Photo of Peter Kambouris, Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer Grampians regions

Peter Kambouris, Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer

Peter Kambouris, Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer for the Grampians region, admits it was a big change moving back to Ballarat after 20 years working in East Gippsland then living in Merimbula. ‘You don’t quite feel the sea breeze here in summer’, he says.

Keeping bushfire risk down

As an ecologist with 25 years’ forest, park and fire management experience, Peter is no stranger to seasonal and weather changes. And the Grampians region is a good example of how conditions can alter when it comes to fire risk.

Planned burning opportunities in the Wombat State Forest, north of Daylesford, are very limited because of the damp type of forest. Even if a burn is planned, the conditions are seldom right.

‘We had no opportunities last year, so risk to some local communities increased’, says Peter.

‘But we had a great season this year, and we treated the highest-risk areas around the Wombat State Forest. In fact, the planned burn around Daylesford was probably the highest-risk-reduction burn in Victoria in autumn. But because we missed out last year, and to a lesser extent the year before, we haven’t delivered the full, three-year fire operations plan.’

‘As the population of towns like Daylesford and their surrounds keeps growing, there’s lots more people and property than 20 years ago, which means there’s lots more risk,’ says Peter. ‘Fuel loads accumulate, then either fire or our fuel management reduces them’, he says.

Peter also emphasises the importance of protecting smaller communities and townships.

‘A major bushfire in a remote community can wipe it out. We often assess risk in terms of loss of property, which can bias risk towards the larger towns and cities that are built-up. Whereas the risk of a community being entirely displaced or wiped out is an immense risk to that community.’

Doing nothing isn’t an option, according to Peter. ‘If we don’t do planned burning, the risk will increase exponentially, and we won't be able to get ahead of the game and adequately reduce the risk again.’

Of Wombat State Forest, Peter says, ‘Ash Wednesday was the last major fire event through the forest. All the planned burning in recent years, particularly the last decade, has reduced the risk to close to where it was immediately after Ash Wednesday’, says Peter. ‘That’s a really important outcome for protecting the communities close to the forest.’

Looking further west toward the Grampians National Park, to the at-risk communities around Halls Gap, Pomonal and Dunkeld, Peter notes the significant fires of the last decade, including with planned burning, has significantly lowered risk for some time.

‘But areas burnt by the first large fire there in 2006 are now coming back online as available fuel’, says Peter. ‘So we need to manage that intensively, to keep the threat to these communities low.’

Community first

While risk is a key factor in determining planned burning priorities, community and social needs are also on their radar.

‘For me, our objective isn't only just reducing risk. We might also aim to protect an environmental value or avoid a social impact.’

Peter emphasises the need to communicate effectively with communities.

‘We can’t assume people understand the risk with living where they live, or that we do planned burning regularly to manage risk’, Peter says.

‘There's probably more opposition to what we do from people in high-density populations closer to Melbourne, who mightn’t like seeing the natural vegetation they enjoy looking at being burnt, even though it’s a planned burn under controlled conditions.

‘People in more-remote communities are often descended from generations of people with bushfire experience. They have a very different, supportive outlook on the value of planned burning. So we work with local CFA brigades to engage with them. Delivery almost becomes the easy part once you've done all your engagement and your planning.’

Peter and the team have strong bonds with local winemakers.

‘The grape-picking season coincides with the planned burn season – which is often restricted to a few weeks – so we keep them really well-informed about the conditions and our plans. And they keep us informed about what the state of their grapes, with different types of grapes coming on at different times’, Peter says. ‘This year, with the winemakers, we brought in Associate Professor Ian Porter from The Latrobe University. He researches smoke taint, which could potentially devastate grape crops.’

Relationships with the region’s Traditional Owner groups are also strong the region. ‘Several of our staff are from local, Traditional Owner communities’, Peter says. In the last few years, Peter and the team have worked with the Wimmera’s Barengi Gadjin Land Council and the Wotjobaluk people to bring traditional burning into their programs.

‘We’ve done some traditional burning at Mount Arapiles-Tooan State Park in the Wimmera. As well as reducing risk, it celebrates the reintroduction of cultural practices to Country and the healing of Country. It’s fantastic that we're able to support that.’

Improving ecosystem resilience

As an ecologist, Peter emphasises the ecological benefits of burning.

‘In our larger landscapes away from densely populated areas, we've got a big ecological burning program. We’re protecting habitat for some species, creating habitat for others or trying to reinstate natural, ecological processes through burning’, he says.

Peter and the team were recently joined by specialist staff to help monitor a burned area in which the vulnerable brush-tailed phascogale had once been observed. After the burn, the team found evidence the little marsupials were still active in the area, and the team expect to see more of them in the next few years as the habitat becomes more suitable for them.

Page last updated: 18/10/18