Special report: This season's fire threat on Northern Rivers
AS THE global media spotlight shines on the devastating fires around the Blue Mountains, the Northern Rivers remains parched and primed to burn.
Walls of flames destroyed 208 homes in the greater Sydney region as weather conditions fanned the fires into dry, virgin bush that hadn't burned for years.
With no significant rainfall in months, Rural Fire Service Northern Rivers Superintendent Michael Brett said the potential of a similar emergency in the region was very real.
From the coastal heathland in Evans Head and Broadwater to the tinder-dry ranges, rainforests and national parks, Supt Brett said in the right conditions, fire could engulf areas rapidly.
In fact, on Saturday a fire near Tabulam was briefly raised to "watch and act" status, the rating occupied by the wildfires in the Blue Mountains last week and only one level below the most severe "emergency" status.
"Anywhere that is currently holding fuel loads that could sustain a fire in a forested area is probably our biggest threat," Supt Brett said.
"West of the Richmond Range is still carrying very high fuel loads of grass and that area hasn't had the rain we have seen on the coast."
The political storm that erupted over the link between bushfires and climate change has been fuelled by a report due to be released next month by the Climate Council.
"Climate change is increasing the probability of extreme fire weather days," the report found.
"In NSW, soil moisture levels have been at record low levels for a number of months.
"More intense and frequent hot weather, as well as dry conditions, increases the likelihood of extreme fire weather days."
Huge blazes have threatened the region in the past.
Fires have swept through the Nightcap National Park from Doon Doon to The Channon and Nimbin many times since the severe north coast bushfires of 1926, most recently in 1994.
In the mid-1950s, a blaze that started at Stanthorpe in Queensland burned bush for six weeks, travelling all the way to Kyogle.
Supt Brett said firefighting resources and techniques had advanced significantly from the 1920s when fires were fought with buckets and butter factory pumps. Now the artillery included water bombing aircraft, back burning and remote area firefighters.
Between New Italy and the Queensland border there are almost 70 brigades with about 2000 RFS volunteers who can be called on to fight bushfires.
People are urged to prepare a bushfire survival plan.
Frequency of bushfires linked to climate change
THE rising frequency and intensity of Australia's bushfires, including the current New South Wales fires, is linked to climate change, an interim report released on Friday shows.
In the report, the Climate Council writes there is a clear link between climate change and bushfires.
The interim report was released early after Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Environment Minister Greg Hunt claimed the current bushfires were not linked to climate change.
Professor Will Steffen said climate change was influencing both the frequency and intensity of extreme heat in Australia, and may be affecting the long-term "drying trend in the south-east".
"This increases the risk of bushfires by increasing extreme fire weather," he said.
Prof Steffen said it was clear climate change was making days hotter, and heatwaves more frequent and severe.
"Australia has always had bushfires. However, climate change is increasing the probability of extreme fire weather days and is lengthening the fire season," he said.
The council made the rare foray into the political debate on climate change after Mr Abbott's comments that bushfires were simply part of Australian life.
It also follows Mr Hunt's heated BBC interview on Thursday, where he denied the link between increasing bushfire conditions and climate change.
Climate Councillor Professor Lesley Hughes said the more frequent hot days and lower rainfall were both consistent with climate change science and increased the likelihood of "extreme fire weather".
"The fires in NSW are being influenced by these conditions," she said.
Firies return exhausted from battle
A SURGE force of 110 Rural Fire Service members from the Northern Rivers and NSW Far North Coast returned in convoy late yesterday after a successful five-day deployment to battle blazes around Sydney.
Leaving in 16 fire tankers and three buses, the team picked up 40 RFS members on the way to the Penrith base camp, where they joined 750 firefighters from Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland and Victoria to form 21 firefighting strike teams.
RFS Northern Rivers operations officer Daniel Ainsworth said available members from brigades across the region formed the surge force.
Strike teams of 25 firefighters in five tankers were put on 15-minute standby on Tuesday before they were deployed to blazes, Mr Ainsworth said.
"On Tuesday, members got sent to the Springwood fire in the Blue Mountains and they had a very long day there.
"They spent most of the day back-burning, tackling spot fires and doing property protection."
Mr Ainsworth said buses ferried strike teams to the front line, where they did a "hot change" to replace their colleagues instead of returning to base and refuelling.
Wednesday saw members deployed to the northern side of the massive state mine fire on Putty Rd, after the blaze jumped Bells Line of Road.
"Including travelling to and from the fire, the day shift spent nearly 20 hours out in the field battling the flames and they were very tired when they got back to base camp around 2 or 3am," Mr Ainsworth said.
"The other half of the strike teams was sent out to fires in the Blue Mountains and they finished up at about 10pm.
"Spirits are high and the members are pretty happy that the mission has been a success."