Bethany Roberts, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Gippsland region

Bethany Roberts, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Gippsland region

Risk reduction

For regional fire chief Bethany Roberts — and for Gippsland — this season was one of prolonged campaigning, with a total of more than 180,000 ha burnt through bushfire and bushfire suppression work.

But while it was a big year on the fire front in Gippsland, Bethany points out by way of comparison that the largest statewide campaigns can burn up to 1,000,000 ha.

Assessing the region’s risk profile can be tricky because of the shifting, variable nature of living with fire. “The risk in the bush, particularly in Gippsland, is still incredibly high. For our communities, it’s more about living with bushfire rather than living without it. It means being aware, being prepared and having a good plan in place.”

With the risk-based approach to bushfire management in mind, Bethany is in no doubt there were many achievements to come out of the Gippsland fire season. One of these was the concerted effort her team put into the first major bushfire of the 2018–19 season, at Holey Plains State Park, near the township of Rosedale between Traralgon and Sale. This fire marked the beginning of 101 days of campaign fires across Gippsland.

“It started on January 4, really early in the year, on a very hot day. It was already 40 degrees by 8 o’clock in the morning. There were wind gusts of up to 100 km an hour by early afternoon,” Bethany recalled.

“The triple-0 call came through from a smoke sighting in the state park. Within about 20 minutes of dispatching crew, the convection column from the fire was already about 800 m into the atmosphere,” she said.

FFMVic crews were joined by the CFA, and the Heyfield Incident Control Centre was quickly in full swing.

“While we’d had a couple of fires much earlier in the season, this was the first fast-running incident,” said Bethany.

“It was intensely black, which meant is was burning very hot. The vegetation — Banksia and Coastal heath — is particularly fiery, especially with those wind gusts.”

For all involved, the intensity of the fire and the contributing conditions called for one message, loud and clear: “This was not a day about stopping the fire. It was about protecting life and property”.

That day, the fire progressed down the flank of a planned burning area last burnt in 2017. It meant the fire slowed; it allowed for better controls to be put in place quickly; and it protected the adjacent private property.

Which is exactly why we have a fuel reduction program in Victoria.

Besides fuel management, high on Bethany’s list of projects to reduce bushfire risk was her team’s Reducing Bushfire Risk (RBR) Program. “The RBR program is about creating better access and egress to and from places, not just for us but for our community too,” Bethany explained.

“In Gippsland, we have had a really extensive RBR program over the last 12 months. We treated about 3,500 km of roads. That means grading, treating verges so they’re not impinging on your vision or ability to navigate roads, and bringing them back to the standard of what we call strategic access roads.”

With a power of work done in this area, many of the region’s roads were brought up to scratch for firefighters and for anyone needing to get out safely if necessary.

“There has been a significant amount of investment, with a great risk-reduction result for us as well,” Bethany said.

Planning and operations

A resoundingly positive hot topic from the 2018–19 season was how the community got involved and showed their appreciation.

“The thing that came up again and again over the last year is how the community responds to the work we do and how thankful they are,” Bethany said.

“Often at times, it takes a disaster or a crisis for this to come to the forefront. And that’s exactly what happened. Our crews were out there for over 100 days fighting those fires. We were supporting local businesses, and we really became part of the communities.”

As Bethany notes, the workload for locals in such situations can be overwhelming. “It’s incredibly fatiguing to support us and support the suppression effort. However, we consistently heard how amazing our firefighters were, how professional they were and how well we worked with the CFA in terms of liaising with the public.”

Another crucial element in this cooperative effort was the precise way in which the community was kept in the loop. “What they probably hadn’t experienced in previous campaigns was being given real-time information,” Bethany said.

“We’ve gone from a past time where people felt like they were in a black hole and didn’t know what to do or when to enact their fire plan, to being provided with information as it’s happening: situation reports to help people make better decisions,” she said.

Just as the risk is ever-present, so too is the need to keep the communication lines open. While the 2018–19 season demonstrated the benefits of intensive, sustained community engagement, Bethany understands the need to keep reminding and educating people does not end when a bushfire does.

“It’s incredibly satisfying to know that we’re doing the job right, but the flipside of that is that when we do significant works ­— and this is particularly true of RBR works — it can create a very different look to what people are used to seeing in the area,” Bethany said.

“These can be tracks and trails that people have enjoyed walking and driving down, that in some cases have grown over to be only three or four metres wide. When we complete our RBR works, these same tracks might be twice the width and that can be really confronting for the community. This is why we need to explain why we’re doing the works.”

For Bethany and her team, it’s another important conversation to maintain with the community and one that comes around time and again.

“What we’re doing is delicately balancing the need to protect our environmental values with the safety of our people and of the community.”

Fuel management

When the bushfire began at Holey Plains State Park on that scorching day in early January, it grew to 280 ha within hours, travelling east as it was fanned by strong winds.

But from the flames were positive signs for those on the frontline, as well as the community in general. For Bethany and her team in particular, it came in the form of past risk-reduction activities.

“When we had a look at where the fire was tracking, we saw that it was progressing down the boundary of a previous planned burn that had been conducted in 2017, about 18 months earlier,” said Bethany. “This meant that instead of the fire spreading right through the park, the planned burn did its job. The fire moved down the boundary of the burn unit, which lowered its intensity; and that allowed us to get in there and have better suppression techniques to protect the community.”

That previous planned burn stopped the bushfire from jumping one of the main roads, saving private property that was immediately adjacent.

“This is why we do planned burning. This is why we have a fuel management program. Because it works. And we’ve got examples of how it works every single season,” Bethany said. “It’s a story we don’t tell enough.”

Of course, it’s not the only story either. On that eventful day at Holey Plains, she encountered several inspiring examples of how adversity helped crews learn on the job. “I heard about the difficulty with communication black spots, but equally I heard of the response of our crews in stopping and retreating to known communication points and waiting,” she said.

