Photo of Nick Ryan, Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer Port Phillip region

Nick Ryan, Acting Assistant Chief Fire Officer

Nick Ryan knows all too well how fast fire can move. In February 2009, a raging bushfire was heading straight for his family’s property in Kilmore East. Black Saturday had begun.

‘I got about 20 years' experience in one day’, says Nick, ‘but we saved the house and the main shed. It was tumultuous there for a while.’

These days, Nick’s fire experience is all part of his community engagement message across the Port Phillip region.

‘If I'm getting somebody to understand about risk, being able to speak from first-hand experience is really valuable’, he says.

Community first

While Nick knows the message about being prepared for bushfires is getting through in most places, the problem is that the stark memories can fade.

‘As time goes on and we get further from a serious bushfire, we can forget the lessons of the past’, he says.

‘People down around Cobden and Terang are particularly aware of fire safety at present, they had fires there last summer. But people who haven't had a big fire anywhere near for a while can be a bit dulled to the risks.’

His Black Saturday close call is not Nick’s only experience of major fires. When a planned burn got out of control near Lancefield in September 2015, Nick felt the sting of criticism even though it wasn’t his region. ‘Living up near Kilmore, which is not that far from Lancefield, I got nailed pretty hard’, he says.

‘Our department was not painted in a very good light after that, so you find yourself not so much defending the department, but you find yourself answering some pretty serious questions. But good things can come from adversity. Our systems and processes and authorisations are a lot more robust since Lancefield,’ he says.

Nick says the Port Phillip region lags other regions in working with Traditional Owners, but it’s catching up.

‘We plan to do some traditional burns in 2018–19’, he says. Near Dixons Creek, between Healesville and Kinglake, the Pauls Range program came about through the team’s work with Traditional Owners the Wurundjeri Tribe Council. We clearly need to look at and incorporate traditional burning concepts, to help us achieve our objectives’, Nick says.

Bushfire risk is OK

Bushfire risk in the Port Phillip region is just under 80%. It’s a slight drop from last year Nick considers acceptable.

‘It's running at 78% or 79%’, he says, ‘which is okay, because it takes a major bushfire across the landscape to move it by more than a degree or two a year.’

Nick says focusing on a risk-based target is important. ‘At some point, we turn it into a hectare target for operational purposes, and we got about 80% of our hectare target done in 2017–18. But keeping risk under where we want it to be is more important.’

Unlike other regions, Port Phillip was spared the worst of the dry conditions. ‘But we still had to hold off a bit before we could start burning, because it was too dry’, says Nick.

Dryer conditions can be helpful in the region, which is subject to ‘doughy’ burns caused by high moisture content. ‘When it’s ‘doughy”, the fuel will still burn but it doesn't give us the fuel-reduction result we're looking,’ says Nick. ‘It smokes and fluffs around, and it doesn't do what you want it to do. That's why the fuel moistures need to be pretty right.’

The team has been making a big effort in Port Phillip’s high-priority risk areas during the year.

‘The Dandenongs has a high fire risk. If people aren’t prepared and have to leave quickly, it can be very challenging. The Warrandyte community — it’s bushy and hilly there — get pretty concerned about their level of risk, so we keep a close eye on that area. We did a few planned burns there recently, which helped.’

The heavily populated Mornington Peninsula, which buzzes with locals and visitors in summer, is also a priority. ‘The other big one is the water catchments’, says Nick.

‘If they get burnt, that's got serious consequence for the whole state, even the country.’

Protecting unique assets

The region has some important infrastructure to protect.

‘We did some good work to reduce risk to the TV towers on Mount Dandenong’, Nick said.

The team also partnered with the CFA in an asset-protection burn around Emerald Secondary College in the east of the Dandenongs.

‘There was concern that a fire on a bad day would threaten the college and put the kids at risk’, Nick explains. ‘So we did a burn adjacent to the college, on a weekend so the kids weren’t at school.’

Alerting communities to the presence of burns, and smoke, is a constant, challenging part of the job.

‘Smoke this year was a big challenge. We work with the CFA and Melbourne Water to get it right, but when there's a lot of burning going on and the weather doesn’t go in our favour, we put up a lot of smoke. This year we had our fair share of criticism because of smoke. Millions of people see what we’re doing, so we’re going to get complaints: letters to the Minister, people calling us, negative social media feedback. We need to keep working with our partner agencies and keep understanding the total smoke load and where it's going. And if we have a few good days of burning and there's a lot of smoke around, we might back off a little bit to give the community a breather from it.’

Improving ecosystem resilience

Ecological burns are always on the Port Phillip agenda, particularly in the grasslands west of Melbourne.

‘Grass burns are relatively easy’, says Nick, ‘as they don't put up heaps of smoke. They're over pretty quickly. Quite a bit of the Metro district program is grass burns, usually early in the season starting at the end of February or the start of March.’

Page last updated: 18/10/18