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Author: Peter Hannam
Date: 29 August, 2013

Fire authorities have used mild late-winter conditions to step up hazard-reduction burning ahead of what one meteorologist predicts will be “an intense and early fire season”.

NSW fire crews and volunteers are lighting more than 100 “significant” burns each week to reduce fuel loads as temperatures start to climb, said Shane FitzSimmons, commissioner of the state’s Rural Fire Service.

Adding to the urgency are revised outlook forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology out Wednesday. The bureau wound back predictions of wetter and cooler than average conditions over the next three months.

“It was shaping up to be a very wet period over the next few months – they’ve backed off that forecast considerably,” Mr FitzSimmons said. “It’s going to remain a lot drier than what was previously forecast.”

“As we head into the typically warmer months, that does shape up to be challenges for the forthcoming fire season,” he said.

Much of Australia has had one of the warmest winters on record, and the 12 months since last September have been the warmest of any such period in more than 100 years of data. Sydney will post its mildest winter with maximum temperatures running about 2.5 degrees above average, while both July and August have been unusually dry.

RFS volunteers assist in a hazard-reduction burn in Scheyville National Park in Sydney’s north west. Photo: Nick Moir

“There is potential for a very intense and early fire season,” said Max Gonzalez, senior meteorologist at Weatherzone. “There’s not been enough rain, there’s less moisture in the soil, and the curing rate is quite high” because of the warm temperatures, he said.

Warm conditions have already led to a spate of fires, with the latest requiring five crews and a helicopter near Lake Munmorah on the NSW Central Coast.

In August alone, NSW fire crews have had to battle more than 350 blazes started on private property, with farm equipment, fences and even a house in Upper Colo in the Hawkesbury destroyed.

“We’ve seen just too many fires and too much damage as a result of escaped private burns this month alone,” Mr FitzSimmons said.

Authorities will release the 2013-14 bushfire outlook for southern Australia next Monday. Large regions of northern Australia, meanwhile, should expect above-average fire risks this year, the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre said in a report last month.

NSW’s national parks registered 208,000 hectares of controlled burns in the year to June, more than double the previous record of 90,000 in 2009-10, the government said last month.

Residents in fire-risk regions should start preparing their fire plans and clearing combustible material close to homes and on roofs, Mr FitzSimmons said.

“It is still early but the signals are there,“ he said. “It’s shaping up to be another challenging fire season.”

Read artitcle at the Sydney Morning Herald