Tony English, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Grampians region

Tony English, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Grampians region

Risk reduction

In his first year heading up FFMVic’s Grampians region, Tony English couldn’t be happier with the people around him. With a busy bushfire season behind them, he feels his teams were put to the test, passed with flying colours and are well-prepared for the challenges ahead.

“I’m really confident we’ve got a great and growing capability among the teams. I’m really proud of our people,” he said.

“I was really impressed with the way they handled things this year, especially the project firefighter team that we had coming into a very busy fire season. For many of them, it was their first season, and they did a fantastic job.”

That hard work has translated into maintaining bushfire risk at 67%, which is below the target of 70%. Risk decreased in the Wimmera fire district but increased slightly in the Midlands district.

“That was driven by a number of priority burns that we conducted adjacent to townships including Blackwood, Halls Gap and Pomonal,” Tony explained.

As Tony points out, these towns are important for the region’s risk profile. Planned burning over the past five years has created a significant area of fuel-reduced forest in the Trentham – Blackwood area around the Wombat State Forest. Similarly, planned burning in the northern Grampians have reduced risk to high-priority towns such as Halls Gap and Pomonal.

For Tony and his team, such burns are part of an adaptive management approach. “We’re going to continue to use our learnings from each season in the next. And that also connects with the bigger picture of the Strategic Bushfire Management Planning Project. We’re using that as a sort of lever, to also feed environmental management into the burn program.”

Planning and operations

In a region as rich and diverse as the Grampians, nominating a single, most-important value or asset is no easy ask. From a general point of view, life and property are first and foremost in Tony’s book.

“We’ve got a lot of high-risk communities spread through the Wombat State Forest and out west in the Grampians,” he said. “We’re rated as one of the highest-risk landscapes in Victoria, for example around Daylesford and Hepburn Springs. But we also have a lot of regional businesses that depend on the bush.”

With visitor numbers continuing to grow every year in the Daylesford area, there’s no doubting the importance to the local economies of tourism and recreation. Then there are the drawcards of Halls Gap and the Grampians National Park including the Indigenous cultural heritage sites in the park and beyond. Other valuable assets include the Wombat State Forest, Little Desert National Park, the Jilpanger – Tooan area, Mount Cole, Deep Lead, Enfield State Park and the Brisbane Ranges.

As for the special approaches being taken to manage such precious environmental assets, Tony places particular emphasis on mitigation measures for key flora and fauna: in particular, the Greater Glider and the Brush-tailed Phascogale, both of which are threatened species.

“We have been putting a lot of time and effort into improving our understanding of species’ responses to fire, both lower-intensity planned burns and higher-intensity bushfires,” he said.

“The team has invested a lot of effort this year in monitoring two species in the Wombat and associated forests — that’s the Greater Glider and the Brush-tailed Phascogale. Part of my reasoning is that we haven’t done enough monitoring in the Wombat State Forest to understand the impact of fire on biodiversity. So that’s one driver.”

The other driver is that local environmental groups are as keen as Tony and his team to learn about and safeguard the habitat of these unique species.

“The Greater Gliders in the Wombat are at the western edge of their range in Victoria. They’re a very significant population, but we don't know a lot about them in terms of their numbers and their distribution in the Wombat,” Tony explained.

“So I asked the team to set up a monitoring program that has community involvement embedded in it, as a way for us to build a shared approach to looking at this particular issue,” he said.

“That was a big feature of the program this last autumn, and will be again in spring and rolling forward for the next few years.”

Just as much care and attention are placed on the wellbeing of the Grampians staff themselves, particularly during and after the busy seasons of recent years.

“Fatigue management is an aspect of our program we have to manage very closely,” Tony said.” I was conscious that crews and managers had all put a lot of effort into the season and had also attended fires around Ballarat. So we had to balance up the fatigue issue as well.”

For all concerned, it came down to working out where the priorities lay. “We reached a view as a team that we’d weigh all those factors up and we would focus on crew and community safety as a priority. Obviously, burning in a way that generated the outcomes we were after was the other primary driver, all of which meant we had a shorter window this year.”

Fuel management

In spite of the challenges, Tony and his team certainly haven’t lost momentum on the planned burning front.

“We treated just over 8,000 ha in the region, and about 2,000 ha of that was through mechanical fuel treatment, which is another big part of the program,” said Tony.

“Through the Reducing Bushfire Risk Program, we spent close to $2 million on roading and fire access, which again was a big part of the year.”

Crucially for Tony and his team, there were a good number of high-priority planned burns done to reduce fuel and therefore bushfire risk, as well as several that had a strong ecological rationale. “We tried to get a good balance there in terms of our focus,” Tony said.

With several key burns behind them, they also took the opportunity to continue their planned burning program where and when they could.

“We kept burning during the winter — in the Grampians National Park there’s a history of doing winter burning in the heathland — so we haven’t stopped burning,” Tony said. “We’ve actually kept running burn operations in the western part of the region.”

Like other regions, the Grampians grappled with difficult weather conditions in season 2018–19, leading to planned burning windows being affected by late-season bushfires around Ballarat.

“Finding windows in those conditions can be really challenging,” said Tony.

“We had to work quite hard to make sure we had a window that wouldn’t involve us either having an escape or burning the forest in a way that damaged forest health,” he said.

“So we picked off a few smaller burns, for example in the Wombat State Forest, to test fuel conditions. And then when we were happy we jumped into the larger burn at Blackwood. But we had to feel our way into it very carefully.”

The dry conditions also prompted Tony and his team to explore new ways to gauge and predict such phenomena.

