Photo of Andrew Morrow, Assistant Chief Fire Officer Barwon South West region

Andrew Morrow, Assistant Chief Fire Officer Barwon South West

As regional fire chief, Andrew Morrow’s Barwon South West patch is one of Victoria’s premier holiday, tourism and wilderness destinations, known internationally for its iconic Great Ocean Road. ‘It's a busy place’, says Andrew. ‘There are major tourism events along the coast pretty much every week during our team’s burn program.’ The team’s work is essential to protect the assets and values that underpin the region’s tourist economy. In 2017–18, the Great Ocean Road area alone attracted 5.4 million visitors, generating $1.3 billion and 11,200 jobs.

Dry, disjointed but risk kept down

This year, dry conditions ended Andrew’s teams planned burning early. ‘We had a mild summer and geared up to do some early planned burning. We got burns in around Lorne and Forrest, and down at Gorae and Nelson in the far south-west, but then it became too dry. We needed to stop until we got some more moisture in the landscape.’

It ended up being a more disjointed season than most. ‘We had significant fires in the south-west on March 17, and we were burning from the middle-to-late-March period. We eventually got some more opportunities in May’, he says. The dry conditions weren’t all bad news, though. ‘Because it was so dry, some planned burning at Lorne actually got better results than burning when it’s wetter’, Andrew says.

‘The Otways contribute about 20% of the state’s risk’, Andrew says. Prioritising coastal towns like Lorne and Anglesea is essential – planned burns in those areas yield the biggest reductions in risk to life and property. But deeper into the Otway Ranges, the risk levels are just as important.

‘In the Otways, we started 2017–18 at 61.5% bushfire risk and we had a target of 60%’, says Andrew. ‘With no planned burning, bushfire risk would have risen by 5%. Instead, we only had a 1% increase. That's higher than we want, but it's still manageable. We were effectively lacking one burn window. If we had had it, I think we would be close to the 60% mark.’

‘In the far south-west, we mitigated 3% risk compared with doing no burning’, says Andrew. ‘Overall, we took the available opportunities and achieved an effective program.’

The region has important assets to protect. The plantations in far south-west Victoria and across the border into South Australia make up 20% of Australia's plantation timber industry and move lots of timber to the port of Portland.

‘We’ve got essential power and gas assets like the SP AusNet Heywood power substation on the edge of the Mount Clay State Forest, that we reduce risk to with planned burning. And the team uses smoke modelling and schedule burns to minimise disruption to the grape harvest and to address any concerns about smoke taint.’

Community first

The team have formed strong partnerships with the Traditional Owners, particularly the Gunditjmara Aboriginal Cooperative in the far south-west of the region around the national-heritage-listed Budj Bim (formerly Mount Eccles) National Park.

‘Our traditional burning program in and around the Budj Bim landscape — the Tyrendarra lava flow areas —is about the Gunditjmara people managing the land, about managing fuel and weeds. The program is building and we strongly support it’, Andrew says.

Working with the community means a lot to Andrew and the team. ‘Many Lorne and Otways families have been here for generations, they’re big admirers of our work,’ he says. ‘Stories of the 1939 Black Friday fires, 1983 Ash Wednesday fires and the 2015 Wye River Christmas fires get passed down through the generations, and they see fuel management as a good thing!’

‘The Phoenix Rapidfire bushfire simulator also helps us explain risk and planned burning,’ says Andrew.

He cites the October 2015 Wensleydale-Casboults Road fire, north of Aireys Inlet and Anglesea.

‘The fire burnt up into an area we had previously planned burnt, which enabled us to control it and continue to control it during really strong winds a few days later. Without the planned burning, Phoenix modelling indicated we would have had a major fire threatening Aireys Inlet and Anglesea. That’s really useful information to give to the locals.’

And there’s lots of locals to keep in the loop, too.

‘In the Otways, we email about 700 people and groups, working through community hubs — network points for us to get information out. We have a smaller number in the far south-west, but it's a similar process.’

Social media, particularly using video, also helps spread the message. A picture of a smoke column in a newspaper a few years ago had the locals worried.

‘The photo made it look a bit like we were smothering the town’, Andrew says, ‘but now we’re able to put up video of our aircraft at work and that helps people understand so much better.’

Working together

The Barwon South West team works closely with the CFA and local governments. ‘We helped the CFA deploy their mobile education bus and property advisory service to Lorne and Forrest, with the theme of making Lorne a fire-ready community. It was a joint approach, and really successful’, says Andrew.

Improving ecosystem resilience

While reducing risk to people is their highest priority, the team work hard to maintain and improve ecosystem resilience. In the far south-west, they target invasive woody weeds like pine wildings, pittosporum and coast wattle that spring up in the forests. ‘We're actively mulching and dealing with coast wattle and pittosporum on burn sites in and around Gorae and Nelson, then following up with burning’, Andrews says.

‘We’re restoring those sites back to a better mix and diversity of species.’

In particular, eliminating pine wilding weeds that spread from pine plantations into adjoining large areas of brown stringybark forest helps protect habitat for the much-loved south-eastern red-tailed black cockatoo.

Managing the impact of fire on wildlife is also important. While he and the team sadly acknowledge that some harm to animals and plants is unavoidable from planned burning, burning also helps plants and animals that need fire to stay healthy.

Better ways of working

Along the Great Ocean Road, Andrew and his team get planned burning help from above. In difficult areas, they get pinpoint accuracy and better control of ignition and lighting patterns with a helicopter using the aerial drip-torch method to ignite fires and aircraft to suppress them.

‘Using the helicopter, we can control the rate and timing of the drip of fire and support the ground crews who are getting the edges of the fire all sorted out’, Andrew says.

‘Then the aircraft comes in and fills in the middle with nicely pinpointed ignition along ridge lines, so we get the burn depth and coverage we planned.’

‘With all that activity in the air, it’s important we tell people there’s no reason to be alarmed, it’s how we operate nowadays’, says Andrew.

The same goes for smoke in the air. ‘We can't do this business without making smoke, although we work to minimise the effects of smoke on communities. But we can always do more to make sure everyone understands how and when we need to go about planned burning.’

Page last updated: 18/10/18