There are no active fires in the ACT, but we've been in a state of alert since January 2. Chief Minister Andrew Barr says it's likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
The last bushfire threat in the ACT was the Pierces Creek fire in November 2018. But this is the first time a state of alert has been declared in the ACT since the powers were introduced in 2008. So what does it actually mean?
What is a state of alert?
According to ACT legislation, a state of alert can be declared when the emergency services minister -in this case Mick Gentleman - decides an emergency is likely to happen, but it's not necessary to declare a state of emergency. The threat of bushfire was the reason for calling it.
There were no active bushfires in the ACT when the alert was called (and there still aren't), but it was in anticipation of severe weather conditions and taking into account the fires raging nearby in NSW. Other situations that could lead to a state of alert include a major outbreak of disease or an impending flood, according to the Emergencies Act.
What does it mean for Canberrans?
It is letting Canberrans know they should be just that - alert. Legally, while the alert is active, the emergency services minister must give the community regular situation reports. An emergency controller can be appointed if a state of alert is called (if a state of emergency is called, one must be appointed). In this case, Mr Barr has given that role to ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan, giving her special powers. She has overriding responsibility for managing the response to the bushfire threat and any recovery effort needed.
According to legislation, she will coordinate necessary resources and update the community on the emergency. She also has the power to (among other things): Direct people, prohibit people from entering an area, take possession of any premises near the emergency area and control and coordinate the distribution of water, power, food, healthcare etc.
The ESA says the state of alert means everyone should be prepared, including by creating a bushfire survival plan. It means all emergency services and ACT Parks and Conservation Service are on high alert and ready to respond to any threat.
When would a state of emergency be called?
The Chief Minister can declare a state of emergency if he is satisfied an emergency has happened, is happening or is likely to happen. Presumably, a significant fire would have to be burning in the ACT before this was enacted in this case. NSW and Victoria have both declared states of emergencies due to the bushires burning in the states.
What do the different fire alert ratings mean?
These alerts are relevant with or without a state of alert, but it's useful to clarify them anyway. Advice means a fire has started but there is no immediate danger. People should stay up to date in case that changes. Watch and act means there is a heightened level of threat. Conditions are changing and you need to start taking action to protect yourself and your family. Emergency is the highest level bushfire alert. You may be in danger and need to take action immediately.