Regional communities have been urged to prepare for a grassfire-driven fire season with fuel loads in some parts of the country’s east the highest they have been for a decade.
Record rainfall and back-to-back La Niña years have led to “prolific” grass growth in New South Wales and Victoria, particularly in the western regions, as well as in South Australia..
Recent warm and windy days have already led to grassfires in those areas. The NSW Rural Fire Service, Victoria’s Country Fire Authority, and the SA County Fire Service are warning communities to be prepared, as more typical summer conditions are expected to return through January and February.
“Looking ahead, the main concern is mid-to-late January and into February, particularly in the west of the state with grasslands,” RFS spokesperson Greg Allan said.
“All it takes is a couple of warm, windy and dry days for that vegetation to dry out which of course then will heighten the fire risk.
“What we’ve been saying is in some areas the fuel loads are the highest they’ve been in around a decade.”
Firefighters have been called to a “large number” of grassfires since Christmas, a spokesperson said.
Jason Heffernan, the CFA’s chief officer, said if forecast warmer conditions eventuated over the new year period, he expected the first total fire bans for parts of Victoria this season would be declared in coming days.
He said he was particularly concerned about fire risk in the Mallee and Wimmera with recent heat already having caused significant drying in those areas. Some outer suburbs of Melbourne that abut grasslands were also at risk.
He said the record rains had caused “prolific” grass growth across much of the state.
“There are elevated fuel loads across much of Victoria and I do anticipate this fire season will be driven predominantly by grassfires,” he said.
“The bushland areas will take a bit longer to dry out. In the immediate term we are concerned about grassfires and fine fuels.”
Grassfires move quickly – up to three times faster than a bushfire.
Heffernan said they could be “just as deadly” as large-scale bushfires and could catch people out with their speed.
“You can’t outrun a grassfire,” he said.
Fire services are urging communities to be prepared. Allan and Heffernan said regional and rural property owners, in particular, should take steps to prepare their properties, including by ploughing fire breaks, clearing gutters and firewood and ensuring equipment and machinery – which can spark grassfires – is clean and working safely.
They said households should talk about their fire survival plans and what they would do if fire occurred.
“Are you going to stay and defend or will you leave and if the decision is to leave, at what point will you leave, where are you going to go and what route will you take?” Allan said.
“And if you do see a fire, don’t expect someone has already called it in. The quicker our fire crews can respond, the better to limit the size of the fire and potential impact.”
In coastal NSW and Victoria there are forested areas that did not burn during the 2019-20 bushfires.
While the immediate focus is on grassfires, Heffernan said bushfire danger could return later in the season and people on the coast also needed to prepare for fires.