NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and fire authorities have defended hazard reduction operations following a major bushfire in the Winmalee area last week.
A three-day investigation into the bushfire emergency that scorched 1000 hectares of land and threatened homes in Winmalee, Hawkesbury Heights and Yellow Rock found unexpectedly harsh weather conditions led to a hazard reduction burn getting out of control.
NSW Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said a 600-hectare hazard reduction burn near Lynchs Creek north of Winmalee along the Shaws Ridge fire trail on September 8 flared up two days later.
‘’Basically it was burnt on the weekend, it was patrolled on Monday, there was smouldering activity — that fire then jumped containment lines [on Tuesday],’’ Commissioner Rogers said on Friday.
He apologised to anyone who experienced property damage from the Winmalee fire.
“I don’t have any indication that anyone was negligent.
“It appears on first look that it’s a case of the weather was worse than was predicted, the fire jumped out, it took hold really, really quickly.’’
The RFS declared the blaze contained and on “patrol status” on Friday, helped by cooler conditions as crews continued to mop up, remove dangerous trees near roads and monitor burnt bushland areas for signs of smoke.
When the fire was still raging in bushland last Wednesday, RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell inspected a defensive backburning operation at the end of Leslie Road, Winmalee — part of more than 7km of backburns surrounding residential areas done by more than 230 volunteer firefighters in shifts day and night.
Both defended the increased number of hazard reduction burns being conducted by the RFS and NPWS in bushland across the state in this warmer-than-average start to spring.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said weather conditions on September 10 “exceeded what was forecast in terms of temperature, humidity and wind speed”.
“To see resources coming from all over the place, firefighters from greater Sydney descend on the area and try to protect people and their property, I think, was outstanding,” he said.
“Looking at the detailed maps here with our incident controller David Jones, we do know that adjacent to the areas of Winmalee, we had hazard reduction completed in May 2013.
“This fire has not travelled through that area so that’s indicative of the effectiveness of hazard reduction and the protection it provides,” Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.
“If it wasn’t for the firefighting efforts, particularly those on the ground working from the back of their fire engines, if it wasn’t for those community members who were prepared and acted on their Bushfire Survival Plan, and with the support of the [water bombing] aircraft, then clearly the result of the damage would have been worse.”
Mr O’Farrell stressed the importance of NSW’s increased hazard reduction program “because the alternative is disaster”.
“Over the past financial year there’s been 280,000 hectares [of hazard reduction burns] across the state. In the Blue Mountains it was 14,000 hectares last year and 3500 hectares so far this financial year.
“We are deliberately encouraging as much hazard reduction as possible because when you don’t undertake hazard reduction you leave the fuel load as it is and it grows.”
Arsonists, meanwhile, are believed to have started a blaze in Marsden Park last week, which destroyed one home.
Mr Rogers said investigators had determined a fire in Windsor was caused by power lines that were brought down in high winds.
RFS Blue Mountains district manager David Jones said last week’s bushfires reinforced the service’s advice to householders to ensure they are properly prepared for the bushfire season.
“The Bureau of Meteorology has forecast a drier and hotter summer than average so we can take that as having a few more high fire danger and Total Fire Ban days,” he said.
He said, “we will continue to do prescriptive hazard reduction burns as opportunities arise ahead of summer.”