Photo of Chris Stephenson, Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer 2017-2018

Chris Stephenson, Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer 2017-2018

With more than 25 years’ fire and forestry experience around the state, Chris Stephenson is happy to be back in Bairnsdale, a region he knows well. In those years, he’s had a lot of bridge construction experience and he hasn’t stopped building bridges – but these days, they’re metaphorical. As a regional fire chief, he sees social engagement as essential to building trust.

Community first

‘We get a lot of interest in Gippsland from remote communities and environmental groups’, Chris says.

‘Our research shows the majority supports what we do, but some people don’t like planned burning and some people think we should do a lot more. There’s a whole range of opinions here. There's no doubt planned burning has impacts, but that needs to be set against the impacts of major bushfires,’ says Chris. ‘Victoria’s one of the most fire-prone places in the world, so we will have smoke in the atmosphere at some time. It's really about exercising as much control as we can to make it at the best and safest time.’

Traditional burning is also an expanding part of the team’s program, through a close partnership with Gippsland's Traditional Owners.

‘The Traditional Owners are heavily involved in planning: educating us about cultural values and helping us decide where to burn’, Chris said. The team also partners with the CFA and Hancock Victorian Plantations. ‘It's about protecting their resources and assets, as well as reducing risk across the board’, says Chris.

A very, very dry season

In 2017–18, the biggest influence on planned burning in Gippsland were the very dry conditions. ‘We had an extremely dry spring and one of our driest autumn periods for a long, long time, if not since records started’, says Chris. ‘The region is still incredibly dry.’

That meant few opportunities for planned burning. ‘Over 90% of burning in Gippsland is in autumn’, says Chris. ‘Spring is not good for us. It’s often too windy and our forest types don't suit broad-scale burning in spring. Having no burn window in autumn really cuts back our program.’

Gippsland has roughly 40% of the state's public land: vast amounts of forest requiring a vast amount of planned burning in a typical year, which wasn’t possible this year.

Risk is below target

Gippsland’s bushfire risk is sitting on target at 65%.

‘We’re below target but bushfire risk did increase a little. But it's not a matter of the metric this year, it's a matter of the weather’, he says. ‘It doesn't really matter target by risk or area, if you don't get the weather for planned burning, then there’s no hope of a good news story.’

As well, the team was fighting bushfires when they would usually be doing planned burning. And fuel is starting to reaccumulate as the forests recover from the big bushfires of the last 15 years. ‘We’ll have to start reducing that fuel over the next few years’, says Chris.

Another factor in Gippsland is the balance planned burning for two purposes: to reduce risk to communities, which is the priority, and to reduce the risk of ‘campaign’ bushfires that can cost the state many millions of dollars to try to suppress. Campaign bushfires, for which Gippsland is notorious, typically burn in a very remote area and are hard to get at.

‘We try our best to get our firefighters in, but these fires can grow a little bit day by day. Then we get some really bad days and they become half-million or million-hectare fires burning for many weeks. If a fire starts at Mount Hotham, it could potentially burn through to the coast — and burn everything in between’, says Chris.

The Gippsland team regularly takes to the sky to learn from their large burns, especially in remote areas.

‘We do a fair bit of work after our burning program to understand what we've achieved. We use a lot of aerial imagery, and we do a lot of post-burn fuel monitoring to make sure we've met our objectives.’

Improving ecosystem resilience

Gippsland’s native plants and animals are important ecological assets. While their priority is protecting people and property, Chris and the team work with ecologists and other experts to better understand how fire affects the region’s native species.

‘We have to balance that too’, says Chris. ‘Aiming to manage an individual in a species, rather than a species as a collective, can have detrimental impacts.’

Ecological burns aim to promote the growth of specific species. ‘We do ecological burns when it's most appropriate for particular species’, he says. ‘That's why we put those burns on our fire operations plan. Those burns reduce risk slightly for communities but mainly they're to keep that species healthy. We don't just burn to reduce the risk to life and property,’ he says, ‘we also burn to ensure our ecosystems survive and prosper. You've still got to have the right conditions, but we do small amounts of ecological burning throughout the year if there are opportunities.’

On the right track

With less planned burning to do, the team kept themselves busy improving infrastructure through the Reducing Bushfire Risk program.

‘We improved roads, tracks to bridges and fire towers, to maintain access to rapidly suppress bushfires on public land. It's not just for our firefighters’, Chris says. ‘It's also to provide safe access and egress for communities and visitors in the forests and parks.’

The Gippsland team was also busy with non-fire fuel treatments. ‘This year, we’ve reduced fuel by mechanical means, like mulching the understorey, rather than by planned burning around some communities’, says Chris.

It’s a reminder that even when fire activity is limited, the work is not. Whether they’re mulching, monitoring, burning or bridge-building, Chris and the Gippsland team always have plenty to do.

Page last updated: 18/10/18