A THICK blanket of grass spanning the width of Australia will pose a significant bushfire threat this season, experts say.
While the record-breaking rains that fell across the eastern states earlier this year replenished drought-depleted soil, they also spurred large amounts of vegetation growth, particularly grass, the likes of which have not been seen in some regions for 20 years.
But a return to drier than normal conditions over the past three months had caused much of the grass to cure and dry, turning most of the state west of the Great Dividing Range into a significant fuel source, a report published by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre and the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council says.
A spokesman for the NSW Rural Fire Service, Ben Shephard, said the big risk with grass fires was their ability to move swiftly.
Grass is a fine, easily combustible fuel, and its growth is often continuous, covering vast areas of land, he said. 'It is not uncommon to see grass fires move at 20, 30 even 40 kilometres an hour,' Inspector Shephard said.
In parts of western NSW grass had grown higher than fences, and dwarfed sheep and cattle in paddocks, he said.
'Over the past few weeks we've been getting 20 to 30 fires a day in some areas.'
The report, compiled by climatologists, fire and land managers and meteorologists who attended the Southern Australian Seasonal Bushfire Assessment Workshop in Adelaide last week, found northern parts of inland NSW, which were already quite dry, were expected to be the first areas to experience fires this season.
The Riverina and South Western fire-prone regions should follow, the report says.
Temperatures throughout August have been significantly warmer than average in the south-east of the country.
Forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology also predict an increased chance of below average rainfall in parts of South Australia, Victoria and NSW over the next few months.
Inspector Shephard urged landowners to ensure their properties were prepared for bushfire season, with appropriate firebreaks in grassy regions.
'Vast areas in the west don't necessarily have rivers or major roads to start pulling these fires up or use as containment lines,' he said.
But he warned bushfire-prone property owners who did not have significant grass growth not to become complacent.
The head of climate monitoring and prediction at the Bureau of Meteorology, David Jones, said while the January floods replaced soil moisture, which affected how quickly plants would dry out, it only took a few very hot days to make vegetation flammable.
Dr Jones will speak at the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre and the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council conference in Sydney this week.