THE high rainfall over the last year has left the bush sodden in many areas, reducing the risk of forest fires this summer. A far greater danger is posed by the prolific growth of grass in the warm, wet conditions. There is a very real danger of fast-moving grass fires once the grass dries out.
So says Dave Gallacher, fire management officer for the Department of Sustainability and Environment, drawing on the best advice from the Bureau of Meteorology.
The current fire season outlook from the BOM, which the fire fighting agencies heavily rely on in their planning, is for below average rainfall, particularly in the south of the state, and probably slightly above average maximum temperatures.
Mr Gallacher said that the first few project fire fighters (PFFs) have begun work in South Gippsland in recent weeks on eight-month contracts over three years. Another group – about ten or so – will start at the end of the month, with the balance signed up for work through the fire season by the end of November.
Across the South Gippsland district there will eventually be 21 project fire fighters working with DSE and Parks Victoria staff members. They will be based at Foster, Tidal River, Wonthaggi and, for the first time, a few at Mirboo North.
The number of PFFs employed across the state is down slightly on previous years, but 120 ongoing positions have recently been established, including two based at Foster. Nick Mitchell and Matt Green are the two Foster-based permanent crew members. They are helping with training the project fire fighters and getting the planned burning program under way.
“It has been too wet so far for planned burns this spring, but we are looking to do some later in the season if we get the right weather conditions,” said Mr Gallacher.
As preparations ramp up for the coming fire season, the deputy premier and minister for emergency services, Peter Ryan, has released the government’s community fire refuges policy.
Refuges were one of the key recommendations of the royal commission into the Black Saturday fires which killed 173 people in 2009.
The policy brings no joy, however, for anyone looking to have a fire refuge to escape to any time soon. There will be no network of fire refuges, even in the most at-risk areas, in the short term, with the government opting to set up a pilot project – at a site yet to be determined – before it goes any further.
The government has allocated $1.5 million to progress the pilot project as part of $13 million committed to establish Neighbourhood Safer Places and the development of other shelter options. Future funding for refuges will be considered as part of the usual budget process.
Mr Ryan said that with the building regulations and the Community Fire Refuges Policy now finalised, the fire services commissioner, Craig Lapsley, will work with councils, fire services and relevant communities to develop the pilot project and give practical effect to the Community Fire Refuges Practices and Procedures which accompany the policy.
He said community fire refuges were defined as designated, purpose-built or modified buildings open to the public that can provide short-term shelter from the immediate life-threatening effects of a bushfire event.
“It has been critical to get the terms of the Community Fire Refuges Policy right to create an environment in which community fire refuges can be established in the very high bushfire risk locations where other survival strategies are not possible or likely to fail,” Mr Ryan said.
“Community fire refuges are one of a number of contingency shelter options contained in Victoria’s Bushfire Safety Policy Framework and should be considered in the context of all of the survival options available to a community in a high bushfire risk area.”
Mr Ryan warned that a community fire refuge may not always be the most effective survival option for some high bushfire risk communities.
“The appropriateness of establishing a community fire refuge will need careful consideration by councils and communities against other available safety options,” he said.
“For people living in high bushfire risk communities, planning and preparing for bushfire will always provide the best chance of survival. On Code Red days in high risk bushfire areas, leaving early is always the safest option.”
FIRE ACTION WEEK
Fire Action Week, to be held November 13-20, will play a key role in preparations for the forthcoming fire season.
“The timing of Fire Action Week has been determined in conjunction with Victoria’s fire agencies, which indicated October was too early and there was a risk of complacency unless it was held later in the year,” said Mr Ryan.
“CFA research shows that complacency is one of the key issues that needs to be addressed in preparing Victoria for the fire season.
“Also, by having Fire Action Week in November it coincides with the CFA’s community education program, which includes activities such as Fire Ready Victoria meetings, to further assist communities as they prepare for the fire season.”