“We stepped up our reliance on Bureau of Meteorology data around underlying dryness,” Tony said. “In terms of conducting burns safely, we really put a lot of effort into looking at all the available data around conditions. We do it anyway, but we took it to a new level this past season, given how dry things were.”

A special focus was also put on the ways in which lighting patterns could be tailored to specific burns. “We put a lot of effort into how our lighting patterns at individual burns could respond to the conditions that we had in front of us,” Tony said. “So rather than being too general in our approach, we thought really hard about how to put fire into these burns.”

For Tony and his crew, factors such as this fresh approach to lighting patterns helped protect the habitat of the Greater Glider at the high-priority Blackwood burn.

As an example of where fire suppression would not have been possible without the legacy of past risk-reduction activities, Tony points to the summer bushfire at Hepburn Springs, which was a high-profile event that attracted a lot of media coverage.

Tony said, “We actually had a planned burn flanking that fire, which provided us with a great opportunity to either limit or prevent the spread of the bushfire, had the wind changed direction. So we were really pleased that the planned burn had taken place the year before. For us, it again demonstrated the potential value of a burning program around high-risk townships.”

Ecosystem resilience

As Tony notes, a lot of the burning carried out in the Grampians National Park has been driven by the need to burn heath, which burns very hot.

“Winter burning there makes sense,” he said. “And we have to burn it because a lot of small mammal species depend on mosaic burning, with a mixture of burnt and long-unburnt areas. We’ve been expanding our program over the last few years as we’ve become confident with the way in which we can burn in the winter months. The program has evolved over the last five to 10 years.”

It’s a similar story in the West Wimmera. In 2018, Tony and his team launched a flora and fauna survey in the Tooan – Jilpanger area to look at responses to burning over time by key species including small mammals, woodland and Mallee bird communities and reptiles. The aims include determining optimal growth stages for fire-dependent heathy vegetation in the West Wimmera – Little Desert landscape.

Initial evidence suggests small mammals (such as the Silky mouse and Pygmy possum) prefer recently burnt vegetation, so more burns may be required in the West Wimmera heathlands as numerous parts are long unburnt. Tony and his teams plan to use the survey data to create an approach that maximises diversity for species that depend on heathy vegetation.

A hot topic to come out of the 2018–19 season has been the changing nature of the planned burning seasons: in the past few years, the season has started later and there have been limited burning windows. Also, underlying dryness can affect burn outcomes.

For Tony and his team, an example would be the high-priority burn completed at Blackwood around the Albion Track, which also involved managing high environmental values. While a priority for bushfire risk reduction for the adjacent Blackwood township, this 358-ha burn was in prime Greater Glider habitat.

“At this stage, post-burn, at Blackwood, we found that the numbers of gliders were the same after the burn as before,” Tony said. “That was because we used a lighting pattern that limited the impact on hollow-bearing trees and on canopy scorch.”

In the past, it has been estimated that burns in some types of forests can eliminate up to 20% of trees. For species like the Greater Glider, that adds up to a lot of lost nesting hollows.

“So we want to burn more forensically in these environments, to avoid losing those older trees,” said Tony. “And we think Blackwood was a success doing that.”

Community and partnerships

With so much going on in the Grampians, strong partnerships have been essential as a way for Tony and his team to stay informed and share their own knowledge with the community and more widely.

“We’ve got a risk analysis team that conducts a lot of survey work in-house,” said Tony. “But we also bring in consultants to help bolster our capacity and give us an independent perspective on the data we’re collecting.”

A great example of this kind of cooperation is the fauna monitoring program run by Tony’s team in the Tooan – Jilpanger corner of the Wimmera. “That area is used by a wide range of mammal species as well as by the Red-tailed black cockatoo, which is the other key threatened species. Our team did the monitoring, but for the Greater Gliders we brought in a consultant. So we’ve got that capacity to bring in other experts as we need to.”

Meanwhile, a fuel-accumulation study around high-risk towns in the Midlands fire district influenced the development of the strategic bushfire management plan. This project involved partnering with The University of Melbourne’s Bushfire Behaviour and Management Group, which specialises in Phoenix modelling.

With the Grampians boasting stand-out community-based bushfire management groups (such as at Daylesford), it’s no wonder that community engagement levels are high in the region.

“One of our big ones this season was at Snake Valley, just west of Ballarat,” said Tony. “We had 65 community members turn up to a half-day forum or workshop, looking at fire in their environment — which was fantastic.”

Along with Tony and his team, the Snake Valley event involved the Pyrenees Shire, the CFA and a wide range of locals.

“We’re also supporting a growing conversation with Traditional Owners about cultural burning in the Wimmera,” Tony noted. “And we’ve identified three cultural burns, one of which we did this last season, around Arapiles. So that’s going to be a bigger part of what we do.”

As grassroots community work goes, it’s also hard to go past one prime example involving Fairy grass, a native blown grass that thrives on lake beds as they dry out.

“It’s basically triggered by the wetting and drying cycles of lakes in western Victoria,” Tony said. He and his team responded to calls from residents near Clear Lake in the Wimmera to burn a lake bed full of this spindly grass, to help limit the risk from this fuel type.

Working with the CFA, Tony and his team then conducted a burn at Clear Lake, which is a Parks Victoria-managed reserve.

“We’re now going to monitor the effects of the burn on the grass over the next couple of years, depending on whether the lake fills or not,” said Tony.

“So that was a really good example of a cross-agency partnership that also had a real connection with a community concerned about fire risk.”

Page last updated: 23/12/20