In November, local group BREAZE held a forum about the dangers of a "new bushfire reality". With the 2019/20 bushfire season less than half over and Victoria and NSW wracked by fires, The Courier is republishing the prescient concerns and advice of these experts.
Ballarat is facing a "clear and present" danger from a fire risk that is increasing due to the climate emergency, a former fire boss has said.
Neil Bibby, the Country Fire Authority chief from 2002 to 2009, said the region faced just as much danger as areas affected by the devastating blazes in NSW and Queensland which has so far killed three and injured at least 35 people.
His remarks came over the same weekend as a Ballarat Renewable Energy and Zero Emissions (BREAZE) forum discussing "New Bushfire Reality".
It featured climate experts and the CFA discussing how residents and local authorities need to adapt to the escalating fire risk.
Mr Bibby said he hoped concerns he put in a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which he signed with 22 other former emergency leaders, would soon be addressed.
They wrote to the prime minister, who avoided questions about climate change at the weekend, in April to request a meeting and a review of the firefighting resources.
Their call has repeatedly been referenced on social media in recent days in the wake of the horrific fires interstate, which have left more than 150 homes destroyed since Friday.
Mr Bibby also urged people in Ballarat not to be complacent due to the recent cold and wet weather.
"There's a lot of new estates going in, new small townships being built. A lot of the places that are suburbs of Ballarat are now going into the bush," Mr Bibby told The Courier.
I know the Ballarat area quite well, it doesn't take much at all for the bush to dry out and for it to be as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than what's happening in New South Wales at the moment.Neil Bibby, former CEO of the Country Fire Authority
"The impact (of bushfires) is going to be even greater this year."
Mr Bibby also said the current damp conditions could make the area more vulnerable.
"What happens is, a little bit of rain comes and people get lulled into a false sense of security," he said.
"I know the Ballarat area quite well, it doesn't take much at all for the bush to dry out and for it to be as dangerous - if not more dangerous - than what's happening in NSW at the moment.
"Too often people see a little bit of rain and think 'oh, that's fine'.
"What's actually happening is there will be a lot more growth for when the Victorian fire season starts."
Along with other fire and emergency services leaders, he has been asking for the prime minister to meet to discuss the "rapidly escalating" risks and "inadequate resourcing" of the emergency services.
Mr Bibby, who has been involved in firefighting since 1971, said the lengthening fire seasons were a danger for teams that used to divide their resources interstate.
"We quite often used to share firefighters around. If someone had a bad season, we would send some firefighters to NSW."
Now he said the overlapping fire seasons could make it very hard to get extra people on the ground.
"The scientists that are out doing the work are just as frustrated as we are - they have a clear understanding of what's happening, and people are just not listening."
He urged residents to accept there was a "clear and present danger" and to make sure politicians knew how they felt.
"We have to get (it) into the federal agenda that we have a problem."
Former Forest Fire Management, Victoria chief fire officer Ewan Waller also signed the letter to the prime minister earlier this year.
He told The Courier one of the reasons he signed the letter was to advocate for more resources to stop fires spreading in the first place.
"It's not just about aircraft, it's not just about bigger and better trucks, it's about prevention," he said.
"The fire problem is going to move into Victoria all too soon. We are all very wary of coming into the summer.
"The fringe areas, the surrounding areas of Ballarat are quite exposed. The rural subdivisions and the settlements around it - keeping fires from those is really quite difficult. They are quite vulnerable.
READ THE LETTER FROM EMERGENCY LEADERS
"I am very keen to get more resourcing in fuel management so we can do more slashing and burning off on a far broader area than we are doing now.
"In Enfield (State Forest) and Canadian you need to actively manage the fuels otherwise they will cause you no end of trouble."
He said the Scotsburn fire a few years ago showed how fuel management could help minimise the damage.
Mr Waller said he expected a response to the letter soon and wanted to ensure any action had "bipartisan support".
BREAZE FIRE MANAGEMENT FORUM
The public BREAZE forum took place on Sunday with local residents and fire experts joining to discuss the "New Bushfire Reality" and the changing nature of the fire risk in the area.
Adrian Whitehead, the director of Council and Community Action in the Climate Emergency, was one of the keynote speakers at the forum. His organisation aims to encourage and support councils to prepare for the climate emergency.
"We know these extreme events are coming and the council should be doing everything it possibly can within its available budget to help the community prepare, adapt and have some resilience for these future fire events that we are going to see," he told The Courier ahead of the event.
He said it would require "some really serious planning" to get the community as ready as they needed to be for future fire seasons.
"What would we do if the worst case scenario occurred?" he asked.
"Are the hospitals prepared? Can they run their generators for long enough?"
He also said the issue needed to be considered as part of a wider planning strategy.
"If you look at the fringe of Ballarat, there is quite a number of urban areas that are abutting pine plantations or natural woodlands," Mr Whitehead said.
"Potentially we might need to step back some of these boundaries, otherwise we might find ourselves in a situation like Canberra where they had pine plantations right up to their suburbs when they suffered their most horrendous fires in 2003.
We need to look at the quite realistic predictions of what climate change will bring us and prepare for those events. It's much more than what we're prepared for now.
"We wait for the next huge event to occur and then we put some things in place. We don't actually plan for what could be much bigger.
"We need to look at the quite realistic predictions of what climate change will bring us and prepare for those events. It's much more than what we're prepared for now."
Country Fire Authority community safety manager Michael Boatman also spoke at the event. He explained how the hotter climate is making bushfires more frequent and dangerous.
"Across Australia, but particularly in south-east Australia and Victoria the most, there is significant change in weather, particularly in spring," he said.
He said spring had been drier and hotter - by about 1.4 degrees - in the past 40 years.
"The change means we are getting fire seasons that start earlier - we need to be ready in November rather than December," he said.
The second message Mr Boatman was keen to convey was about planning.
He said people on the urban fringes - such as Mount Helen, Mount Clear, Buninyong and Invermay - should prepare a plan for themselves and their properties for the fire season.
He also said new development areas around the south-west could be at risk even if they are not surrounded by bush, with running grassfires a potential issue.
"People think they are not exposed to bush, but (they) still need to have a plan," he said.
"As we saw at Melton in 1985, you can lose 20 or 30 houses at the edge of a development if you don't know what you are going to do."
CLIMATE CHANGE IN BALLARAT: WHAT THE SCIENTISTS SAY:
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an independent federal government agency, combined with the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), have pooled their resources to produce a website predicting how climate is likely to affect the different regions of Australia.
For the purposes of their modelling, Australia is divided into eight "Natural Resource Management" clusters. Ballarat lies within the Southern Slopes Victoria West sub-cluster.
More hot days and warm spells are projected with very high confidence
According to its climate modelling data, it says temperatures are almost certain to carry on rising: "More hot days and warm spells are projected with very high confidence. Fewer frosts are projected with high confidence."
"Generally less rainfall in the cool season (winter and spring) is projected with high confidence.
"Changes to summer and autumn rainfall are possible but less clear. Increased intensity of extreme rainfall events is projected, with high confidence."
The data also suggests a "high confidence" that climate change will result in a harsher fire-weather climate in the future.
However there was less certainty about the extent of the changes: "There is low confidence in the magnitude of the change to fire weather. This depends on the rainfall projection and its seasonal variation. Relative changes are comparable across the other three sub-clusters of Southern Slopes."
- For more information see: www.climatechangeinaustralia.gov.au.
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