The Lower Hunter's fire danger rating has been raised to severe and a total fire ban in force until midnight.

TOTAL FIRE BAN: Guy Baddock, RFS Acting Coordinator of Operational Services said the RFS is bracing for the worst possible scenario. Picture: Max Mason Hubers.
TOTAL FIRE BAN: Guy Baddock, RFS Acting Coordinator of Operational Services said the RFS is bracing for the worst possible scenario. Picture: Max Mason Hubers.

No rain, strong winds and a forecast dust storm –  The Hunter is now officially a powder keg.

In the past hour the Rural Fire Service (RFS) has increased the fire danger index to severe and a total fire ban is now in force until midnight tonight.

The Hunter and most of the State is now experiencing winds up to 70km/h and temperatures in the mid-20s.

Rural Fire Service Acting Coordinator Operational Services Lower Hunter, Guy Baddock, said this week’s warmer winds and no rainfall will dry out any sub-soil moisture there may be on the ground.

“We are seriously concerned about conditions at the moment. The weather is drier than normal and there is little rain forecast in the near future and we are leading into the bushfire danger period,” Mr Baddock said.

“This is a situation we plan for every year but it has come early and as a result, districts across the State are making sure they are ready. We prepare all year for the increase in fire danger.

“We are still urging property owners to reconsider the need to complete hazard reduction activities. During very high fire danger periods, we ask the community to remain vigilant, understand their risk and report any unattended fires,” Mr Baddock said.

NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said hundreds of firefighters had to respond to dozens of escaped and illegal burns on the weekend when irresponsible landholders lit up in windy conditions.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons said there were 48 instances of illegal fire activity reported between August 10 and12, with around half occurring in the greater Sydney, the Hunter and Central Tablelands regions, compared to 38 incidents statewide the previous weekend.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons said given the dry conditions, it is also vital that landholders only burn off when it is safe to do so. “Ensure they have proper and functioning firefighting equipment on hand, make sure they follow the rules and obtain a free Fire Permit, even if they have been carrying out burns for years,” Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.

Heavy fines apply for the unsafe use of fire or if a fire escapes - landholders who fail to notify firefighters and neighbours face fines of up to $5500 and/or 12 months jail while escaped fires attract penalties of up to $110,000 and/or five years prison.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons said fire investigators would review recent illegal fire and escaped burn incidents to determine if legal action is required.

Fairfax Media is reporting that large dust storms that swept across the western parts of NSW last week may stir again this week and may even reach Sydney as winds pick up and temperatures rise ahead of a cold front.

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