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Canberra faces increased grass fire risk, power outages and allergic reactions this summer thanks to La Niña

By Isaac Nowroozi, Thursday November 19, 2020 - 12:56 EDT
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Canberra has been overwhelmed by weeds and grasses after a month of heavy rainfall. - ABC

The wet spring season might have eased the threat of serious bushfires over coming weeks for Canberra, but La Niña is throwing up different challenges for the Territory.

Just a few months ago, the ACT Government was working and low rainfall, threatening Canberra's urban forest.

This spring is the opposite.

The arrival of La Niña brings with it higher rainfalls (133.6mm was recorded at Ainslie in October alone, the highest rainfall for the month since 1983), and with that increased risk of flood.

But there are also less obvious consequences: the wet spring is causing rapid growth with trees and grass, and accredited arborists have been inundated with requests to trim trees growing near power lines.

"Since spring we have just got busier and busier to the point where we are notifying clients that we have got 16-week waits on work at the moment," senior arborist Kieran Wallace said.

"We are seeing unparalleled growth in trees and it means that a lot more people have to clear vegetation around lines."

Mr Wallace said it was important that power lines were clear of vegetation to prevent power outages and fires, something fellow arborist Emily Dibden said rain had complicated.

"The rain brings more work but it is also harder to do work around power lines," she said.

"There is a huge danger aspect to this work so sometimes we have just been totally rained out, so it is great for growth but hard to work in."

The risks posed by tree growth is just one of several unexpected challenges Canberrans face this summer due to the La Niña weather event.

Wild growth leading to grass fire concerns

Peter Sullivan from the City Services directorate said heavy rainfall over the past few weeks had made it difficult to keep up with mowing long grass across the city ahead of summer.

"Our staff are working seven days a week, 12-hour days because of the excessive growth from the La Niña event," Mr Sullivan said.

This week, the ACT Government invested an extra $6 million for grass cutting across Canberra.

The concern is that the risk of grass fires is growing, as high rainfall grows and re-grows grasses faster.

The Emergency Services Agency has warned Canberrans to be wary of grass fires.

"It has been difficult due to the wet conditions and we have had mowers getting bogged at times," Mr Sullivan said.

City Services say they will do whatever it takes to get on top of it all to minimise the risk.

More plant growth equals more pollen

The wet spring has also led to record levels of grass pollen, and the worst hayfever season in more than five years, according to the Australian National University.

"We have seen (pollen) numbers that we have actually never recorded before in the region," said Professor Simon Haberle, from the ANU's pollen monitoring program.

It has led to ACT Health issuing a warning last week and pharmacists have reported a rush on strong allergy medicine this spring.

"People start to feel the effects of grass pollen in the air when it is at moderate levels," Professor Haberle said.

That is about 20 grains per cubic metre.

"When it goes above 50 grains per cubic metre is when it becomes much more severe," he said.

"We have been recording quite a number of those."


© ABC 2020

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