Fire chiefs warn of ‘extreme’ bushfire risks

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FIRE (CMYK) BY YANNI 08EMERGENCY services authorities are warning Frankston and Mornington Peninsula residents to brace themselves for a prolonged bushfire season of extreme risk due to unusually dry conditions and predictions of higher than average temperatures over the spring and summer months.

Country Fire Authority, Department of Primary Industries and council officers are stepping up efforts to reduce fuel loads across a number of high-risk locations on the peninsula in response to warnings of “significant” risks during an “above normal bushfire season”.

Residents are also being urged to reduce fuel loads and ensure their properties are clear of potential hazards.

Mornington Peninsula shire council announced last week burn-off restrictions applying to small properties would be eased during October for fire prevention purposes.

Shire officials will also conduct inspections of properties to identify fire risks.

Owners of properties deemed as posing a fire risk will be issued official notices requiring them take immediate action to remove the hazard identified. Failure to comply carries hefty penalties.

Areas around the Mornington region identified as being at “extreme risk” of bushfire and with potentially “catastrophic” consequences due to population density include Mt Martha and Mt Eliza.

Further south, Rosebud, Main Ridge, Arthurs Seat and Waterfall Gully are identified as the highest risk locations.

Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said this year’s rainfall deficit and the likely early start to the bushfire season meant areas such as the Frankston and the peninsula needed to be at a heightened level of preparedness.

A seasonal outlook released by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre in conjunction with state fire services predicts above average Spring temperatures and below average rainfall for Victoria.

In response, Mr Lapsley said authorities were preparing for “an above normal bushfire season”, particularly in areas with grass, bush and higher populations, such as the Frankston and peninsula region.

“The last fire season challenged fire-fighters and community members alike and Victoria’s emergency management sector is already preparing across the state for the next,” Mr Lapsley said.

CFA Chief Officer Euan Ferguson echoed Mr Lapsley’s warnings and said fire authorities were now focussing efforts on reducing risks and urging residents to ensure they were prepared.

Mr Ferguson said the warnings contained in the seasonal outlook were of “significant” concern to the CFA.

“It reminds us that August has been a very dry month across much of Victoria and … rainfall predictions suggest it’s going to be a drier than normal season,” he said.

CFA operations officer for the Mornington Peninsula Sean Kerr said rainfall this year were about 100mm lower than average, which meant vegetation would dry out “a lot quicker” than normal as temperatures heat up.

“What that means is there is a lot more fuel on the ground; trees drop more foliage, as well as bark and branches, and grass and shrubs dry out,” Mr Kerr said.

“So it’s vital we carry out as much clearing as possible to reduce the fuel load, and it’s important property owners do likewise.

“With the sorts of conditions predicted, preparation is essential.”

He said the peninsula was one of the highest risk regions in the country for bushfires, while the high number of residents meant risks to life and property were extreme.

“People love the peninsula because they can live close to nature, but that obviously comes with some risk,” Mr Kerr said.

“We chose to live like this, but we need to ensure we do everything possible to minimise the risk, and that means ensuring you have an active bushfire plan so that you know exactly what to do if a fire breaks out.”

He said peninsula residents and visitors needed to be particularly aware of traffic issues, with roads highly susceptible to gridlock.

“Our advice is for people to leave at the earliest possible opportunity when fire warnings are issued,” Mr Kerr said.

“People need to be aware of potential traffic gridlock in times of emergency, which means they might not be able to get out if they leave it too late.

“Traffic conditions can be very heavy at the best of times over the summer months with thousands of holiday makers on the roads, so the potential for people getting trapped if they leave things too late is significant.”

Mornington Peninsula fire prevention officer Damien Taylor said the shire was in “full swing” preparing for the upcoming fire season, with the annual Fire Inspection Program to begin shortly.

“The shire will focus its fire inspection efforts in areas of higher bushfire and grassfire risk on the Mornington Peninsula including Arthurs Seat, Mt Martha, the elevated rural hinterland areas of Main Ridge and Red Hill as well as many coastal communities adjoining large expanses of National Park,” he said.

“Owners of properties that may pose a fire risk will be issued a fire prevention notice under the Country Fire Authority Act 1958.

“Re-inspections will also be undertaken to ensure that any fire prevention notices issued have been complied with, penalties may apply for landowners that do not comply.”

Mr Taylor said residents needed to ensure their properties were in a “fire ready” state for the duration of the fire season.

“This may include fire prevention works such as slashing grass so it is no higher than 100mm and removing all fallen and dead vegetation around assets, especially cleaning up fine fuels around the home,” he said.

Mr Taylor said the shire was relaxing open air burning restrictions on smaller properties during October to encourage residents to clean up before the commencement of the fire season.

Open air burning will be permitted during October on properties of less than 1500 square metres on Fridays and Saturdays between 9am and 4pm, with the conditions that no more than one cubic metre of vegetation is burnt at any one time, fire is not within 10 metres of any neighbouring dwelling, and fire safety provisions are followed at all times.

“It’s an opportunity to clean up around your property, but ensure you do it responsibly and safely, and keep your neighbours and local authorities informed,” he said.

For more information on the Open Air Burning Local Law and the altered regulations for October 2014, visit www.mornpen.vic.gov.au

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