High bushfire risk as Victoria heads into hot, dry summer

Authorities have singled out a strip of land between Melbourne and Echuca as being most at risk from devastating bushfires in the lead-up to Christmas.

Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said yesterday the swath of land encompassing towns and cities throughout central Victoria would be the first part of the state to dry out after the fire danger period begins in Bendigo on Monday.

“Anything from the northern outer-suburbs of Melbourne to Echuca – in a straight line – will dry out by Christmas,” he said.

"So over that Christmas, New Year, period it will be central Victoria and western Victoria [at most risk]. It will be dry, it will be hot … and as we know in Victoria, all we need is those strong north-westerly winds and they're the days that bring the recipe together.”

Mr Lapsley said the grasses in central Victoria had already dried out and farmers were already harvesting bumper crops, in contrast with last year when it was so dry that there was no hay to be cut.

“It's a different season to last year. We've had one of the wettest winters on record and now we're moving into this period of prolific growth,” he said.

“They’ve got bumper crops so we’re going to see bumper fuel available … when that dries out, that’s obviously the fuel. You won’t get rid of it all, fire prevention work is about mitigating some of it but not all of it so there will be high level’s of grass out there.”

"The Macedon Ranges will be really dry. In fact, they are already dry and have a lot of fuel in them.”

Mr Lapsley said population growth in Bendigo and the city’s close proximity to forested areas resulted in particular challenges for fire management in the region.

“There’s a bigger population, it’s a growing population, we’ve got people living in the area that are more interfaced with the bush so you’ve got a bigger interface in Bendigo,” he said.

“Ten years ago Marong was just a little place, now it’s got a number of new sub-divisions and some of them are small-acreage blocks, they’re not just town blocks, so we’ve got a larger number of houses to protect.”

Mr Lapsley said more people moving to rural areas like Marong, could be a double edged sword in terms of bushfire prevention, and encouraged those new to the area to seek out advice on how to prepare.

“There are positives that you’ve got a large population which means hopefully you’ve got more hands to do the work in those interface areas, but are they able to do what’s required?” he said.

“It might mean they’ve got to ask advice from others to help them do that or use livestock effectively to eat the grass down.”

Another challenge for the upcoming season would be residents increased mobility in modern society, which added another dimension to bushfire planning, Mr Lapsley said.

“We’re more mobile, every community, so people in any one day will travel more probably today than what they did ten years ago, which means we’re on the roads and we’ve got to be conscious that it’s not just about my property, it’s about where I’m going and what I’m doing,” he said.

The picture is vastly different to last season, when 116 houses were lost in fires that raged through the sleepy coastal hamlets of Wye River and Separation Creek along the Great Ocean Road on Christmas Day.

"I couldn't see that we will have major problems for any of the coastal areas for Christmas, unless we have a dramatic change in weather," Mr Lapsley said.

This season's first major fire – a grass fire at Swan Hill – occurred on November 21, more than a month after last year's first blaze.

Last year's first major bushfire was a planned backburn in the Cobaw State Forest at Lancefield that jumped containment lines on grand final day.

Mr Lapsley said all Victorians should prepare for the bushfire season as soon as possible.

"Know where to get information, know what you're going to do with your pets, know what to do if you're travelling," he said.

Rainfall pushes burns forward

Heavy spring rain has pushed Forest Fire Management Victoria’s planned burns program out towards the start of the fire danger period, with the final burn scheduled for Golden Square this afternoon.

But FFMV senior forest fire management officer Simon Brown said the delay would not have a “huge impact” on fuel loads in and around Bendigo.

“It’s just more around the timing, normally by mid-November our planned burning program is normally sort of complete and this year obviously with the spring rainfalls that we’ve had it’s pushed it out later into the season,” he said.

Mr Brown said while the burning off program had reached its end, there were other means of reducing fuel loads going into the fire season.

“We’ve had huge fuel management programs [in place], in slashing programs and mechanical works,” he said. “So although this will be our last planned burn as such, we’ll be continuing slashing and other fuel reduction works.”