19 October 2023

Volunteers stretched to breaking as QFES calls unprecedented whole-of-Cape fire ban

| Sarah Martin
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An unplanned fire burns through Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Reserve. Photo: Sally Gray/Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

With fire crews and volunteers stretched and an increase in suspected arson, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services has called an unprecedented total fire ban for the entire Cape.

QFES regional manager Lawrence Laing said the fire ban affected the entire Northern region from Cardwell west to Croydon and north to the Torres Straits, as resources are stretched to breaking point.

“This is uncommon, we have had fire bans on local government areas before, but not the whole region,” Mr Laing said.

“We’re utilising all our resources on the current fires, and with no decent rainfall predicted any time soon, we can’t afford to have more fires burning.”

Mr Laing said it was bushfire season, and while the number of fires currently burning across the Cape wasn’t unusual, they had been consistent and kept fire crews stretched to their maximum.

“There is always fire in the Cape in some shape or form at this time of year, and some don’t have much impact and don’t need heavy resourcing, but at the moment we have 18 bushfires and 26 appliances fighting them,” he said.

“These are volunteers, community members like you and I who have been pulled away from their livelihoods and homes, and this has been going on consistently now for two weeks.”

The fire ban is in place for the local government areas of Aurukun, Cook, Douglas, Hope Vale, Kowanyama, Lockhart River, Mapoon, Napranum, Northern Peninsula Area, Pormpuraaw, Torres, Weipa, Wujal Wujal, Cairns, Yarrabah, Cassowary Coast, Mareeba, Tablelands, Croydon and Etheridge.

Mr Laing said under the ban all outside open fires were prohibited and all previously issued fire permits had been cancelled, with the support of Cape fire wardens.

“At the moment most of the fire wardens are very supportive of the ban,” he said.

While most of the fires burning on Cape York were in sparsely populated areas, Mr Laing said a fire near Laura and another in the Northern Peninsula Area were being closely monitored.

“We’re monitoring those fires closely and working with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and stakeholders to manage them, which they are doing very well,” he said.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services has placed an unprecedented total fire ban over the entire Northern Queensland region.

The fire ban was put in place on Thursday 19 October, coinciding with a fire warning from Cook Shire’s Local Disaster Management Group warning travellers to steer clear of the Old Telegraph Track.

Mr Laing said the Cape York Weekly’s 18 September article about Victorian couple Jake Gretten and Sam Bakker, who feared for their lives and were left with severe burns after being caught in a bushfire on the Cape, highlighted the risks.

“We’re encouraging people not to go walking near fire or get too close and just to be aware, check the QFES website, check with your local government area,” he said.

The warning comes on the back of an increase in suspected arson attacks on Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Reserve and other Cape York properties, with families and staff working through the night battling blaze after blaze.

Piccaninny Plains is managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, whose frustrated chief operations officer Tim White said staff last week were battling three fires at once, all suspected to be deliberately lit.

“It is threatening people’s safety and livelihoods,” Mr White said.

“Our managers are there with their family, the graziers are there with their families, it’s a very very dangerous and damaging thing to be doing.

“These fires are working their way across a significant part of the landscape, impacting residents and landholders.

“It’s not just impacting AWC and the environment, it’s a significant cost, strain and stress to all landholders.”

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