What is the real cause of bush fires across the state?
After last week's controversy in Victoria, with houses threatened when a hazard reduction got out of control, you might think it was a regular problem. The reality, at least in NSW, is that last year there were 88 escaped hazard reduction fires amounting to less than three quarters of a percent of all fires – and the number is down on previous years.
The figures obtained by Fairfax Media from the Rural Fire Service show that lightning strikes were last year responsible for 780 fires, equivalent to almost 7 per cent of the total. That number was less than half the number of lightning fires in 2012/13 which accounted for almost 20 per cent of fires, demonstrating the impact of fire season weather.
Professor Ross Bradstock, Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at Wollongong University, said the figures demonstrated the year-to-year variation.
"Human-caused ignitions are by far the most prevalent, and lightning the most important second source, and that varies according to where you are. It is virtually non-existent as a source on the coast but as you go into the mountains there are many more lightning fires, particularly in remote areas.
"This figure for escaped prescribed burns is pretty typical, it is historically only a few per cent on average and again it will vary according to the seasons."
Ben Shepherd, spokesman for the RFS, said last year was relatively quiet from a bush fire perspective.
"We had a bit of activity in early September with most of those fires the result of escaped hazard reductions early on, then we had some lightning in November and that was the major cause then, and then we went through the rest of the season with little activity."
The importance of being able to accurately assess atmospheric instability during periods of severe to catastrophic fire danger was recognised in the coroner's report into the Wambelong fire near Coonabarabran.
Deputy State Coroner Hugh Dillon in the report last month recommended that Emergency Services Minister David Elliott consider an arrangement between the RFS and the Bureau of Meteorology to deploy weather balloons or that the RFS consider deploying balloons itself.