A dry spring has created the scenario that authorities fear most, with temperatures above 40 degrees, low humidity and high winds enough to potentially spark a deadly bushfire in parched forests packed with high fuel loads.
While the Bureau of Meteorology predicts the weather will return to more average conditions after a run of baking hot weather, that won’t necessarily mean deluges of rain and low temperatures. On average, January and February have the most days over 35 degrees.
“We’re getting to the hottest and driest time of the year, it’s not like we’re out of the woods,” said Dr Andrew Watkins, head of long range forecasts at the Bureau of Meteorology.
“The damage has been done, the dry conditions have been established. The risk of heatwaves stays and bad fire weather stays with us.”
Despite repeated warnings that residents in high-risk areas should have a plan to defend a property or leave early, experts are concerned the vast majority of people are badly underprepared.
“On bad fire days, people have an inclination to wait to see the smoke, see the flames, before they actually do anything,” said Dr Andrew Gissing, a bushfire expert with Risk Frontiers.
“The community is not as prepared as it should be.”
CFA crews are now moving into unscathed towns across the state, conducting planned burns and running community preparedness meetings before the hot weather returns.
Closer to Melbourne, crews are running mock evacuations.
As well as Gippsland and the areas around the Great Dividing Range, the central Goldfields region is among the places forecast to have heightened bushfire activity during the summer.
Hepburn Shire mayor Licia Kokocinski, whose council takes in bush-lined towns such as Daylesford, Crewswick and Trentham, said there was still some green vegetation in the region but it was drying out fast.
“We are certainly looking at the weather forecast with great trepidation, half the shire is forest,” she said.
“We have lots of small towns that are isolated, we need to be satisfied that messages for evacuation get through pretty quickly.”
In some towns, Cr Kokocinski said, CFA crews are role-playing scenarios with residents to ensure their fire plans stand up under the pressure of a serious bushfire.
“You have to be confident that you can handle the risk if you come and live here,” she said.
Studies show most people in high-risk areas have a bushfire plan. But when evaluated by fire agencies, nearly all those plans turned out to be deeply flawed – or people have not prepared well enough to implement their plan.
And people tend to underestimate how bad conditions are.
While many people in Hepburn Shire are prepared, Cr Kokocinski said some who had moved into the area recently seeking a tree change from the city may not know what to expect.
“What I say to people is, if you are uncomfortable you leave, no ifs or buts. You leave and you leave early,” she said.
Don’t wait to see the flames, she said. “That is too late, then you’re toast.”
Waiting for a bushfire to approach before leaving is dangerous, the CFA says. People can end up driving through smoke and flames in a panic – or find themselves trapped.
But only one in 10 people plan to leave on Code Red days.
Even as fires approached in East Gippsland over past week, many refused the compulsory evacuation order and stayed behind to defend their homes.
This has had consequences before. In the days before Black Saturday in 2009, the Victorian government repeatedly tried to warn people about the coming fire danger – very few people heeded the warning.
Victoria recorded an average of 114mm of rainfall during spring – well below the average of 181mm. The maximum temperature was a degree hotter on average for the season as well.
While there were milder conditions with some rainfall this week, it’s forecast to heat up on Friday.
Hotter conditions are also expected later this month and into February. Dr Atkins from the Bureau of Meteorology said there was a 65-75 per cent chance that temperatures would be above average in Victoria in February. Rainfall is expected to be about average.
Emergency Management Victoria commissioner Andrew Crisp said on Tuesday that those not affected by the current bushfires should still be on alert.
“The rest of our state is really dry as well. We cannot afford to become complacent. We must remain vigilant,” he said.
Tom Cowie is a journalist at The Age covering general news.
Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter