Decent rain puts Hunter fire crews in good stead ahead of 2020/21 fire season

BAD SEASON: Firefighters monitoring a blaze that broke out in catastrophic conditions at Greta in November. Picture: Simone De Peak
BAD SEASON: Firefighters monitoring a blaze that broke out in catastrophic conditions at Greta in November. Picture: Simone De Peak

After an unprecedented summer fire season, a welcome spattering of rain in the cooler months has set Hunter firefighting crews up for what is hoped to be a less severe season this year.

The first decent autumn and early winter rainfall in the Hunter in several years has created a nice amount of ground fuel which will give fire crews an early advantage when the weather warms up.

Between February 1 and June 30, more than 420mm of rain was recorded at Cessnock, which was blanketed by smoke over summer due to fires at nearby Wollombi. That compared to just 211.2mm of rain in the same period last year.

Lower Hunter Rural Fire Service district manager Superintendent Martin Siemsen said after three incredibly dry winters in a row, local crews were called into action as early as August 8 last year and worked tirelessly through to February.

"It definitely wasn't a normal season," he said. "There was an absolutely mammoth amount of requests for assistance."

That took its toll on the men and women on the frontline, with mental wellbeing programs ramped up to deal with the aftermath.

"Some of them were going for a long time - that has a profound effect on someone's psyche," Superintendent Siemsen said. "So they may have needed that assistance. What they saw can have long-term effects."

And as they recover from the brutal last season, members' morale will certainly be buoyed by the recent rainfall.

Superintendent Siemsen said while the decision was yet to be made, he was hopeful that the bushfire danger period would kick off as normal on October 1, rather than early like previous years.

"The past three years have been quite dry," Superintendent Siemsen said. "We've had some rain this year which has been a bit unusual. While it's not drought-breaking, it has been continual, which is a good omen compared to the last three years.

"It's not impossible, but I couldn't see an early onset happening this year."

The hopeful return to a more normal season comes at a good time for the RFS after COVID-19 impeded the service's usual preparatory work through the cooler months.

The virus restrictions meant initiatives such as professional development training could not be organised and community engagement had to be delayed.

However Superintendent Siemsen said with restrictions easing, those activities should be able to restart soon.

But while conditions have been positive, Superintendent Siemsen urged residents not to be complacent.

"People still need to maintain their properties, have a bushfire survival plan and understanding the warnings in the case of an emergency," he said.

MEASURES: National Parks and Wildlife recently conducted a hazard reduction burn at First Street in Werakata National Park. Picture: National Parks and Wildlife Service

MEASURES: National Parks and Wildlife recently conducted a hazard reduction burn at First Street in Werakata National Park. Picture: National Parks and Wildlife Service

Hazard reduction burns

Superintendent Siemsen said RFS crews have been able to assist National Parks and Wildlife Service with a number of hazard reduction burns, particularly through the Cessnock and Port Stephens areas.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has conducted hazard reduction burns of more than 500 hectares of bushland so far this year with more scheduled if weather permits.

Seven hazard reduction burns, which have covered 508 hectares of national park bushland, have been undertaken across the Hunter Central Coast Branch of National Parks since January 1.

A spokesperson for a National Parks and Wildlife said a number of burns, including at First Street in Werakata National Park, West Fingal in Tomaree National Park and Wabbarentar Ridge in Barrington Tops National Park are also planned for the coming months, weather permitting.

Ahead of the 2020-21 bushfire season, the service is recruiting 125 new staff across the state. These staff will play a critical role in hazard reduction activities, as well as supporting threatened species conservation, maintaining walking tracks and other parks infrastructure and delivering pest and weed control programs.

THE 'BLACK SUMMER' IN THE HUNTER VALLEY