A fire that threatened homes and shut down the Canberra Airport was accidentally caused by beekeepers working on a biosecurity program.
Canberra Region Beekeepers president Dermot Asis Sha’Non said an apiarist was trying to complete necessary hive checks on January 22 when they accidentally started the fire.
“The person inspecting wanted to keep in mind that there was a total fire ban, so worked to avoid that, but it didn’t work out,” Mr Asis Sha’Non said.
“The unfortunate thing is that we have milestones that are due at certain dates, and with that in mind, knowing there was a total fire ban on the Friday, the work was undertaken [earlier] to avoid the total fire ban.”
That blaze, which was known as the Beard fire, burned at emergency level for several hours, threatening homes and damaging businesses.
It began in the Redwood Forest in Pialligo, where the sentinel hives are kept, and later joined up with a second fire in the area.
The hives are part of a national honey bee surveillance program that regularly checks for the arrival of exotic pests that might threaten Australia’s bee population.
That process uses smokers to calm the bees so the hives can be inspected, which requires lighting fuels to generate the smoke.
The hives are maintained on behalf of the ACT government by Canberra Region Beekeepers – the program is usually run through state agriculture departments in other jurisdictions.
Plant Health Australia, which coordinates the program nationally, said it had no first-hand information regarding the fire.
But its chief executive Greg Fraser said a range of other surveillance activities would ensure the health of Australia’s bee population was not endangered while the hives were rebuilt.
It is understood the bee colonies died in the fire.
Worksafe ACT is speaking to local and federal agencies as part of its investigation.
Second fire in ACT caused during government work
The fire was the second in the ACT this season confirmed to have been started by somebody carrying out government work.
Last week the Department of Defence admitted the landing light from one of its own helicopters started a bushfire that has since burned through almost 30 per cent of the ACT and destroyed homes across the border in NSW.
The grasslands it ignited were so dry that heat from the light was enough to start a fire.
Mr Asis Sha’Non said, as in that instance, he felt for the person who accidentally caused the bushfire.
“We feel as an association the burden that our member is feeling … we’d like to be taking that mental burden off them,” he said.
The ACT government has distanced itself from the airport fire and its cause, saying it has “minimal contact” with beekeepers and no regulatory obligation to participate in the biosecurity program.
Both the Association and Plant Health Australia said they awaited the outcomes of the ACT government’s investigation and any recommendations it might make.