Photo of Scott Falconer, Assistant Chief Fire Officer Loddon Mallee region

Scott Falconer, Assistant Chief Fire Officer

Having worked in fire, forestry, fisheries and wildlife for more than two decades around the state, Scott Falconer became the Loddon Mallee Assistant Chief Fire Officer in 2016. He’s recently back from a Churchill Fellowship in the United States and Canada, where he saw how those countries manage bushfire risk and how well Victoria compares.

Community first

In the United States, Scott saw how fire management agencies are partnering with North American Indigenous people to do traditional burning on public lands.

This is useful learning, as Scott and the Loddon Mallee team are partnering with the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation in the Murray Goldfields district and with the Barapa Barapa group, Traditional Owners of the Gunbower forest on the River Murray, to increase traditional burning.

‘We did seven traditional burns last year and two before that’, says Scott.

‘Overseas, we’re seen as leading the world in respectfully enabling Traditional Owners to burn on Country. That’s fire on public land, not on reservation: that's a different thing altogether and a lot of what happens in the Americas. Here, Traditional Owners select the areas for traditional burns and determine the purpose and objectives of the burns.’

In America, Scott also saw first-hand the consequences of letting planned burning programs lapse.

‘The United States has largely lost the social licence for planned burning. That’s something we absolutely must maintain’, says Scott.

‘California, for instance, has similar, large, destructive fires, but they’ve let planned burning lapse. They’ve got a huge amount of work to do to bring it back on a scale that will appreciably reduce risk. Maintaining the social licence for planned burning is crucial. As long as we can hold onto it, we’re doing well.’

Listening to the Mallee

Scott and the team put great effort into explaining to the Loddon Mallee community how, why and when they do planned burning, particularly in the Mallee.

‘We've invested heavily in a new engagement model, the Mallee Fire Advisory Committee, that has members of the public advising us about fire management. It’s a great example of how we can protect and strengthen the social licence. And it gives us flexibility to take the more risk-based approach and burn less area than we did under the hectare target: about half, actually’, says Scott.

The district has a relatively low risk to life and property because it has large tracts of public lands and not a lot of people, but it has a lot of environmental assets.

‘Some species, particularly bird species, are at high risk of collapse. We work closely with BirdLife Australia who have a representative on the committee to address their concerns. Like everyone, we don’t want to see species become extinct, especially because we all have natural resource management backgrounds.’

‘We do a lot of work with environmental groups to create exclusion zones for certain flora and fauna, in consultation with the community. We can be a lot more flexible in our burn planning than some regions.’

Risk is well under target

While Scott’s been doing his fellowship, Simon Brown, Senior Forest Fire Management Officer Fuel Management for the region’s Murray Goldfields district, has kept an eye on the region’s bushfire risk.

‘We’re currently at 62.5%, under the risk reduction target of 70%. In 2017–18, we reduced it by 2.5%, so without the year’s planned burning we’d be at 65%’, Simon says.

‘A key burn for risk reduction this year was at Redbank in the Pyrenees’, notes Scott.

‘We did the burn in the spring, which made the burning riskier but which avoided smoke taint to the grapes, which the local grape growers appreciated.’

The team also did a burn around Denver in the Hepburn area.

‘That was probably the highest-risk-reduction burn in the region. But risk-wise we couldn't do it until autumn, so we had to negotiate with the grape-growing organisations to make sure the grapes were off the vines, and do smoke modelling.’

‘We really have ramped up our engagement, for the better’, says Scott.

‘That includes engaging with tourism operators and the general public. Five or six years ago, we had environmental groups that refused to meet with us without a mediator. That’s all been turned around. We’re communicating smarter.’

‘The support for planned burning has always been there’, says Scott.

‘But we need to be really clear about our objectives and messaging, and with our planned burn risk assessment tools we can be really specific about why we're doing a burn and what compromises we’ve made.’

Extra care with communities

There’s also a greater emphasis on the health of communities in and around burn zones these days.

‘We’re very, very careful now to make sure that if, say, so-and-so has asthma, we ring them before the burn to tell them. It’s in all the burn plans, and a lot of care goes into that side of things.’

They also do a lot of social media before, during and after burns.

‘We engage a lot with the public’ says Scott.

‘At the start of the season, we have meetings with the public and with stakeholders. Leading up to the burn, we'll put out a flyer — something physically people can keep and read — and phone people who have asked to be called, for health or other reasons. We'll put up those moving message board things beside roads, and we also have onsite information points during the burn. And on burning days, will use all possible media to tell people what we doing.’

To top it off, the Loddon Mallee team now uses a plane to alert people along more-remote stretches of the River Murray to the high fire danger.

‘The plane drags a banner telling campers — who are maybe out of range or not looking at their phones — it's a total fire ban day’, says Scott.

Safe to say, the Loddon Mallee team is getting their fire messages out there loud and clear. You could even say they’re flying along.

Page last updated: 18/10/18