The ground was glowing, shades of yellow and orange so bright they hurt your eyes. As the yellow reached higher, the colour grew dimmer.
Just orange. A dark orange.
That orange faded into the black of the night sky, a haze covering any remnants of the stars. A beautiful sight, if it wasn’t someone’s home turning to ashes.
In 2019, Australia recorded its worst bushfire season in history. Unprecedented weather conditions and a severe drought led to 7% of New South Wales erupting in flames.
Fast forward to 2023, and the NSW government has predicted this summer to consist of ‘warm and windy’ weather, known as ‘fire weather.’
Since the Black Summer bushfires, the NSW government has conducted post-fire assessments to understand the causes and determine measures to minimise the risk of another catastrophic event. One way to minimise the impact of a fire is through hazard reduction burns.
WHAT IS A HAZARD REDUCTION BURN?
A hazard reduction burn is a pre-emptive measure undertaken by the Rural Fire Service or the National Parks and Wildlife Service to minimise leaf litter and extra vegetation, which serve as fuel and significantly contribute to the risk of fire.
Roderick (Rory) Amon MP, Member for Pittwater in Sydney Northern Beaches and volunteer firefighter for Davidson Rural Fire Brigade, served in the 2019 to 2020 bushfires and was deployed to the South Coast for weeks at a time.
He explained the wet climate over the past couple of years, has resulted in significant vegetation growth, and fewer controlled burns, heightening the risk of bushfires.
“It’s just a matter of assessing the risk, but also actually having the right conditions to be able to burn,” Mr Amon said.
“Having the resources to do it, the people, the trucks, the time, all that. So you’re always behind where they want to be when it comes to burns.”
Due to this weather, 25% of the planned burns were completed in July with the Royal Fire Service burning 40,000 hectares as of October.
Leanne Jones, a retired high school teacher and Illawarra resident, expressed her fear regarding the upcoming summer, due to the lack of hazard reduction burns in her area.
Ms Jones’ house was under threat in the 2019 Black Summer and residents of her area were told to evacuate. She chose to stay and protect her home with her neighbours.
“I took days off work,” she said.
“I would stand out the back, with my hose and try with everything to protect my house.”
Her home was not affected, however, 2,476 homes across NSW were destroyed.
For over 60,000 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have utilised land management practices to reduce hazards. This technique encourages the new growth of culturally significant flora, as well as protecting the native fauna.
A cultural fire, is a fire deliberately positioned in a landscape authorised and led by the Traditional Owners of the Country. These fires are lit for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, fuel reduction, regeneration, management of food, ceremony and healing the Spirit of the Country (Ancestral Indigenous lands).
Shaun Hooper highlighted the distinction between a cultural burn and a hazard reduction burn, emphasising that a cultural burn is, “not guided by prescription, it is guided by the close relationship that the Aboriginal Culture Practitioner has with that Country and everything in it.”
Due to this, there is a registered understanding taken into account from the Indigenous perspective when planning a burn.
“There are registers of Aboriginal Heritage Sites that are taken into account when they undertake a burn,” Mr Amon said.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, okay. There is an Aboriginal Heritage Site in that area. We are going to steer clear of it.’”
Indigenous Australians view their burns as an ongoing relationship with the land.
WHEN TO BURN?
The Royal Fire Service maintains records of past burn locations and timing, utilising this information to determine where to ‘prescribe’ burns. A triage-like system is in operation to prioritise higher-risk areas, with additional considerations given to the specific location of the bushland.
How many homes are nearby? Is there a retirement village or other vulnerable people? Is the area easily accessible? Has there been a build-up of debris?
Ideal conditions are crucial for initiating a hazard reduction burn, requiring the absence of excessive rain, wind, or extreme dry weather in the lead-up and the days following.
As the wind rustles through the Eucalyptus trees and the magpies hop around in grassy fields, spring has sprung – with vengeance.
With consecutive wet summers resulting in a lack of pre-emptive burns, the Royal Fire Service is taking every perfectly temperate opportunity to minimise risk.
However, the excessive fire fuel, extreme heat and lack of rain make for a dangerous mix, with Mr Amon labelling this summer a ‘high-risk’ season.
“Sometimes you have years where there are no significant fires. Other times you do,” he said.
“There are a number of fires burning around the state, so as we do every summer, just hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.”
With that being said, Leanne has already placed her ‘to-go bag’ by the door.
“All I can do is be ready,” she said.
“My gutters are clean, but the bush is right there.
“It will be devastating.”
Wollongong City Council has strongly advised residents to prepare their properties by removing all flammable materials, including leaves in gutters. They recommend establishing a ‘go’ plan communicated to all household members, and staying alert for fires in the area by downloading the ‘Hazards Near Me’ app.
Fire and Rescue Australia urges anyone who sees a fire to remain calm and follow the RACE acronym.
R – Rescue. Assist any person in immediate danger if it is safe to do so.
A – Alarm. Call 000 and alert any other necessary contacts.
C – Contain. Close doors and windows to contain fire (only if practical).
E – Extinguish. Attempt to extinguish the fire using appropriate firefighting equipment if you are trained and if it is safe to do so.
Always listen to first responders in an emergency. For more information about fires and hazard reduction burns go to the Fire and Rescue website.