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Bushfire Season - Prepare Now!

Article by Rachael Houlihan.
This article is from the October 2023 Horse Deals magazine.

Photo: Elesa Kurtz, Canberra Times.

Photo: Elesa Kurtz, Canberra Times.

Now is the time to start preparing for the upcoming fire season and what you can do to give yourself, your property and your horses the best chance to come out unscathed.

After devastating bushfires across the country over the past ten years, Australia’s fire agencies have identified an increased risk of fire as part of the Spring 2023 Bushfire Outlook.

The outlook is developed by the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) and supported by the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), along with state and territory fire and land managers. AFAC chief executive officer Rob Webb says the climate influences driving increased risks of bushfires are widespread. “Almost the entire country can expect drier and warmer conditions than normal this spring, so it is important for Australians to be alert to local risks of bushfire over the coming months, regardless of their location,” he said. “Wherever you live, work or travel, now is the time to plan and prepare. Understand your risk, know where you will get your information, and talk to your family about what you will do.”

The BoM’s long-range forecast shows below-average rainfall is likely for most of Australia, along with warmer-than-usual temperatures. The warmer spring forecast comes as winter 2023 was Australia’s warmest on record.

Bureau of Meteorology climate services manager Dr Karl Braganza is urging communities to prepare and review their bushfire plans. “The recent wildfires in Canada and Hawaii underscore risks that Australians are familiar with, in particular the catastrophic potential of fires that can occur near urban areas during periods of low rainfall,” Dr Braganza said in a statement.

Horse owners living in eastern Australia can expect a drier and warmer spring, with a high chance of an early start to the fire season in the central, western and northern parts of the state. Drier-than-average conditions are expected to continue, following below-average rainfall during winter, according to the outlook.

Despite below-average rainfalls for winter, grass growth is expected to be higher than usual following three years of wet La Niña conditions. There is also a high likelihood that bushfire season will start earlier, compared to the past two years.

President of the Australian Veterinary Association’s special interest group, Equine Veterinarians Australia, Martin Dolinschek says one of the most important things horse owners can do ahead of a fire is to make sure their horse will load on transport.

“From a horse owner’s point of view, around Perth in the past six years or so we have had three fairly major bushfires, and one of the things that has worked and is the most important thing is that horses get on floats. I cannot stress that enough,” Dr Dolinschek says. “Make sure your horse consistently can get on a float, even under pressure. It can be a stressful situation, but horses just need to be able to get on. Train them. Your float needs to be roadworthy and ready to go. Have the float attached to a car and be ready to load up and leave the property.”

Dr Dolinschek says staying in touch with what is happening in your local area is also key. He said social media sites can be invaluable in sharing information. It is also recommended to follow your state’s emergency services app and monitor emergency broadcaster ABC Radio for reports and fire updates.

“We have a few Facebook pages in WA, and that was just gold when the fires were happening,” Dr Dolinschek says. “People were on that and saying ‘Hey, I have horses here and I don’t have a float’, and others were able to help them out. It was such a useful resource. Being on those social networks or having people around you that know your number is important.”

He urges owners to make sure their horses are easily identifiable. “Try and have some sort of a tag or spray paint on the side of the horse with your mobile or Property Identification Code (PIC) number, so if fences burn or a horse is running down the road, owners can be found,” he says.

Being aware of emergency services and the job they are trying to do is also critical during an incident. “Be aware that the firies and rescue people have priority of way,” Dr Dolinschek says. “Even if your horse is in danger, you cannot put their lives or yours at risk. They don’t want to be going in to rescue you after you try to go and get your horse.”

Photo: Morgan Hancock, The Standard.

Photo: Morgan Hancock, The Standard.

Dr Dolinschek says when it comes to properties where livestock survived there was always an area that was eaten right down and it was bare. “Horses will wait and dash over the grass fire and into the bare area,” he says. “Keep your property clear - have an area around a dam and if push comes to shove, open the gate and let them in and you get out. Where horses did best was a big dry open area they could get into.”

Dr Dolinschek says it is critical horse owners have a plan and leave early. “Get out early. That’s the take-home message. Be prepared,” he says. “Have someone around who is there if you work away and who knows to open what gate so you aren’t putting them in danger either. Don’t open paddocks onto the roads. The last thing we want is horses out on the roads. Flat ground is better than hilly. Try and put your horses in a back paddock with low-mown grass.”

Victoria’s acting emergency management commissioner Chris Stephenson says now is the time to plan and prepare for the potential for fires, by ensuring people know what to do in case of an emergency. “Make your fire plan and talk with your family about what you will do,” he says.

Professor Jason Sharples, an expert in bushfire dynamics from UNSW Canberra, says fire seasons in Australia are getting longer and starting earlier. Heatwaves are becoming hotter, longer and more frequent, drying out grass and intensifying bushfires. “The risk of extreme bushfires is rising because of climate change, and there is a clear link between hotter temperatures and worsening bushfires,” Professor Sharples says. “They’re becoming more destructive and regular, and present a unique set of hazards as they interact with the atmosphere to create violent firestorms.”

Professor Sharples says people must act now to improve fire preparedness and management strategies to mitigate the increasing threat of bushfires. “We’re not going to be able to prevent bad seasons from occurring, but we can take steps to improve fire management techniques to prevent extreme fires as much as possible,” Professor Sharples says.

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