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Victorians warned of greater bushfire threat -

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Victorians warned of greater bushfire threat

Simon Lauder reported this story on Wednesday, July 29, 2009 12:14:00

PETER CAVE: People in fire prone areas are being urged to start the countdown to the fire season

Just six months after the Black Saturday bushfires, Victorians are being warned that the coming
season could pose an even bigger threat.

However, a leading fire expert says that doesn't mean the fire season will be the worst ever,
because there's no indication of another heatwave.

Simon Lauder reports.

SIMON LAUDER: Ever since the 7th of February, when 173 people perished in fire, Jo Hirst has been
counting her blessings.

JO HIRST: To quote our fire captain, we dodged a bullet on Black Saturday. We had a fire in Quarry
Road in Ferntree Gully. If that hadn't have been controlled very quickly, the Dandenongs could have
been some of the places that were burnt out.

SIMON LAUDER: Now the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment has warned that
bushland communities may be in an even more precarious position next time round.

A fire management officer with the department has written a report to colleagues, warning that the
coming season could pose the greatest threat to life and property.

The first six months of this year was the driest ever experienced by Melbourne and the bushland
areas surrounding the city are of the greatest concern going into summer.

The department's report warns that even if above average rainfall arrives later in the year; the
state will still go into the fire season with the worst case climate outlook.

The department's chief fire officer, Ewan Waller.

EWAN WALLER: Even if we get average rainfall, the underlying dryness is so severe now that it won't
avert a difficult season again. We need quite a wet spring and of course that comes with grass
growth so really it is a very close watching, very full on at the moment.

SIMON LAUDER: Mr Waller says the drought continues and a forecast El Nino weather pattern will only
make matters worse.

EWAN WALLER: This is early stages. We are watching the weather very closely particularly because of
the El Nino effect and that is probably the compounding effect as in that will this deepen the
problems we've got and that the El Nino, the actual ocean temperature, is going up and down.

It is actually not a straight prediction so we are watching closely what is happening so this is
early days but as a strong message came out from the Premier last week, now is the time for people
to start thinking and getting prepared regardless of this is going to be the worst ever or

SIMON LAUDER: Ewan Waller says his department and the Country Fire Authority are communicating with
affected communities well in advance of the fire season, urging them to prepare.

The CFA has launched a campaign, including a countdown to the fire season, which is now only 90
days away.

But one expert says the dire prediction doesn't mean conditions will match those which sparked this
year's deadly firestorm.

Dr Kevin Tolhurst is a fire ecologist from the University of Melbourne.

KEVIN TOLHURST: Well it is difficult to say it would be the worst case ever. I mean we have still
got severe drought so the likelihood of having bad fire conditions, particularly in January and
February, are still going to be quite high. What is needed to make it the worst ever still is
extreme conditions as we saw on the 7th of February which is, that is something that you can't
really predict this far out.

SIMON LAUDER: And that was seen as a very rare type of heatwave, wasn't it?

KEVIN TOLHURST: Well, the conditions we had on the 7th February were the most severe ever recorded
in the 150 year history of weather records so to have that broken again this year is probably not
that likely and I guess it was also combined with the extended heat wave leading up to it and often
the catastrophic conditions that we see are a combination of events, not just a single day.

SIMON LAUDER: So just because the conditions leading up to the fire season are perhaps the driest
ever, it doesn't mean that we will see a repeat of those type of conditions that led to Black

KEVIN TOLHURST: No. I guess the underlying drought sort of basically tells us that areas that would
normally be too moist to burn like some gullies and southern slopes and so on are likely to be
available to burn so the fuel would be in a condition where it could be burnt quite severely but
you have to have the associated weather conditions and it is too far out to really be confident
that they are going to occur.

SIMON LAUDER: Dr Tolhurst stresses that it doesn't take a lot of fires or the worst conditions ever
to cause a catastrophe and everyone in fire prone areas should prepare.

Jo Hirst and some of her neighbours have formed the Dandenong Ranges Community Bushfire Group, to
do just that.

JO HIRST: I think a lot of people are scared and it does take time. It is not something that you
can just do in a few months. It should be 365 day a year job to keep your property bushfire safe.

PETER CAVE: Jo Hirst from the Dandenong Ranges Community Bushfire Group, ending that report from
Simon Lauder.