Record-breaking low rainfall in parts of Victoria is forcing the Country Fire Authority (CFA) to bring forward the start of its bushfire season.
The agency has released its bushfire season outlook, and is warning Victorians to prepare for an extreme summer of fires.
For the first time, fire restrictions will be introduced in Gippsland as early as September.
CFA chief officer Steve Warrington said the season looked like it would be the worst in a decade.
“Our primary concern is Gippsland, the north-eastern parts of Victoria as well, the Otways and certainly along the Murray,” he said.
“At the moment if we go on the current forecasts, and to some extent it’s crystal balling, but the dams are down. The water content in the ground is quite low.
“Large parts of the state have been in a few years of drought now.”
Conditions in parts of the state, including East Gippsland, are the worst firefighters have seen since Black Saturday when 173 people died in February 2009.
Fire season to ‘start early, finish late’
“[This is the] first time ever we’ll introduce restrictions in Gippsland as early as September,” he said.
“That will take us right through to potentially April next year, so start early, finish late.
“The conditions for this time of the year are really quite concerning for us, and that’s unfortunately already being realised.”
Fire authorities are expecting a severe or extreme fire season across much of the country this summer.
Mr Warrington warned that could leave Victoria unable to call on firefighters from interstate for help.
“Our ability to support each other is diminished,” he said.
“This year we’re planning as if Victorians are predominately going to have to look after ourselves. The support won’t necessarily be there as we’re used to.
“If it starts early and finishes late, it means fatigue issues for us — long campaign, lots of expectation.”
Winter bushfires causing concern
About 140 firefighters have been battling a blaze burning at Cape Conran, in the state’s east, since Saturday.
It is one of more than a dozen burn-offs that have escaped from private properties this month.
Victoria’s Department of Environment Land Water and Planning incident controller Ben Rankin said the conditions were drier and more volatile than normal.
“This is most unusual to have fires run to this extent in winter,” he said.
“The fuel and the countryside in East Gippsland at the moment is excessively dry.”
Mr Rankin said the ground was drier now than it usually would be in summer.
Rainfall totals are at record lows in part of East Gippsland and, combined with the early fire season, landholders are growing concerned.
Josh Puglisi’s Cape Conran property is adjacent to the fire.
“We have a dam in our front yard and that was dug probably 12 years ago and it has been full every year,” he said.
“This is the first year it’s got virtually no water in it.
“We’ve got fire pumps on our dam, but we’ve got no water to pump.
“Everyone’s talking about how dry it is. Everybody from farmers to some old retired couples who live in this area.”
The nearby Snowy River Campus School for Student Leadership is tucked away on a grass field surrounded by forest near Marlo.
Principal Robyn Francis said the school’s fire equipment had been set up earlier than ever before.
The school has five water tanks for firefighting, a back-up generator, and a deluge system to spray water over the school buildings if a fire threatens.
“We usually have it in terms one and four. It’s always up in those terms. This is the first time we’ve set it up in term three,” Ms Francis said.