Photo of Darrin McKenzie, Acting Chief Fire Officer 2017-2018

Darrin McKenzie, Chief Fire Officer March to September 2017-2018

‘Support’ is a word Darrin McKenzie, FFMVic Deputy Chief Fire Officer, uses a lot when he talks about his colleagues on the fuel management frontline around the state of Victoria. ‘Planned burning is our highest-risk activity’, says Darrin. ‘We need a heap of risk management when we go around lighting fires. I want our people to know that at the top we’re keenly interested in what they do, support them to do it and appreciate them for it. I want Victorians to know that, too.’

Prioritising to reduce risk

In 2017–18, Darrin has overseen our fuel management response to what’s called around the state as ‘the Big Dry’. The soil and fuels are as dry as in the early-to-mid 2000s, when we had large, remote forest fires. ‘We’re not as bad as in 2009 after 10 years of drought, but we’re certainly getting to early-to-mid-2000s levels, when forest fires burned several million hectares over two or three years’, says Darrin.

The key to reducing bushfire risk is to target high-priority areas around the state. ‘We used a prioritisation tool this year that worked out the 71 sites ready for burning where we could see the greatest reduction in statewide and local risk’ says Darrin. ‘So, if the conditions are right — and planned burning opportunities only come round for some sites once every 10 years or so — those are the sites we really have to do’, says Darrin. ‘For example, wetter forest types can only be burned in a particularly dry year, like last year. So we did planned burns in the Wombat Forest and along the Great Ocean Road at the back Lorne and Anglesea’, says Darrin. ‘It was really pleasing to get those done.’

But that can also mean reallocating resources and abandoning another planned burn. ‘That can be the hardest call of all’ says Darrin. ‘There can be a lot of pressure to do a burn, to get a program done, with the crew all there ready to go’, says Darrin. ‘Sometimes the toughest decision to make is the one not to go ahead with a burn.’

Risk is up, but a good outcome considering the circumstances

‘This year the bushfire risk figure went up by a few percent statewide, to 66%’, says Darrin. ‘It’s up in some regions, and steady in others. But burning in high-priority areas like the Otway Ranges, the Wombat Forest and the Dandenongs kept it down in those areas and restrained the increase across the state.’ Despite this, Darrin is satisfied with what’s been achieved. ‘There are years where we have three months or more for planned burning. This year, we had to do the bulk of it in a two-and-a-half-week burn window in mid-April through to early May. That’s very narrow for us, and we deploy all our resources to get as much possible in such a short period’, he says. ‘We’re also concerned that climate change is going to continue to compress our planned burning opportunities into fairly narrow windows.’

‘Our Reducing Bushfire Risk program receives significant funding from the government and allows us to implement a range of bushfire risk mitigation programs including treating hazardous trees, and improving access and egress to forests’, says Darrin. ‘In some years like this one, when we can’t have a big planned burning program, our programs to slash and mulch are particularly important and we must be set up to quickly switch resources to them and away from planned burning.’

Burning for ecology

Equally pleasing was the ecosystem resilience planned burning. This included grassland burns on the basalt plains near Melton to promote the growth of some rare grassland plant species and restore habitat for the Legless Lizard. ‘We also did coastal heath burning, which is particularly important for that vegetation, along the east coast and some in the far south-west’, says Darrin.

Community first

Another shift Darrin considers benefits the wider community is toward fire prevention and preparedness. ‘Fire services worldwide tend to invest heavily in fire suppression —more fire trucks, more firefighters, more aircraft’ he says. ‘We’re complementing that approach with a greater investment in reducing risk, in preventing fires and in being prepared. Which is good.’

Stakeholder feedback about these changes is increasingly positive, Darrin says. ‘We meet at a state level with peak bodies including winemakers and tourism businesses, and we give them information they can disseminate to their members’, says Darrin. ‘In the regions, we have one-on-one relationships with individual operators. We work hard on those relationships, and we get good outcomes from them.’

Darrin understands the general public’s concerns about air quality, particularly following events such as the 2016 thunderstorm asthma fatalities. ‘It really raised community awareness about air quality issues generally, and community concern can be quick to spread with social media. Communities in high-risk areas have reason to understand planned burning, whereas people in urban areas may not, says Darrin. ‘Smoke from planned burning was an even bigger issue this year because of the tight burning window, when we generated more smoke simply from necessity.’

‘We’ve got a lot more messaging now through online channels and social media, and we’ve got some sophisticated models to forecast likely concentrations of smoke’, Darrin says. ‘We can provide more information than ever before to the community in advance of a smoke-type event, and we can tell them how long we think the event might last. We’re trying to help people understand what we are doing and why, and what it means for them.’

Page last updated: 25/10/18