Aaron Kennedy, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Hume region

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

Risk reduction

Hume’s regional fire chief Aaron Kennedy is the first to admit that the 2018–19 bushfire season was a tough one for his region. And he’s seen plenty. Having worked in agriculture before studying applied science in parks management, he’s been in forest and fire management roles for more than two decades.

“The season we just had was quite challenging,” he said. “We went through a period during the 2018–19 fire season of significant bushfires right across the landscape.”

The prolonged fire season and the underlying dryness meant that Aaron and his team couldn’t start their planned burning program in earnest until mid-April, about four weeks later than they would have liked.

Safe to say, the weather wasn’t on their side. For the second year running, the region had a dramatic weather shift in December, with significant rainfall and flash flooding across the upper north-east.

Through the summer, Hume’s regional resources responded to 186 fire starts from August to November, while also supporting the suppression of the major fires in Gippsland. The stormy conditions persisted throughout the summer fire season, resulting in another 448 fire starts from December to March, with 163 in January alone. This in turn affected the Hume region’s ability to prepare planned burns for the autumn delivery period.

The variable weather took another turn at the end of March, with hot, dry and windy conditions returning throughout autumn across much of the region. A series of cold fronts in early May brought rain and snow, putting an end to any opportunity to burn at scale.

“The window of opportunity for us had closed because of the delayed start to the program and then the inclement weather towards the end of April,” Aaron said. “We had 14 days that were suitable for ignition during the planned burning period.”

Despite these weather constraints — combined with bushfires that demanded resources not only in Hume but also in neighbouring Gippsland — Aaron and his crews completed fuel-reduction burns in all four of their fire districts.

“Given that we lost four weeks, it was a really good effort,” Aaron said.

By early May, the bulk of their 2018–19 program had been completed, with about 30,000 ha of priority treatment area ignited.

“The challenging conditions meant that our four fire districts weren’t able to fully implement their fuel management programs as planned,” said Aaron. “But in the compacted period and with the limited opportunities that occurred on either side of that window, we did manage to safely conduct 33 burns across the region including six completed regeneration burns.”

By the end of June, 52% of the area planned for treatment under the region’s fuel management delivery plan — 35,998 ha — had been treated. This included an ecological burn in association with the Firesticks Alliance, as part of the National Indigenous Fire Workshop held along the Dhungala (Murray River) at Barmah National Park in June 2019. It also included three heap burns which are regeneration burns after timber harvesting.

The total area treated was the fourth-lowest area treated for the region in the last nine years, reflecting the weather challenges that hampered the region and Victoria in general.

That said, Hume’s bushfire risk levels were kept on track. “Three out of the four Hume fire districts — Murrindindi, Goulburn and Upper Murray — remain below their risk targets,” Aaron said. “The Ovens district is sitting slightly above target, at 56%. So, from a regional risk perspective, we are meeting our targets.”

Considering 2018–19 marked the third challenging delivery year in a row, Aaron says this is a great bushfire risk result and one that highlights the efforts to target the areas across the region where the greatest benefit in risk reduction can be achieved.

Fuel management

Looking back on 2018–19, Aaron points to the work done across the region around communities. “We achieved strategic burns focused on asset and community protection in all four districts, but the Ovens and Upper Murray districts achieved the greatest outcomes in terms of the overall treated area,” he said.

Flash flooding at the Baranduda planned burning site in early May washed away post-burn debris and required extra resources. The heavy rain caused much damage at the burn site, and crews had to carry out remediation works for several weeks.

Apart from planned burning, other works by Aaron and his team included slashing, mowing, mulching and spraying. All up, they completed about 1,460 ha of non-burn fuel treatment works in the region in 2018–19.

Another important part of Aaron’s and his team’s work during the year was maintaining strategic fuel breaks. “The work can simply be verge mowing of roadsides to reduce fuel, which gives us safe access and egress,” said Aaron. “And when it comes to burn delivery or fire suppression, we use those strategic breaks as well to burn off.”

In partnership with Parks Victoria, plenty of slashing and maintenance work on public land was also achieved around campgrounds and recreational sites.

“That’s another way we reduce the risk or spread of escaped campfires, and it’s an important part of our fuel treatment program,” Aaron said.

Planning and operations

The Electronic Planned Burn Risk Assessment Tool (ePBRAT) was launched in November, and three of the four Hume fire districts transitioned to it during the year. The Regional Fuel Management Team then worked with the districts to develop a consistent approach to completing the tool’s required fields.

