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‘Like a time bomb’: farmers face fire risk

Widespread rain paired with hot conditions in parts of the country have prompted warnings for farmers to be fire-ready.

National Farmers’ Federation chief Tony Mahar says heavy fuel loads coupled with high temperatures mean an increased fire danger.

“Despite the widespread rainfall, it only takes a few hot, dry days for paddocks, including yet-to-be-harvested winter crops, to be a fire waiting to happen,” he warns.

Farmers also double as bush fire brigade members, and are key to keeping brigades together and firefighting equipment maintained.

However there are fears a reduction in their numbers could affect regional firefighting capacity at the worst possible time.

WA Farmers chief Trevor Whittington told AAP one of the wettest winters in the state in 50 years has dramatically increased the fuel load.

“From one end of the state to the other we’ve never seen anything like it, there’s just grass everywhere and that’s just heightened the risks,” Mr Whittington says.

“There’s less and less farmers which is always the challenge … less people with their utes and their firefighting trucks to go out and fight fires … and less people on the ground over those really dangerous months of January, February and March.”

The WA Farmers boss says the “perfect storm” could be about to hit, because of the need for RFS fire crew to be vaccinated against COVID-19 combined with already declining numbers of volunteers.

“The pressure is on the volunteers because of mandatory vaccinations and mandatory training … and we’re losing volunteers, from 31,000 bushfire volunteers ten years ago we’re down to 27,000.”

A series of fires in Western Australia in December prompted a warning from the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development for agricultural businesses to prepare their properties for an elevated bushfire risk.

The warning came after the WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services released its seasonal forecast, with an above average risk for Perth and large parts of the Midwest, Gascoyne, Pilbara, South West and Great Southern regions.

Mr Whittington encouraged farmers to be “hyper vigilant” especially with the “biggest harvest ever” still underway in parts of the state set to continue into January.

“It only takes one spark and up it goes … this is a particularly important year because there’s so much volatile material out there and we’re just lacking people,” he says.

“There’s still too many fires created by people making mistakes, that naked flame dropped, people not checking equipment … people doing stupid things.”

Deputy chair of Grain Growers Australia Rhys Turton said in just one week in December there had been two fires started by harvesters in the WA wheat belt.

“It’s a risk that farmers manage every year, there’s always the risk of harvest fires due to mechanical failure,” he tells AAP.

Mr Turton has encouraged farmers to perform daily maintenance on their machinery and ensure they have firefighting equipment at the ready, a legal requirement.

Terry Dowling from Honeybugle near Nyngan in central NSW knows all too well the damage that harvester fires can do.

A spark from a harvester lit up 600 hectares of his property in November 2020 and wiped out about half a million dollars’ worth of barley.

It was the biggest fire he’d witnessed on his property in 40 years of farming.

Despite the losses he says “accidents happen” but he told AAP he does extensive maintenance to prevent them.

“We pull up feel the bearings, blow the headers down every morning and every night … and if it is a bad day we walk around the headers every hour and … make sure there’s nothing wrong.”

His neighbour Richard Hoare was one of 40 people who turned up to help contain the blaze.

The captain of the local Honeybugle RFS Brigade said making properties fire-ready this year had been made more difficult due to recent heavy rains.

“Because of the amount of rain we can’t get machinery around … you just have to wait for things to dry out,” he says.

He told AAP the rain has generated a lot of growth and by the end of January “it will be like a time bomb possibly”.

“It’s always in the back of your mind that something is going to go wrong somewhere along the line,” he says.

Official fire season kicked off in NSW on October 1, with controlled burns carried out on some farms to reduce the chance of crops catching fire.

During the 12 month period to October in NSW around 200 fires were thought to have been sparked by harvesters and other machinery.

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