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A dire warning for Orange: “All you need is one ember to hit and the whole thing goes up”

December 22, 2022

By Peter Holmes

“It’s not if, it’s when,” warned Canobolas Rural Fire Service inspector Brett Bowden.

“January, February and probably March will be a testing time for everybody across the Central West in terms of fire.”

With above average rainfall in recent years, Bowden said he is not so concerned about a repeat of the 2018 fires on Gaanha-bula Mount Canobolas, which razed about 1,600 hectares, although a fire-free season on the mountain is no guarantee.

What has him more concerned is the grass. You can see it around parts of Orange. Three, four, five feet tall, it might be green or green-brown now, but it will turn to fuel as the days warm.

“We have more grass that we’ve probably seen in 15 years, maybe in 20-odd years,” Bowden told The Orange News Examiner.

“We’ve seen recent flooding in various locations, and some of that flood has brought additional debris into places where it wouldn’t normally be, and that is also fuel for fire.

The scene near the corner of Shiralee and Pinnacle roads on Tuesday. Copyright: Orange News Examiner..

“We’ve got harvest on in full swing now in many rural locations and harvesting also brings risk of fire.”

Bowden said in terms of fire risk, rain and cooler temperatures meant it had been a “pretty good start to summer … and it’s delayed the start of summer, if you like, but the time will come in the not too distant future where we get consecutive hot, dry and windy days.

“That nice green tinge you’ve got at the moment around Orange and Blayney - go to Molong, Canowindra, Eugowra, west of Orange, and you’ll see that it’s not green.

“It’s only a matter of time before we get those ignition factors, and if we get them on the wrong day where we have hot, dry, windy conditions, we’ve got the prospect of having a very dangerous fire.”

Another emergency first responder in Orange, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agreed with Bowden, and urged Orange City Council to continue to pile as many resources as possible into getting on top of the tall grass.

“I have been in fire and floods in a first responder capacity, and all I’m seeing [around Orange] is danger, danger, danger,” they said.

Gardiner Road on Tuesday. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

Council is believed to be farming work out wherever possible to private lawn mowing and landscaping firms in an attempt to rid the area of as much tall grass as possible. But at this time of the year many of these companies are busy with private residential work.

“This will be suburban and urban, where grass is built up,” the first responder said. “Council can't get to it [all] and some of it you cannot mow because it's too boggy underneath. But while it’s boggy underneath, the top is ready to flame.

“All you need is one ember to hit something like Gosling Creek, which is so overgrown, and the whole thing will go up.”

The first responder said that during the drought “farmers all around this region didn’t have enough feed for their stock, so they had to get rid of stock. Now the properties have plenty of grass but not enough stock, so there’s nothing to eat that grown grass and hay. You have massive fields of it. When it happens, it’s going to rip through - grass fires are horrible, they just go so quickly.”

[The Orange News Examiner took this video footage in north Orange on Tuesday.]

In the 2019-2020 bushfires Orange remained largely unscathed, aside from small spot fires. The fear that we may not be so lucky over the next 10 or so weeks is real.

Before the weather hots up next year, lightning remains a concern.

“We’re still in that storm season,” said Bowden, “so if we get a weather event such as a lightning storm, it means fires. Not necessarily straight away, sometimes those fires take hours.”

He gave the example of lightning striking a tree and igniting a branch. Several hours may have passed before the branch falls to the ground and triggers a grass fire.

But he said “the three biggest causes of fire are men, women and children. It’s the things people do in the outdoors that provide the ignition factor.

“We’ve got the holiday period the next three or four weeks where people are out and about camping, travelling, holidaying; a lot of people transiting across our landscape that don’t normally do that.”

Inspector Brett Bowden’s Fire Starters

1. Angle grinders

“You’d be surprised how many fires are started by people using angle grinders, welding gates and fence stays.”

2. Pulling over into long grass

“People travelling along the Mitchell or Mid-Western Highway, they take a phone call, pull off on the side of the road into long grass, and their catalytic exhaust system starts a fire.”

3. Lawn mowing

“People are out their on their ride-ons or slashers. We don’t want to stop people from cutting the grass, but let’s do it early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Let’s not do it at midday in the middle of summer.

“You strike a rock, you cause a spark, and with all that abundant dead grass that’s been shot out the back of the mower or the slasher, a fire will start.

“It’s no surprise when you see a slashing business like Barnesy’s Slashing - which does a lot of council roadside work - doing roadside work, their tractor is followed by a very large utility with a fire fighting unit on the back.”

The RFS on how fire danger ratings have changed

Fire danger ratings are now simpler and give you clear actions to take.

This is the most significant change to fire danger ratings in 50 years - designed to make it clearer for you.

During that time we've learned a lot more about how fire behaves, and have mapped all of the vegetation across NSW.

The new fire danger ratings are used across Australia, meaning the same system is used whether you're at home or away.

The new system has been developed using extensive community research from people living in bush fire risk areas.

When there's minimal risk, like on days it's raining, you'll see No Rating displayed on signs, apps and websites.

The Orange News Examiner, with a staff of one and a bit, has published over 530 stories in 2022 - its first year. Stories like the one you've just read. We have broken dozens of stories, published in-depth features, had a laugh, given a voice to those without one, and looked beyond the press release to find out what we're not being told. When other newsrooms have been closed, we've kept reporting - early morning, late at night, on weekends. We were determined to keep the website free, so that everyone could stay informed, no matter their income. The Orange News Examiner is your voice, and we need your support, if you are able financially. We have a generous bunch of advertisers, and without them we simply could not publish at all. If you can support them, please do. However we still have a huge mountain to climb if we are to make the publication sustainable, and maybe one day expand the newsroom so we can bring you more stories. Every week there are many important stories we simply cannot get to. Stories that go untold. Unlike larger and more powerful media companies, which have been able to successfully lobby for tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer handouts, The Orange News Examiner receives no such support. Can you spare a dollar or two a week? You can make a one-off donation or a small monthly pledge at Patreon or PayPal. A big thank you to those who have already chipped in. If just 5% of our 14,000 monthly readers pledged a dollar or two a week to support independent media with no agendas, we could do much more for our community. Will you be the 1 in 20? Thanks in advance. Peter Holmes Editor


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