Fire blitz -- Investigators fly in to help fight blazes


IN what is shaping up to be one of the worst bushfire seasons in years, a Rural Fire Service fire inspector arrived in the Tweed yesterday to investigate a number of blazes still burning in the shire. From high above the Tweed, a helicopter dubbed "Firebird 211", flew over the affected areas, with the Daily News and several RFS crew members on board.

While at this stage, fire investigators believe the majority of bushfires have been caused by legal backburning which have escaped containment lines, they are not ruling out a firebug.

"The issue for us is that most of the fires are in fairly inaccessible terrain," RFS Far North Coast manager Dave Cook said.

"So we have been bulldozing and backburning around houses in the affected areas in an effort to protect any infrastructure.

"We will have crews on around-the-clock for at least the next 24 hours but if we can't contain the fire (Rowlands Creek near Uki) by the weekend we may bring in extra crews from down south."

Today is the official start of the Bushfire Danger Period in the Tweed, one month earlier than in previous years.

Continued dry conditions, coupled with warm days and cool nights and significant bushfire activity since the start of June, forced fire-fighters in Tweed and the Northern Rivers to halt fire permits.

On Monday, Mr Cook told the Daily News that despite fire permits being required from today, no fire permits would be issued in the Tweed until the current spate of fires were contained.

And it has been a busy two months for Tweed RFS volunteers, with 39 fires in June and 85 separate fires in July. The Far North Coast team, which includes Tweed, Byron and Ballina responded to a total of 157 fires from July 1 to July 30.

Yesterday the Daily News flew over the Tweed, with chief pilot Lachlan Macarthur Onslow of Fleet Helicopters, giving us the guided tour of the bushfires our RFS volunteers are trying to contain.

From the sky, it was clear just how dry the Tweed shire is. Paddocks of frost-affected, and therefore dry, cane fields, brown grass and leaf litter, all vital components of a hungry fire, could be seen for kilometres.

And the thick brown smoke that has enveloped the Tweed since the weekend stretched as far as the eye could see. Incredibly, three separate fires were spotted on one property alone at Misty Mountain. All three are believed to be controlled burns.

"They may be legal burns (until today) but it is fairly irresponsible considering the conditions," fire investigator Inspector Trevor Lyons said.

"From tomorrow (today) any fires lit without a permit are illegal and infringements will be issued.

"Normally I just rouse people, but now we have to be tough. It is so dry people must be vigilant."

Just outside Uki, a fire which has been burning since the weekend has torched 550 hectares.

Dubbed the Rowland Creek Road fire, fire-fighters worked quickly on Monday night to put in containment lines around a number of isolated properties.

From the air you realise just how isolated some of these properties are and just how difficult the job is for fire-fighters.

Many properties in the remote hills in the Tweed have no phone reception which means fire-fighters must map out the locations of homes and visit each property individually, while trying to haul heavy fire vehicles up steep terrain.

Also yesterday, a fire was spotted just outside the previously burnt areas at Chillingham, where firefighters fought to contain a large blaze in early July, when reinforcements had to be brought in to give battle-weary Tweed volunteers a break.

Yesterday, a fly-over discovered that despite several weeks passing since firefighters extinguished the Chillingham blaze, smouldering embers in the soil had again flared.

By last night, firefighters were confident of getting the fires under control by the weekend if the calm weather conditions persist.

Temperatures in Northern Rivers are expected to climb to 26 degrees by tomorrow, with no rain in sight.

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