The fire emergency facing Queensland is still not over and it won’t be for weeks, according to the Acting Fire Commissioner who says it will take a heavy dose of rain to get the 70-odd blazes under control.
Monday’s weather conditions were some of the best fire crews have seen in the past 10 days – the length of the latest fire crisis – and while there were no bushfires at emergency level, authorities say there are five of concern.
They are at Pechey (north of Toowoomba), the Border Ranges, Woodgate (south of Bundaberg), Cobraball (west of Yeppoon) and Moreton Island.
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services acting commissioner Mike Wassing said firefighters were fighting an uphill battle.
“[Monday] peters out a little bit. When I say it peters out, we’re back to very high conditions and in some parts of the state moderate conditions,” Commissioner Wassing said.
“The reality though for us [firefighters] is with these fires we’ll be fighting some of these fires for weeks yet.
“These fires will not go out – even the rainfall that we get that we’ve seen in some of those isolated storms will not be putting them out.
“If I use the analogy, a bit like our aircraft: The aircrafts are really helpful but they won’t put the fire out. In the same way, these showers won’t put the fire out.”
Smoke haze reaches NZ
Meanwhile, the smoke haze from fires burning in NSW and south-east Queensland has now made its way to New Zealand.
The weather bureau’s Kimba Wong said satellite imagery showed the smoke had travelled across the Tasman Sea to the North Island in the past couple of days.
“By the time it gets there, it’s probably quite elevated and not causing too many issues in terms of visibility close to the ground but it might make for some quite beautiful sunsets and sunrises in New Zealand,” she said.
The smoke is now about 2000 kilometres from south-east Queensland.
“That is a fair distance, and if we look further afield that smoke haze is starting to get up in the higher regions of the atmosphere and it is making its way almost half way around the southern hemisphere,” she said.
“In terms of the actual distances, it’s half way around the mid-latitudes of the southern hemisphere.
“That is pretty extreme – we don’t often see that. It is likely to make a full circle I would say at this point.
“Once it gets up into the upper atmosphere, winds can get quite fast there so that tends to let them project themselves around the globe a little bit faster as well.”
The smoke is unlikely to have any direct impact on the weather once it gets into the upper atmosphere.
“It’s absolutely incredible – quite stunning – but also very grounding to see that satellite imagery,” she said.
Storms exacerbated conditions
It was hoped Sunday’s rainfall would bring some relief to fire crews, but the storm cell brought dry lightning, exacerbating conditions.
The peak rainfall total was just 39 millimetres, recorded at the Sunshine Coast where hail battered homes, felled trees and cut power to almost 20,000 homes.
On Sunday, the Pechey-Ravensbourne fire was returned to an emergency level, and an emergency warning was issued for the nearby town of Esk – home to 1700 people – before both fires were downgraded to watch and act later in the day.
In all, 4000 hectares of land have been burnt in the Pechey-Ravensbourne fire and a 737 aircraft was brought in to help contain the blaze.
Fire behaviour specialist Ben Twomey said it was fuelled by gusty winds as part of the storm system.
Commissioner Wassing did, however, say the situation had improved dramatically across the board, with several major blazes now no longer being of concern to authorities.
“Some of the large fires we’ve had the last week that have been cause for concern and certainly had significant impact are now contained, and well contained,” he said.
“Specifically the Cobraball fire in central Queensland – we still have resources on that fire and will for some time but that fire’s looking very well contained.”
Commissioner Wassing said Woodgate, where a dramatic fire front was captured on camera last week, was also no longer a major concern.
— Qld Fire & Emergency (@QldFES) November 17, 2019
Residents may be displaced for a week
Residents of Ravensbourne and Pechey have lived in uncertainty for more than four days, with the fluctuating fire conditions keeping them from home.
One young family, who bought their first home just a few months ago in Ravensbourne said they were just grateful to be safe.
“We just had to pack a few things, get the cat inside and yeah, it’s a bit scary, strange kind of feeling isn’t it,” Clara Weeks said.
Ricky Schwerin said he first evacuated his property last Monday, returned for two days, and evacuated again on Wednesday.
“I seen the smoke but no flames, but where I am you could see the glow. A really big glow, like it’s sunsetting out in the distance,” he said.
“I raced home to grab a few things [once] but the fire is right across the road from it [his home].
“Little bit stressed, worried, just seeing how [the firefighters] go. Don’t know long it’ll be but I’m staying with aunties and uncles.
He said he had a lot of faith in the rural fire service and was even inspired to join.
“Keep up the good work, and I will be joining when I can,” Mr Schwerin said.
Moreton Island still on authorities’ radar
Police are overseeing the evacuation of the last campers on Moreton Island where two watch and act warnings are in place after a fire was sparked by dry lightning on Saturday night.
Fires are heading in a northerly direction towards Bulwar but there are no homes under threat.
Inspector Craig White said an evacuation centre had opened at Tangalooma Island Resort – where there were major issues with water supply several weeks ago.
“At the moment there are two fixed wing water-bombers and a helicopter water-bomber. They’re going to remain in the area for the large part of today just putting out spot fires and maintaining an awareness of where those fires are moving to,” he said.
Jarred Collard said he was camping at Comboyuro Point, near Bulwer when they received evacuation orders.
“The rangers come up about 4am … and said we need to pack up and get out of there before the wind changes direction and starts the fires going up there and, yeah, they came down here and welcomed us in the resort,” Mr Collard said.
Inspector White said the resort was providing guests with tea, coffee and parking until they could organise to leave the island.