THOSE red and yellow flags so synonymous with summer were back on Hunter beaches over the weekend as volunteer patrols began just in time for a heatwave.
The Hunter branch of Surf Life Saving entered its 99th season on the sand on Saturday with an official ‘Raising of the Flags’ ceremony at Bar Beach.
CEO Rhonda Scruton, who oversees 13 clubs from Tea Gardens to Catherine Hill Bay, said last season more than 674,000 people flocked to the Hunter’s beaches and volunteers combined for more than 68,500 hours on the sand, completing 496 rescues and 24,283 “preventative actions”, which was generally directing swimmers back into the flags.
But this season was shaping up to be even bigger, with the forecast for a long and hot summer for the Hunter’s 2500 active volunteers. “It’s going to be a biggie,” Ms Scruton said.
“But we’re organised, the volunteers are ready and trained up.
“We’ll turn 100 years old in January, 2018, and we’ve never lost a life between the flags in all that time.
“That is something that every one of the clubs will strive to maintain.”
Volunteers will be on the Hunter’s patrolled beaches from 9am to 5pm every Saturday, Sunday and public holiday from now until April, Ms Scruton said.
But the safety message remained the same; swim between the flags and don’t swim on unpatrolled beaches. Meanwhile, the Hunter sweated through a stifling Saturday and Sunday with strong winds and temperatures in the mid-30s fanning several spot fires around the region.
The Rural Fire Service were kept busy with a number of small grass fires, which were quickly extinguished.
Police were investigating at least three suspicious fires around the inner city bypass at Bennetts Green, Windale and Gateshead early on Saturday morning.
Another small fire sparked on Saturday night in Mount Hutton, the RFS said.
As volunteers raised the flags on a new patrol season, Surf Life Saving NSW released its coastal safety report, reinforcing the importance of beach safety ahead of what is expected to be a busy beach-going season.
The report, which reviews and assesses the current and historical coastal drowning data, found that while the total number of coastal drownings in 2016-2017 was down to 31 from a record-high of 53 the year prior, there was still a big spike in drownings at the height of summer.
Perhaps of most concern was the figure that 70 per cent of drownings occurred more than 5 kilometres from a patrolled location, suggesting the swim between the flags message wasn’t getting through to everyone.