Forest threatened as old fire reignites near Nelligen

Old fire sites can reignite months later, firefighters have warned after quenching a two-hectare grass fire in Tuesday’s horror conditions, north-west of Batemans Bay.

The quick actions of neighbours and Rural Fire Service and Forests NSW crews prevented the remote Currowan fire escaping into surrounding properties and bushland, after several old windrows erupted in strong winds and 40-plus degree heat.

Black Flat Road landholder Terry Shea said he had believed his piles of regrowth wattle had been extinguished since he stopped spring hazard reduction burning.

“But it just lit up and away she went,” Mr Shea said.

“I didn’t think there was any problem. It was definitely out. I finished up with it at the end of October and that is two months and a bit ago. 

“Because of the wind and the heat, she has kicked away in five different places. I did not even know it was going. I got a message from my neighbours.”

Stans Road neighbour Terri Shepheard was home alone with her baby son when she spotted the fire about a kilometre away just after 1.30pm. She phoned 000 and alerted neighbours. Forestry workers also spotted the fire from a nearby lookout.

“I just happened to walk past the kitchen window and looked out into the valley and saw smoke,” Ms Shepheard said. 

“Within half an hour there were seven fire trucks. It was great. They rolled in one after the other. It was a comfort. By then, it was coming over the hill in the grass. I could see flames on the ground. I am from North Queenland and have not had to deal with anything like this.”

Peter Heycox, 70, had fitted a water tank to his tractor on Monday in readiness for Tuesday’s severe fire risk and hurried to help.

His wife Janet said they had feared Mr Shea’s old windrows would ignite in the strong wind.

“We had been watching because we thought it would happen,” Mrs Heycox said. “We thought, ‘this will get going today’. They were still smouldering.”

Nine fire crews and a bulldozer rushed to the scene and firefighters were able to contain the grass fire and extinguish the piles.

Rural Fire Service Far South Coast manager John Cullen said the fire was unintentional, but landholders should not assume a fire was truly extinguished, even months later.

“That sort of situation is an accident, there is no malice,” he said. “However, these areas can reignite. In dry conditions, wind blows the ash off and exposes sparks and coals. We are encouraging property owners to go back and make sure there is no heat.”

He said the RFS encouraged landholders to clean up in winter and spring, but large piles and old stumps could smoulder underground unnoticed for long periods. 

“Put a crowbar in and see if it heats up,” he advised, but warned against climbing on piles, which could collapse.

He said a strike force was assembled in Batemans Bay from surrounding brigades on Tuesday and four crews were dispatched with the dozer.

“We were ready to roll,” he said. “We got a solid dozer track around it and had it gathered in.”

Forests NSW’s operations manager Julian Armstrong said four crews in four-wheel-drive firefighting units attended, with a tanker. 

“We had all our resources standing by at strategic locations and some were doing patrols,” he said. 

“It is a worrying time. Those things can smoulder for months and have caused fires on bad days. Use the back of your hand to feel for hot spots. We would rather come out on a nice cool day and put half a tanker of water on it than come out in the middle of summer on a bad day.”

He urged landholders to contact the RFS with any concerns and for campers to take care.

“If you have a campfire, put plenty of water on it and extinguish it before you go. Don’t leave it unattended. It will smoulder in there, it could be a week, but on a hot windy day it will start up again. We have had a few campfires escape in the past few months.”

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