Bushfire warning as fuel load mounts

31 Oct, 2011 02:00 AM
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HEAVY fuel loads throughout the State have prompted fears that WA could be in for another devastating bushfire season.

Both the Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) and the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) have warned there is a huge amount of potentially dangerous foliage throughout the State and urged local governments and landowners to ensure they are prepared this summer.

Heavy winter rainfall has resulted in more foliage and a much greater fuel load this summer.

The South West faces the biggest risk this year, particularly as DEC has been unable to complete its controlled burn program on the region's Crown land.

DEC's prescribed burns in the South West between July 2010 and July 2011 were 137,746 hectares, which was 64,000ha short of the annual 200,000ha target.

In its annual report last month the DEC attributed the drop in the region, which includes the South West, Warren and Swan districts, to unfavourable weather conditions.

"The dry 2010 winter, which was the third driest winter in 10 years, saw rainfall in the South West reduced to unprecedented levels. The lack of rainfall restricted suitable prescribed burning days in the South West forests because fuels quickly became too volatile to burn safely under prescribed conditions," the report said.

"The summer months burning period was also abnormally dry."

DEC fire management services manager Murray Carter said while the spring burning season this year had been productive in the Perth Hills and outer metropolitan areas, moist conditions has so far limited burning in the Lower South West.

FESA's Lower South West regional director John Tillman said there were high fuel loadings throughout the region this year, which had been exacerbated by record drought last year.

He said Nannup, the Leeuwin-Naturaliste ridge and the Gelorup to Stratham areas had been identified as the most at-risk areas this year.

Mr Tillman said FESA was working closely with local governments, DEC and landowners to carry out the new Bushland Mitigation Program, which is in its first year.

As part of the program the agencies identified 106 vulnerable communities in the South West and prioritised them according to risk, before designing hazard management plans for each area.

"What that process does is work on the 1.5 to two kilometre radius around communities," Mr Tillman said. "It looks at all the land that might constitute a risk, we come up with an agreed risk assessment between the agencies and stakeholders and once we've agreed on risk and priorities we develop an agreed mitigation schedule which includes prescribed burning, mechanical fuel management and improving access."

He said this process had already started in Collie, Manjimup, Dardanup and Nannup.

"We're certain that program will expand given the outcomes of the Keelty review, which highlighted the risk around those communities," he said.

"There is the potential for a repeat of last year's devastating fires and we urge landowners to be well prepared.

"There's a lot of work to be done and people need to be aware of that.

"Many areas last year experienced record dry conditions and this year we're close to it being average, which is good for farming communities but obviously with that there can be a lot of annual grass.

"When it does start to dry out, we'll be suffering from soil moisture deficit and when combined with high annual grasses there's going to be a huge amount of fuel out there.

"For the broadacre community the damage that can be done by a bushfire can be long term because it takes years, sometimes decades to recover from that, so the better prepared we are the less chance there is of that occurring."

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