Bushfire watch ‘off-guard’

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
Camera IconCredit: Getty Images

An internal review has found WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions was caught off-guard by changing weather conditions when three plantation fires escaped earlier this year.

The report also revealed the unexpected early winter bushfires on June 6 — which occurred amid a rash of other fire incidents across the Capes — happened while DBCA’s extra firefighting resources were in traditional stand-down mode.

The findings have raised questions about the adequacy of emergency resources during non-peak bushfire periods.

The DBCA report, ordered to be released to the Times by Environment Minister Stephen Dawson, said the three fires escaped control while full-time and volunteer brigades were deployed across the Capes region fighting a number of other escaped burns fanned by fierce winds.

The report focused on management of three controlled burns undertaken by DBCA’s Parks and Wildlife section, lit in May within Forest Product Commission plantations in Jarrahwood, Baudin and Vasse.

The report said a “warm dry air mass sustained by strong winds in excess of 100km/h ... rekindled fire within smouldering log heaps, leading to firebrands being blown into post-harvest trash, with fire quickly spreading into adjacent native forest”.

The Jarrahwood fire burnt through the neighbouring settlement damaging uninsured fences, stock feed and a traffic bridge.

Only FPC assets were destroyed by the other fires.

Despite a special inquiry into DBCA’s handling of the Margaret River bushfires in 2011, among the key findings of the new report were to “work with key fire practitioners to better understand and appreciate hazards, risk profile, and mitigation options”.

The review found “significantly longer lead times” were needed to meet planning time frames and approvals when reviewing burns on FPC land.

Weather conditions also required “greater and earlier consideration” of available firefighting resources as well as “planning and preparation for burn management and security” to avoid repeat incidents.

The internal review also found DBCA and FPC did not have an “agreed standard for preparation of second rotation burns, and a process for a formal handover and acceptance of the burns”.

Fuel loads and adjacent hardwood fuels must in future be “properly considered to reduce subsequent risk”.

The agency was also instructed to “work with (its) Fire Management Services branch and the Bureau of Meteorology to better understand possible impacts of weather forecasts on known existing fire loads located on and adjacent to department-managed lands.”

The Parks and Wildlife service also had to “work with Fire Management Services branch to identify additional resources external to the district or region that may be available to assist with the management of risk”.

The review found planning for the burns followed international standards, but did not take adjacent native bush into account.

There was also “no evidence” soil dryness and surface moisture measurements were considered.

Before the incident, DBCA officers alerted FPC to the likelihood of increased winds, undertook patrols and aerial surveillance, and suspended all other burns on May 29 because “many of the heaps were re-igniting due to the drying conditions and a dry cold front”.

Risk assessments of each site were undertaken in the days before June 6 and fire ground boundaries were secured, which was “prudent and sound”, the report said.

“This period was also accompanied by an unprecedented spike in bushfire activity as a result of suspicious ignitions throughout May,” it said. “It is particularly unusual for DBCA personnel to be engaged in regular bushfire suppression at this time of the year.”

The report also noted the weather pattern “was like the previous year – and had not been recorded for 30 years prior to that”.

FPC and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services were consulted in the review.

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