“I heard about crew leaders making decisions not to follow blindly down tracks that had not been assessed for hazardous trees. I heard of crews who, based on their observations of the fire behaviour, made the decision to retreat to a safe place in the absence of hearing a red-flag warning. These calm, informed decisions were all made under pressure, and they ensured the safety of the crew. This is the culture we are proud of.”

By August last year, Bethany and her crews had already attended 39 fires, the majority of which were unattended campfires or private burn offs that had escaped. “So, the fire season really is year-round now,” she said.

“But even with all the fire activity, we still did over 80,000 ha of fuel management as well,” Bethany said, “which is pretty phenomenal.”

In terms of windows of opportunity in which to do burns, constraints were headlined by the extremely dry conditions across the region.

“Generally, we have a good spring burning program,” said Bethany, “but not last year, because it was incredibly dry. For the first time in a long time, the drought index was over 100, which basically means you need 100 ml of rain to fully saturate the soil and eliminate the impact of drought. In some places, the index was over 130.”

With virtually no spring burning possible and more than 100 days of fire suppression, Bethany and her team weren’t in a position to start planned burning until late April.

“It was a really long, condensed season, and we needed to make sure we were looking after staff fatigue and wellbeing. That further reduced what we could achieve,” Bethany said.

Ecosystem resilience

Among the key investments of season 2018–19 for Bethany and her team were several large ecological burns.

“We always prioritise according to what’s going to give us the greatest risk reduction, or sometimes some of the really large landscape mosaic burns give us fantastic ecological outcomes. Often these opportunities only come up every two to four years,” Bethany said.

“We did a couple of really large ecological burns, and they happened right up in the backcountry. So, while they’re good from an ecological point of view, what they do is create a mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas.”

One burn in particular — in the far east of Gippsland — resulted in an exceptional ecological outcome for an equally exceptional native grassland species: the threatened Purple diuris orchid.

“We conducted a cool ecological burn in grassland near Bairnsdale, which removed the heavily built-up grass thatch and opened up spaces to allow the orchids to grow,” Bethany explained.

“Left unchecked, the mid-storey shrubs would have dominated, effectively displacing the orchids. While newly emerging growth on the orchids may have been damaged by fire, the plants rely on their tubers to store energy.”

Within weeks of the burn, the results were in — and eye-catching.

“We’ve got time-lapse imagery that shows a month later these orchids just starting to sprout because they love fire and it’s what they need to propagate,” said Bethany. “We got some beautiful ecological outcomes that sit alongside all the great fire suppression work as well.”

As for Gippsland’s unique fauna, Bethany and her team also have a monitoring program for the threatened New Holland mouse. Across the 2018–19 season, this involved assessments of planned burning sites in particular, before and after burns.

“There are some really interesting results coming through from that,” Bethany said. “It’s a long-term program over several years. We really want to ensure that for these sorts of protected species there is significant refuge left: in fact, that we create more refuge in some places, which would be really great.”

For Bethany and her team, such work is a vital part of their Monitoring, Planning and Evaluation Program, which calls for 20% of planned burns to have monitoring projects attached.

Community and partnerships

A new initiative in 2018–19 on both the community engagement and ecological fronts has been a citizen scientist program called Social Pinpoint.

As Bethany explained, “We invite members of the community to go online and drop a pin at a spot where they’ve seen, for example, a black cockatoo. We aim to harness citizen science and have people help us build our data to the best available knowledge.”

The program is unique to Gippsland, and it was set up courtesy of the team’s research specialists, who also conduct monitoring programs with postgraduate students at The University of Melbourne and other universities.

“We have some really talented monitoring and evaluation scientists working for us,” said Bethany.

Whether official or otherwise, such helping hands and eyes are invaluable for data-gathering and in turn decision making.

“We do try and get out there and monitor a lot, but it’s not possible to check everywhere. Having the community contribute in this way is great.”

On the firefighting front, Bethany speaks highly of the partnerships forged for the region’s busy fire season.

“We had a huge amount of cross-border and Cross-Tasman support, with firefighters and skilled incident management personnel joining us from all over Australia — from South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland — as well as two taskforces from New Zealand,” she said. “It was a great display of joint-agency firefighting.”

With the hard work far from over, the next phase has involved ongoing recovery efforts, rebuilding community resilience and undertaking a vast amount of work across the region in post-fire environmental recovery works.

For Bethany and her team, just as much effort has been put into enlightening and engaging the many close-knit communities of Gippsland, whether as community-based bushfire management (CBBM) groups or in other ways. The standouts in this regard are the townships of Briagolong and Valencia Creek.

“The Briagolong CBBM program, in particular, has really taken off,” said Bethany. “That community is just incredibly engaged and informed.”

Through the Briagolong CBBM program, a local film festival even took up the big issue of bushfire awareness.

“It was an existing film festival but this year there was a fire resilience and bushfire focus,” Bethany said. “We had members of the community submit their short films on any aspect of bushfire or bushfire recovery. And these were all screened and judged as part of the competition. It was fantastic.”

Meanwhile, out in the Snowy fire district bordering New South Wales, the community engagement program has partnered with the Moogji Aboriginal Council East Gippsland.

“We provided funding to put a crew together that is appropriately trained and that works on environmental and fire protection programs,” said Bethany.

Called the Moogji NRM (Natural Resources Management) Crew, they’ve been busy on a number of programs in partnership with Bethany and her team.

“We put them through basic wildfire awareness training and general firefighting accreditation, and we involve the crew in all the works we do, such as replanting saplings and shrubs in areas that have been impacted by previous fires, as well as track and trail maintenance,” said Bethany.

Page last updated: 23/12/20