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Coronavirus pandemic plays part in shaping Kimberley's bushfire preparations

ABC Health logo ABC Health 8/07/2020 By Ben Collins, Vanessa Mills and Edwin Cowlishaw
a sunset over a forest: Officials say a lot of work has been done to prepare the region for the season ahead. (Supplied: Carina Cooke) © Provided by ABC Health Officials say a lot of work has been done to prepare the region for the season ahead. (Supplied: Carina Cooke)

Authorities are going all-out to mitigate a heightened threat of bushfire in the Kimberley and prepare communities in case a re-emergence of coronavirus reduces their ability to respond.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) is urging residents, businesses and local governments to finalise preparations now and have a plan in place should the worst happen.

The warnings come from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC seasonal outlook which is expected to be released this week and predict above-normal fire conditions for the shires of Broome and Halls Creek and parts of Derby-West Kimberley.

Kimberley regional superintendent Grant Pipe said bushfire brigades, pastoralists and Indigenous range groups had done all they could to prepare for the possibility that a re-emergence of coronavirus could inhibit their ability to respond.

"Obviously we've come through a COVID experience ... and we were certainly working as if we had reduced capacity to respond," Mr Pipe said.

"So we've done like we've never done before, mitigation through this region."

Tourists and bushfires

Not only was non-essential travel to and from the Kimberley banned due to the pandemic earlier this year, but travel was also banned between the four shires in the immense northern region of Western Australia.

Strict federal biosecurity controls were also introduced to limit the exposure of remote Indigenous communities deemed highly vulnerable to COVID-19.

But now that restrictions have eased, allowing holidaying West Australians to flock to the tropical north and escape the southern winter, authorities have asked asking campers heading to remote areas to be prepared.

The tourist season coincides with drier weather in the Kimberley that brings the bushfire season to northern Australia earlier than other areas, potentially putting visitors in harm's way of out-of-control infernos.

"[That means] if you're out camping, acknowledging and knowing what you would do with the people you were with if you were challenged by a fire," Mr Pipe said.

"A lot of people have done a lot of good work to try and prepare the region for what is likely to be a heightened bushfire season with the amount of fuel loads out there."

High fuel loads a concern

The 2019-20 wet season was mixed for the monsoonal Kimberley region, with three cyclones dumping patchy rain, including Cyclone Esther which looped across most of the north-west in March as a rain-bearing tropical low.

One of the worst bushfire seasons in recent years came in 2017 when a series of record wet seasons were followed by dry conditions that resulted in up to 300 bushfires scorching the region.

Shire of Derby-West Kimberley president Geoff Haerewa said it was worrying that parts of the west and central Kimberley were forecast to be at a heightened risk of bushfire due to increased fuel loads.

"It's always a concern if you've got some extra fires coming around," he said.

"There's a hell of a lot of fires that can happen in that whole area.

"We are encouraging people to go and volunteer at our bushfire unit and our local fire brigade."

Dry lightning strikes are increasingly a source of bushfire ignition as the dry season gives way to the build up — the season following the cooler dry season when temperatures increase and storms develop without producing rain.

But arson in the sparsely populated area remained the biggest concern, according to Mr Pipe.

"It is with some regret that I continually report that the region significantly receives a large amount of arson," he said.

He encouraged people to help authorities to reduce what was a preventable cause of fire.

"If we don't get those ignitions, we won't get those fires."


Video: Japan boosts rescue efforts as it warns of more rain in flood-hit areas (Reuters)

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