IN DEPTH

Eye on grass fires as Hunter looks towards bushfire season

DANGER: Firefighters monitoring a blaze near Greta in November last year. Picture: Simone de Peak
DANGER: Firefighters monitoring a blaze near Greta in November last year. Picture: Simone de Peak

Fast-moving grass fires are the biggest concern for the Hunter coming into this year's bushfire danger period, the NSW Rural Fire Service says, with a close eye set to be on "high-risk" hot-spots across the region that did not burn during the state's disastrous summer of 2019-20.

Meanwhile, police will conduct check-ups and visits of the Hunter's convicted arsonists and known firebugs to reduce the risk of blazes being deliberately lit.

In an interview with Australian Community Media last week, RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers said conditions across NSW were not expected to be as complex for firefighters this season, compared with last, but he warned that any "bad day" could become a threat.

"What we haven't had in the last few years is a grass fire risk. Certainly when you start getting into Cessnock and up into the Singleton area, we've had significant rainfall so there's a lot of grass and when that grass starts to dry out then we'll be quite concerned," he said.

"Grass fires can be quite dangerous and quite deadly and that's something we're focusing on.

"And you've got bushland right into Newcastle itself - any of those areas, on a bad day, can become a problem fire.

"You don't need to be in a really bad drought like we were in the last few years - any bad day and a fire starts in the wrong spot, it can be damaging property or even worse."

The 2019-20 bushfire season was long and destructive. It caused devastation in many parts of the state, particularly on the north coast and in the southern regions.

By season's end, 26 people had died and almost 2500 homes had been destroyed.

According to the Final Report of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry, from which NSW Parliament last week adopted all recommendations, the fire season lasted for eight months - with 240 consecutive days of burning.

The Hunter remained largely out of major trouble aside from fires at Belmont; North Rothbury and Greta, and the western side of Lake Macquarie, as well as Wollombi, Kerry Ridge and in the region's western reaches - attached to the Gospers Mountain mega-fire.

When asked what helped the Hunter escape the worst of the horror summer, Commissioner Rogers said the the region did not have as many ignitions as other parts of the state.

"There was quite a bit of fire to the west, but we were lucky that it didn't keep going east and get into more populated areas," he said.

"There was some good work and, to be honest, it comes down to back-burns. That ended up working quite well for those fires.

"Luckily we didn't get anything in closer to the city."

Good rain since February has eased crippling drought conditions in the Hunter, but the change brings with it a new set of challenges and a warning from firefighters that complacency could lead to dire consequences.

The RFS in recent weeks has been publicly calling for people across the state to start preparing for the bushfire danger period, which starts in most places on October 1 and will run until the end of March.

"Any areas that didn't burn last year are at a high risk," RFS spokesperson Greg Allan said.

"The rain has allowed the grass to grow and once that dries off, we will see more grass fires, which burn three times faster than bushfires."

Looking ahead: RFS Lower Hunter district manager Superintendent Martin Siemsen this week. Picture: Marina Neil

Looking ahead: RFS Lower Hunter district manager Superintendent Martin Siemsen this week. Picture: Marina Neil

Locally, RFS has identified Cessnock and Port Stephens as potential danger zones because of how frequently they have been the scenes of bushfires in the past.

"They tend to be affected every four years or so, which isn't enough time for us to get in and do hazard reduction burns," RFS Lower Hunter district manager Superintendent Martin Siemsen said.

"By the time they've recovered, we can be back in there fighting fires again."

Identifying high-risk areas is just one part of the Lower Hunter team's preparations ahead of the looming season - various strategies have been developed alongside other agencies involved in the Lower Hunter Bushfire Management Committee.

Hazard reduction burns play a part, as does maintenance of asset protection zones, which are fuel-reduced, defendable areas around buildings or villages that help create containment lines when a fire breaks out or approaches.

"Asset protection zones are very, very, very important," Superintendent Siemsen said.

"They're generally cleared areas reviewed on a three or six monthly cycle that allow less of a chance of direct fire impact on an asset."

Crews have also been working to implement the committee's fire trail access program, which received a nod in the Bushfire Inquiry report for demonstrating that "strong inter-agency collaboration can lead to improved fire trail management".

The program helps firefighters identify strategic and tactical fire trails to use during emergencies and make sure they're maintained and accessible.

SCARE: A fast-moving bushfire on Wine Country Drive, North Rothbury last November. Picture: Marina Neil

SCARE: A fast-moving bushfire on Wine Country Drive, North Rothbury last November. Picture: Marina Neil

Police will also be on the front-foot in the Hunter heading into the bushfire season, with an ugly history of arson attacks sparking large blazes in the region over the years.

Detective Superintendent Linda Howlett, the NSW Police arson squad investigator in charge of inquiries into suspicious bushfires, told ACM police worked closely with other government agencies on bushfire prevention.

"We do target people who have previously been involved in lighting fires, especially if they've got previous convictions for arson," she said.

"We actually do visit persons who have convictions for arson offences and let them know we are looking at them, to put them on notice.

"We also rely very heavily on information from members of the community - especially if they become suspicious of activities, persons they see around or motor vehicles they might see in some unusual spot."

Port Stephens-Hunter police commander Superintendent Chad Gillies said his officers would focus on emergency management in the event of a bushfire and would be on alert for any suspicious blazes.

"One would hope, after the devastation of last year in particular, that people understand the ramifications of lighting fires at any time," he said.

"But particularly in extreme weather conditions and that the already stretched emergency services resources aren't stretched further through criminal behaviour."

EARLY START: Cessnock's Central Rural Fire Brigade truck at a bushfire at Kearsley in October last year. Picture: Marina Neil

EARLY START: Cessnock's Central Rural Fire Brigade truck at a bushfire at Kearsley in October last year. Picture: Marina Neil

READ MORE: THE 'BLACK SUMMER' IN THE HUNTER VALLEY

This story Why the Hunter has to be on high alert this fire season first appeared on Newcastle Herald.