The fire that threatened Queanbeyan and grounded flights at Canberra Airport was started by a beekeeping operation near the airport, where the federal government maintains sentinel hives, authorities have confirmed.
The Canberra Times has been told that a smoking operation went wrong, possibly when bees swarmed, igniting the fire in Pialligo Redwood Forest near Canberra Airport.
The fire, which started about 4.15pm on Wednesday, January 22, was quickly spotted by air traffic controllers, but nevertheless grew rapidly. By 5.20pm it was burning at emergency level, having crossed the Molonglo River to threaten residents in Beard and Oaks Estate.
The next morning a tree at the old Duntroon dairy farm blew on to power lines, ignited a second fire in the Pialligo area, which merged with the redwood forest fire to become the Beard fire. It was finally extinguished on Thursday evening this week, after eight days.
An ACT government spokesperson said the Canberra Region Beekeepers had "self-reported that they were involved in the ignition of the fire whilst undertaking bee surveillance activities around the Canberra Airport".
The beekeepers had worked closely and cooperated with the government and the Emergency Services Agency since the fire, and WorkSafe ACT was now investigating, the spokesperson said.
The hive is believed to be on Defence land although that remains unconfirmed. A Defence spokesperson said a hive was maintained near the airport as part of a national bee pest surveillance program administered by Plant Health Australia, the national plant biosecurity coordinator.
The hives are part of a network near airports and sea ports around the country that provide an early warning system of bee pests at entry points to Australia. Hives are tested every two months for pests including varroa mites, according to online material. The early warning system also includes "catch boxes" to attract any exotic bees that have made their way into the country.
The hives are maintained by hobby beekeepers.
The ACT government spokesperson said the government had minimal contact with the Canberra beekeepers who ran the program, other than collecting samples and organising the analysis. There was no contractual arrangement between the ACT government and the beekeepers, and no regulatory obligation for the ACT to be part of the national bee surveillance program.
Canberra Region Beekeepers president Dermot Asis Sha'Non said he had been asked to refer inquires to Plant Health Australia. Plant Health Australia referred inquires to the ACT Emergency Services Agency.
No one has provided background on the nature of the Canberra operation, nor the arrangements under which the Canberra beekeepers maintain the hive, nor the authority under which the hive operates in the forest. Nor has anyone specified the hive location.
The bees are believed to have perished with the hive.