The NSW Rural Fire Service says land management services were unable to complete up to two-thirds of the large-scale preventative burns planned for the region this winter due to "adverse" weather conditions and the early onset of fires.
While the NSW Government says it has met its overall target for hazard reduction burns in the state over the past four years, NSW RFS Inspector Ben Shepherd said the smaller window to complete burns this year emphasised the need for services and individuals to enact all precautionary strategies possible before future blazes.
The RFS is the coordinating authority for hazard reduction burns, assisting National Parks and Wildlife Services, councils, forestry and landholders.
Mr Shepherd said at least five of 18 planned large-scale burns went ahead in the lower hunter this winter.
"There was rain and problems with adverse weather, the smoke would have just hung around for too long. And then the region started seeing fires from August 8," Inspector Shepherd said.
"Because we need to prioritise resources [for fires], it limits opportunities to do further burning. Because of the the dry, warm and windy weather I don't think we will see more hazard reduction burning in the region even until autumn."
He said drought had been a leading factor in the devastation of the recent fires.
"We've seen over 1.7 million hectares burnt already this fire season in the state, mostly in the state's north-east, compared to 286,000 hectares last fire season," he said. "Because of the dryness of the fuels, where there's fuel and drought that's where there is the highest amount of fire activity.
"We highlighted and conducted a very strong awareness campaign that the risk is very much in the forested ranges from the Victorian border to the Queensland border, which is concerning because the greatest population density also exists in those areas."
Mr Shepherd said commentary suggesting the state wouldn't have seen the spate of fires if more hazard reduction had been performed was incorrect.
"You can't just hazard reduction burn all things fire," he said. "Burns themselves don't stop fires, they reduce the intensity. We've seen the recent fires burning through areas where we performed hazard reduction as little as two years ago."
The importance of using a range of precautionary measures was increasing as the fire season seemed to be lengthening, he said, now "stretching from August through to April and even May".
Land use planning needs to take into consideration future climate risks.Dr Iftekhar Ahmed
"As we start to see changing of the season and a little bit of changing in the climate, we could see further reduced windows to conduct hazard reduction and that's why it's going to come down to individuals understanding their personal risk.
"There needs to be a variety of strategies used, mechanical clearing, asset protection zones and adherence to building requirements in bushfire-prone land," he said. "Then there's those most basic elements of residents clearing out their gutters, trimming back branches and mowing lawns.
"More than 90 per cent of homes burnt in fires are lost to ember attacks, which is largely due to homes being ill prepared - embers igniting in materials ready to burn."
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed, the program convener of the University of Newcastle's master of disaster resilience and sustainable development, said governments needed longer term plans to respond to the risk of unpredictable fire seasons.
He described the magnitude and timing of the recent fires as "very unusual" and said research had made the link between climate change and erratic weather conditions "quite clear".
"The hazard reduction, emergency warnings, community firefighting, volunteering, we are pretty good at that," Dr Ahmed said. "On the other hand, the rate of human settlement and growth of new suburbs in high-risk areas has been phenomenal. It's a real estate and planning problem. Land use planning needs to take into consideration future climate risks."
Currently, he said, regulation placed responsibility on individuals to be informed about their fire risk in years to come.
"Right now if you want to live in a high-risk area you are allowed to as long as you pay the price for making your home fire resilient. But no building is fire proof. The government has a much bigger role to play, you can't leave this up to the private sector and communities," Dr Ahmed said.
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