growth or vegetation growth.”

He said, in the past three weeks the moisture in the landscape from that wet weather has depleted rapidly.

“I’ve looked at vegetation dryness charts across NSW showing a rapid curing of the grass. Just in the last few weeks with the hot air that has come out of central Australia … which is rapidly drying up the landscape. One of the biggest risks as we go into the balance of this season is complacency.”

Moisture deficits resulting from a strong El Nino pattern has meant all states across Australia have hotspots that are likely to experience above normal bushfire potential.

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC outlook for 2015-16 shows above normal conditions expected across large areas of southern Australia, particularly along the east and west coasts extending inland.

It reports that significantly below average rainfall for the past decade across almost all of eastern Australia, the west coast and Tasmania means that “any surface moisture from recent rains will quickly decline once temperatures begin to warm”.

Last Friday the NSW RFS was dealing with more than 100 fires across the state, including a grass fire in Wagga Wagga, which threatened properties, and a fire at Maddens Plains, which closed the M1 and Princes Highway for a period.

In Yango National Park, RFS joined two fires, which began after a lightning strike on Thursday and is still burning. So far it has burnt more than 1400 hectares and while it is not threatening life or property, its remote location has made it difficult for the RFS to access.

“Fortunately all these fires are not posing any immediate threat to anyone, but if we aren’t able to gain the upper hand and contain them now, they can present very serious risk issues when the weather conditions turn over the coming months,” said Mr Fitzsimmons.

As Christmas draws closer, he added, RFS volunteers and members across the state would be preparing for a “pretty quiet social Christmas”.

“There are often comments said in jest, particularly from families of firefighters. That they often set the table for Christmas and the firefighters aren’t there because those fire seasons coincide very often with the Christmas period as being some of the busiest and most arduous in terms of fire fighting and response and support requirements.”

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