Under the shadow of COVID-19, Victoria’s latest fire season slipped by almost unnoticed.
After the terrible destruction of the 2019-20 season, it was a welcome relief for Alen Slijepcevic, the CFA deputy chief officer.
The 2020-21 fire season turned out to be moderate, as predicted, with La Ninja bringing wetter than normal conditions.
Fires seldom lasted more than a day and there was plenty of rain.
One of those fires in mid-December last year threatened the communities of Mount Cottrell and Truganina, burning sheds and old cars, but it was quickly brought under control.
There were 1,677 fires between October and March and 9,100 hectares of land was burnt.
The average number of hectares burnt over the past 10 years was about 250,000.
“So [it was] a really good season from that perspective,” Mr Slijepcevic said.
“The largest fire this season was around 200 hectares in comparison to hundreds of thousands of hectares for individual fires in 2019-20.”
Compare that to early 2020: there were 3,067 fires and more than 1.5 million hectares of land was burnt.
Fires around ten communities including Omeo and Swifts Creek threatened communities for weeks.
Images from Mallacoota of people huddled at the wharf under an eerie red sky waiting to be rescued illustrated the extent of the catastrophe.
No question climate change is having an impact
This year there was just enough rain to “keep a lid on” the fire season, Mr Slijepcevic said.
But thanks to climate change, this year’s ‘good’ fire season is likely to be the exception to the rule.
Mr Slijepcevic said there was no doubt the increased frequency and severity of bad fire seasons was linked to climate change.
Consider the statistics: before 2004, there were two recorded fires that burnt 1 million hectares of land.
In the past seven years, there have been three of those seasons.
Dealing with fires and COVID would’ve been ‘difficult’
Then consider the implications of a bad fire season coupled with COVID-19.
“If we had a busy fire season in which we had to keep people away from each other, that would be a difficult season to manage,” Mr Slijepcevic told the ABC.
“Our colleagues in the US managed … they had different strategies, keeping people in small teams so it doesn’t go through large teams.
“It is manageable but it would’ve been very difficult.”
For example, moving resources around the state, or even interstate as they did with the NSW fires, would have been very difficult.
Mr Slijepcevic said any downtime this season was spent in preparation for the next one.
All of the fire agency’s procedures were reviewed to work out what would need to change in the event of a COVID outbreak during a fire.
The CFA and Forest Fire Management Victoria have also doubled the number of hectares of planned burns.
There have been 380 burns so far this year totalling 110,000 hectares.
Asked what the forecast is for the next season, Mr Slijepcevic said it was about three months too early to know for sure.
One thing is certain: while it may seem like it was a wet summer it really wasn’t.
“People in Melbourne would probably think this was a really wet year but even in Melbourne it was just an average year,” he said.
“Yes we received more rainfall than previous years but it would still only be an average year for Victoria.
“Conditions are returning to what we’ve been seeing for the last 50 years. There is quite a significant decline in the rainfall, in late autumn and winter, of about 15 per cent less.”
He said the fuels were 35 per cent drier than they were 30 years ago.
So his prediction for the fire season ahead?
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