Western Victoria has a severely dry core that is “ready to burn”, with some farm dams and creeks already dry, paddocks parched and forests starved of moisture.
With its large number of bushland reserves, forests and open farmland carrying fuel, coupled with the many towns scattered across the landscape and significant population, the vast area is a major concern ahead of what is expected to be a severe and longer than normal bushfire season.
Western Victoria has missed out on meaningful rain for months and a large part of it has just recorded its driest three-year period on record.
Emergency management commissioner Craig Lapsleysaid a large part of this wedge of Victoria was old gold mining country, which could present extra difficulties to firefighters because of things like old mine shafts and mullock heaps.
MrLapsleysaid a sizeable part of western Victoria, which is approximately bounded by Horsham, Bendigo, Seymour and Cressy, represented “a really big patch of Victoria that is very dry”.
Asked why it was his area of most concern from a bushfire perspective, he said: “(It’s) dry, populated, and ready to burn.”
He also said: “It’s hungry country that’s traditionally old gold mining country … And I think you’ve got in there some of the driest country in Victoria.”
The chief officer of the CFA, Euan Ferguson, backed Mr Lapsley’s concerns about the bushfire threat in western Victoria. “It’s one of the areas which is most worrying us,” he said.
“This would be the third year of below average rainfall. And in particular where we have state forests, state parks, national parks, those areas are suffering extreme dryness for this time of year,” he said. “They are in a position now to sustain a campaign-type fire that will burn overnight, will burn vigorously and may defy efforts to control it until favourable weather conditions come in.”
Victoria’s driest forested areas, which Mr Ferguson said included places like the Wombat State Forest, Macedon Ranges and Lerderderg State Park, would be particularly vulnerable to fire.
“In four weeks’ time the grass won’t be green and the potential is to lose many houses and to threaten many lives if fires occur under these severe, extreme and code red conditions. Now I know that the fire agencies are accused every year of saying there’s a big fire risk. We tell it like it is, if there’s a risk then we tell it like it is,” he said.
Dousing the flames of the Lancefield fire. Photo: Justin McManus
In a sign of the earlier fire season the state faced, Mr Ferguson said there were 62 grass and scrub fires on the weekend before the Lancefield fire. The “majority” of them were in western Victoria, inside the area outlined by Mr Lapsley as a significant concern.
Mr Lapsley also raised other issues that would affect the fire preparedness of properties in western Victoria’s dry core. These included the fact that some of the rural properties were only occupied part-time, while there was a significant number of small rural properties that did not have heavy farm machinery that made fire prevention works easier to undertake.
“There are dams that are dry, particularly in the Wedderburn, St Arnaud area, and there’s no run-off in any of the streams. A major river will have water in it … but there’s no run-off. For this time of the year you’d expect to see the small streams running,” he said.
“The soil is dry soil in that country. If you try to dig a hole you only have to take one hit with a shovel and you find out how hard it is … The environment is telling you it’s dry, it hasn’t had rain, and the rain they’ve had hasn’t soaked in,” he said.
Mr Lapsley urged people to act now to remove fire risks on their property, before the hottest and most dangerous fire conditions arrived.
“The observation of the houses that survived in the Lancefield fire – and I had a look at them last Sunday –is defendable space,” he said. These houses were clear of vegetation for a buffer of about 10-30 metres around the home, and the buffer could be maintained.
Some of his key tips to reduce fire risks on private property included:
Keep the buffer around your house green if possibleKeep wood stacks as far away from home as possibleKeep grass cut throughout summerMake sure that a fire truck can safely get up your drivewayEnsure that a fire truck has access to water once it arrivesProtect fuel tanks
Ensuring that country driveways were passable for firetrucks was crucial, Mr Lapsley said. “There’s no guarantee we’ll get a firetruck in. But if a firetruck can’t get up the driveway it’s pointless,” he said.
In another sign of the state’s dryness, Mr Ferguson said that most of Victoria north of the Great Dividing Range would be covered by fire restrictions from October 26, about a month earlier than normal.
Farmers in the state’s north west are also facing a tough harvest because of the severe dry, with a significant number facing the prospect of losing money this season because of failed or poorly performing crops.
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