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Get Ready for a season of grass fires

A different burn: A season of grass fires has already began, with this Sunnyside burn one of half-a-dozen grass fires already attended by RFS crews in the Tenterfield area. Photo: Pam O'Neill.
A different burn: A season of grass fires has already began, with this Sunnyside burn one of half-a-dozen grass fires already attended by RFS crews in the Tenterfield area. Photo: Pam O'Neill.

Rural Fire Service Northern Tablelands' Scott Keelan anticipates we're on the verge of a different type of fire season, more likely to feature grass fires than the outbreaks in heavily wooded areas in 2019 that were so difficult to access.

"The weather elements are not stacking up like they did last year: the drought and the soil moisture deficit," he said.

"That's not to say there will be no fires, but we expect there to be more grass fires in open areas."

Tenterfield was among the first local government areas to introduce an early start to the bushfire period on August 1, along with Armidale, Walcha, Uralla, Glen Innes Severn and Inverell. The shire has already suffered half-a-dozen grass fires in the past two months, each requiring a response from multiple RFS brigades.

This has set the scene for a particularly significant RFS Get Ready weekend coming up, given the devastation caused by last season's bushfires.

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Mr Keelan said grass fires can be easier to tackle operationally, with aerial support able to set wet or retardant lines that allow crews to enter the area and fight from within.

These fires may not be as intense or as prolonged as the ones we saw last year, but that doesn't detract from the threat they pose.

Invasive grass species like coolatia and lovegrass love a good fire, which tends to wipe out the competition from native grasses. Mr Keelan said last year's fires followed by recovery rain encouraged the germination of these species.

The RFS already has a mitigation program underway, contracting slashers to reduce the fuel load ahead of October which Mr Keelan identified as a significant threat as we head into summer.

He hopes that predictions of a La Nina weather event, bringing above average rainfall, turn out to be true and put some water into dams. They don't, however, reduce the need for property owners to have a bushfire plan in place.

"Regardless of the weather, don't be complacent," he said.

"People have to be ready to respond, and ready to make good decisions.

"You need to prepare yourself and your family for bushfires. Know what you're going to do, be prepared, don't panic, and act calmly so the firies can do their job.

"Rain's good, but it will also encourage grass growth and could bring on a second wave of coolatai and lovegrass."

He said burning off isn't always the best way to reduce fuel load, depending on the prevalent species.

"Burning is not the panacea. Burning is not the only way."

Slashing where possible, possibly used in combination with grazing, can reduce tall invasive species while allowing the natives to come through,

Mr Keelan's a proponent of cultural burning, the indigenous approach which uses a cool burn at the right time of year to destroy invasive species with little damage to native grasses and the creatures under the leaf litter.

He was involved in the cultural burning of Tenterfield Park last week and said it was a great opportunity to share information and knowledge.

"You could actually pick up the ash after the fire went through, it was so cool. There was green grass left, there were still critters moving about..."

After a similarly-successful cultural burn at Delungra, the Banbai rangers and RFS have three more cultural burns in the planning stages for the Glen Innes area.

Mr Keelan said such efforts have been happening quietly in the background for some time and are a good thing, with rangers and RFS volunteers standing shoulder-to-shoulder sharing information on tools and containment.

"It's very valuable and I hope it continues."

Get Ready for bushfires

It's up to local RFS brigades to organise their community outreach on Get Ready weekend, officially September 19.

Historically this has meant throwing open the RFS shed doors to the general public and putting on a barbecue, but efforts are becoming more targeted at getting landholders prepared for the bushfire season.

Treechangers and other newcomers may be unsure of how to best prepare their properties for the bushfire period, but Mr Keelan said the RFS is keen to help. While there's lots of information available online at the RFS Northern Tablelands website, anyone keen for some one-on-one help can reach out with a direct message through the RFS Northern Tablelands Facebook page or by contacting an RFS member.

He said an experienced local officer can visit a property to work with the owner on assessing the bushfire threat and the fuel load, and prepare a fuel management plan.

"We cover around 21,000 square kilometres in the Northern Tablelands so we need people to contact us.

"We're happy to assist to work out the best option of what's achievable."

Northern Tablelands RFS brigades will be helping to spread the Get Ready word at various locations over the next few weeks, starting with this Saturday, September 5 at the Inverell Fire Control Centre from 9am to 4pm and the Tenterfield Fire Control Centre from 9am to 5pm, and at Glen Innes Fire Control Centre from 9am to 5pm on Saturday, September 19.

Many brigades are having individual Get Ready days either at their shed or in public places, like the volunteers from the Homestead Brigade who will be outside Coles Tenterfield on September 19 from 8:30am to 2pm. (Check the RFS website for a list of all participating brigades.)

Homestead's Pam O'Neill said the response rate at the shed on previous Get Ready days has been low so she's opted this year for a high traffic area. She'll be armed with all the necessary information to create a bushfire plan, and ready to answer specific questions.

She is particularly hoping to attract those on small blocks of land and new subdivisions which are often fence-to-fence lovegrass, and is happy to arrange a time for an on-site visit for customised advice. In fact if one landholder in a subdivision reaches out for assistance, Ms O'Neill said she will attempt to get all the neighbours onboard as well.

One piece of general advice she has at the moment, after a run of call outs, is for landholders to remain vigilant while undertaking their hazard reduction burns.

"We had one fire that reignited the next day after the owner went to work," she said.