THE Australasian Fire Authorities Council this week released its bushfire outlook for spring, which starts next week.
Areas of increased risk of fire are forecast mostly in the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales, they include the Murray-Mallee and Mallee regions, important grain-growing zones which straddle the Victorian-South Australian border.
In SA, the system for determining when grain harvesting should cease is yet to be agreed upon by stakeholders, and the review has come about as Australia moves away from the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Meter in use since the 1960s.
Eastern Australian states are adopting the new Fire Behaviour Index, which allows harvesters to measure wind speed, temperature and relative humidity to calculate at the header their FBI reading.
This replaces the previous system where Total Fire Bans were issued by Local Government Area.
Lost hours could balloon
Data from an extensive independent weather station network shows grain producers may be forced out of the paddock for many more hours from this harvest on under a proposal from the South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS) to reduce the Cease Harvest Threshold.
Agbyte analysis of its sites shows that a Grassland Fire Danger Index (GFDI) of 28 at an elevation of two metres, as proposed by the CFS, would result in significant time off the header during harvest.
For example, Agbyte weather station data collected at Warnertown in the Mid North between October 2017 and June 2023 showed that 499 hours were over a GFDI of 35, but a GFDI of 28 would lift cease-harvest time to 967 hours.
Agbyte data to June 2023 from two Eyre Peninsula sites also indicate a significant loss of harvesting hours should a GFDI of 28 replace the current 35.
Koongawa data from May 2017 showing 424 hours above 35, down from 765 hours above 28, and on the coast, figures from November 2016 show Coulta had 273 hours over 28, compared with only 128 hours over 35.
At Thomas Plain on Yorke Peninsula, data from November 2017 shows 502 hours over 35 against 758 hours over 28.
In a statement, Grain Producers SA chair Adrian McCabe said the CFS has severely underestimated the impact of changing the current adopted practice by most grain producers.
“If the Minister for Emergency Services decides to side with the CFS and not grain producers, he will be choosing to take growers off headers for critical hours in harvest during times that have proven to be safe for more than a decade,” Mr McCabe said.
“The data analysis from Agbyte weather stations shows us that a GFDI of 28 at 2m is unworkable if we want to get an almost $5-billion crop harvested without pushing into January and February, traditionally the hottest and driest months ofthe year.
“Grain producers in South Australia are some of the most well-equipped in the country when it comes to preparing for a fire on-farm and this should be recognised, instead of the CFS putting forward proposals to punish growers for doing the right thing.”
Previous system delivers
GPSA chief executive officer Brad Perry told Grain Central both the FBI and GFDI were observed in the 2022-23 harvest, but the CFS has conveyed its wish to review the GFDI instead of using the FBI.
A Grain Harvesting Code of Practice Review Working Group with representatives from GPSA, the CFS, SA Police, and Primary Industries and Resources SA, continues to look at the issue, and a statement from CFS has confirmed discussions are ongoing.
“CFS continues to work with industry and government to find a resolution to the cease harvest threshold for the upcoming season that supports farming communities and protects life, property, and the environment,” a CFS spokesperson said.
Mr Perry said the key sticking point was that CFS wanted to take readings at 10m, where the wind speed is faster.
“It’s created quite a bit of confusion and tension.
“We need to have it worked out by the end of this month or there isn’t enough to time to get everyone familiar with it.”
Mr Perry said “lived experience” indicates SA growers can manage fire risk when the index hits 35 based on readings at an elevation of two metres.
“We’re an industry where you can’t have a zero-risk approach, and lived experience shows we’ve been able to manage it safely.”
Mr Perry said growers generally took the risk of fire very seriously, and a number of them owned former CFS trucks sold as part of the agency’s fleet updates.
“Most growers are extremely well equipped to fight fires.”
He said SA had 41 header fires in the 2022-23 harvest, with 11 extinguished prior to the CFS arriving, and none escalating into large-scale blazes that caused widespread damage.
GPSA is a peak industry body and represents SA’s 4500 cropping businesses.