Photo of Aaron Kennedy, Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer for the Hume region

Aaron Kennedy, Assistant Chief Fire Officer

Aaron Kennedy, Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer for the Hume region, isn’t the first Kennedy to make his name in north-east Victoria. That was a Sergeant Kennedy — no relation — who famously led a search for Ned Kelly at Stringybark Creek, not far from Aaron’s base.

Community first

Aaron and the Hume team greatly value local knowledge. ‘Historically, our planned burning program has tried hard to understand local communities, local risks and how local environmental conditions influence the movement of fires across the landscape’ Aaron says.

‘Knowing the landscape means knowing the locals. We try to prioritise areas where it’s going to be hard to suppress a fire. To identify them, we need local knowledge about the area’s fire history.’

Full-time community partnership support officers in each district work with staff and the community to identify people who will be most affected by each planned burn.

‘We determine who we need to engage with and how and when we're going to engage. We have onsite meetings, make calls, do letterbox drops and use social media extensively.

There are 566 addresses on the region’s email notification list, including 121 media outlets, and most stakeholders subscribe to the Planned Burning Notification System.

‘An email goes out every day when we’re burning’, says Aaron.

‘We’ve also very active posting material online and working through media outlets. During the peak planned burning period, from the start of March to the end of May, our Hume Facebook page reached almost 680,000 people, 35% more than the previous year, and it had 10% more followers. We posted 26 planned burning posts, including five videos that had almost 17,000 views.’

‘We also meet with key industry groups —north-east vignerons, apiarists and tourism operators. Not actively engaging with key stakeholders is to our detriment. Grassroots communication, keeping everyone informed, is a constant part of the job’, Aaron says.

The Hume region team works closely with interest groups, like the Strathbogie Community Bushfire Planning Group, which Aaron says ‘is a great example of how FFMVic, local communities, the CFA, councils and other government agencies work together to identify priorities and minimise bushfire risks’.

The team also works closely with Traditional Owners to identify traditional burning opportunities in redgum forests and on grassland reserves. ‘There’s been traditional burning in the Barmah area for millennia’, says Aaron.

‘We’ve also done traditional burning in the Upper Murray. We're building stronger relationships with the Taungurong people and with Woka Walla, a Yorta Yorta Nation corporation, they’re interested in traditional burning. These partnerships means two-way sharing of knowledge about using fire to care for Country.’

Bushfire risk is below target

Reducing risk is a big part of Aaron’s day-to-day responsibilities.

‘We’ve had two difficult years for planned burning in a row, but three of our four fire districts remain below their bushfire risk targets. That’s a great result, from targeting areas where could reduce risk the most.’

Aaron sees the challenge is to integrate additional factors into the risk landscape team’s model.

‘The model currently considers the impact of bushfire on life and property, but it doesn't fully consider the economic impacts of fire on things like agricultural production and timber plantations and our transport and power networks’, says Aaron.

‘VicForests is a big presence in the region and protecting that industry, given the decreasing access to hardwood plantations, is important. We also have transmission lines that run down to Melbourne through north-east Victoria.’

In recent years, there’s been a shift in how planned burning and the resources to do it are prioritised.

‘Before, we allocated resources according to district and regional priorities. Now we are seeing a concerted effort to look at the bigger picture and prioritise burns and resource allocation at the state level. That helps us particularly with asset-protection burns, which are usually much more resource-intensive than burns in more-remote country. Sometimes, we need to draw in resources from around the state to ensure we have adequate resources.’

‘That also means we need to be able to explain to our local communities how burns are prioritised at a local, regional and state level’ Aaron says.

‘That's a challenge – being able to explain why one community's burn is more important than another's, getting the messaging about that right.’

Aaron feels being absolutely transparent with people is essential, although it can be hard conveying harsh realities, especially when plans change.

‘I think we're very upfront and transparent. We don’t hide the fact our work is determined by priorities. That’s not always well received. For example, we may have a burn that’s been prepared and ready for ignition for three, four, even five years, then we have to delay or cancel it because priorities change. Then we have two deal with the fallout not only from the community, who have expected the burn for so long, but also from our staff, who have put so much work into the planning. But that’s the nature of planned burning. An area might only be available to burn one in every five years, so if weather and ground conditions are right, we need to immediately seize opportunities as they arise.’

Improving ecosystem resilience with science

Aaron and his team like to talk about their successful monitoring, evaluation and reporting programs for flora and fauna.

‘The risk landscape team use geographic information systems to identify areas to burn, based on their fire history and the tolerable fire interval of the species’, says Aaron.

Tolerable fire interval is an important concept: it’s the length of time between one burn and the next that doesn’t affect the species’ ability to recover from fire.

‘Our systems generate maps showing us areas which are available or not available for burning.’

To keep the maps up-to-date, after each planned burn or bushfire Aaron and the team also model the fire area and the intensity of the fire, and this data becomes part of the recorded fire history of the mapped area.

Page last updated: 18/10/18