Despite some initial trepidation, Hume staff felt the ePBRAT provided an improved format for identifying risks and consequences and in turn for documenting mitigations.

With a risk-based approach to bushfire management at the forefront, Aaron and his team have also continued to advance their strategic bushfire planning and modelling knowledge with the help of the Phoenix RapidFire simulator.

“It’s about working out where our burns will do the most to protect communities, based on Phoenix modelling and our broader strategic bushfire management planning,” said Aaron. “Part of the process is also considering all the known values including social, environmental and cultural values and also identifying key critical infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, looking to improve outputs for the future is nothing new for Aaron and his team. In some ways, they are always looking a long way down the track, in the hope that conditions might prove just right to achieve more than initially planned.

“Every year, we have a significant program we have to conduct, but we plan three years in advance,” said Aaron.

“We always ensure this year’s program is 100% ready to go, but we then have additional burns sitting there and available as well. This year we had about 120% of our burns planned and prepped and ready to conduct if conditions were suitable. That gives us more flexibility to move our resources within districts or across the region to focus on those priority burns.”

Ecosystem resilience

A hot topic for the 2018–19 season was the complex combination of fire management, ecosystem resilience and protected species.

“The community, quite rightfully, wants to know we are managing fire in the landscape in a manner that considers flora species and fauna habitat requirements,” Aaron said.

“What we want to do, particularly in more-remote areas, is broadscale mosaic burning. So, we want low-intensity fire that doesn’t affect the broader landscape but provides a range of treated and non-treated areas animals can move between.”

As well as completing Greater Glider spotlighting and habitat surveys, the Hume team has been actively looking to work internally with biodiversity staff. “And we’d really like to work more with research institutions and organisations to undertake meaningful research into the impact of fire on certain species,” Aaron said.

Aaron considers that flora also benefits from the team’s strong biodiversity knowledge and effective mosaic burning. “It’s about creating a diverse age class of flora as well,” he said. “We don’t want to burn 100% of our areas. We want a patchy mosaic across the landscape: it helps improve ecosystem resilience.”

In another example of the work done to improve and maintain ecosystem resilience, Hume staff have a Monitoring, Evaluation and Review Program, which looks at the abundance of flora and fauna pre-burn and post-burn.

In the 2018–19 season, as part of a planned burn in the Strathbogie Ranges, the team implemented a program to monitor Greater Gliders within the burn area.

“It was to identify the abundance of that species before ignition, and then there was survey work after that,” Aaron said. “It’s not only about numbers of animals per hectare, but it’s also about the presence of habitat: hollow-bearing trees they might be occupying. We then work to protect those as well.”

Community and partnerships

On the community engagement front and as part of the focus on the Beechworth area, district and regional engagement staff worked closely with the CFA, Indigo Shire and the local community to complete a cross-tenure planned burn at the Beechworth Correctional Centre. The purpose of this cross-tenure burn was to reduce the threat of bushfire to the Beechworth township.

The 2018–19 season in Hume also ushered in two new community-based bushfire management groups, at Clonbinane and Tolmie, for locals to be actively involved in bushfire management and to help shape how agencies, partners and communities work together to reduce bushfire risk.

Hume’s Safer Together engagement activities included the Risk & Evaluation Planning Team meeting throughout the year with representatives of Parks Victoria, the CFA, local governments, Emergency Management Victoria and high-risk communities.

The community-based Strategic Bushfire Management Advisory Reference Group was established in January 2019. The group aims to have representatives from across the region, particularly of land managers, communities at risk or potentially affected by bushfire, interest groups, industries and people with interests and expertise in fire behaviour and ecology.

As partnership initiatives go, a high point in 2018–19 for Aaron was seeing his region sponsor the National Indigenous Fire Workshop at Barmah National Park, through the Firesticks Alliance and hosted by the Yorta Yorta people. The three-day workshop included a forum, cultural fire masterclasses, self-directed fire circles and group activities. “There were almost 400 participants from around Australia including Traditional Owners and people from other government departments who were all there to learn,” Aaron said.

“It was a highlight not just from a cultural burning perspective but also from a sharing-of-knowledge standpoint — not only for Traditional Owners but also for us as a fire and land management agency.”

Page last updated: 23/12/20