Chris Eagle, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Port Phillip region

Chris Eagle, Deputy Chief Fire Officer for the Port Phillip region.

Risk reduction

As Port Phillip’s regional fire chief Chris Eagle well knows, no two seasons are the same. And sure enough, 2018–19 brought a new twist on the previous season.

In his third year with FFMVic and with 15 years behind him at the CFA, Chris is well-versed in the tricky business of gauging risk, while always being prepared for the unpredictable. It’s just as well, as 2018–19 brought with it not only a limited opportunity for planned burning but also two significant late-season bushfires, at Bunyip and Cambarville.

The relatively remote Cambarville fire, which burnt about 2,500 ha at the top of the Yarra Valley, affected a protected water catchment well away from people and assets. Chris and his team consider the fuel reduction effects of this bushfire has been to reduce the risk to Melbourne’s water supply catchments and the habitat of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum.

Though the Bunyip bushfire was much bigger — burning 15,000 ha and representing the biggest fire the region has seen in the past 10 years — it reduced bushfire risk in Port Phillip by less than 1%.

While both bushfires reduced fuel and therefore potentially bushfire risk, the modelled bushfire risk reduction for Port Phillip was minor. However, both fires were close to the eastern borders of the region, so their future effect will be more on the Gippsland region’s risk profile.

The Bunyip fire started in March, and it posed unique challenges for the Port Phillip crews. “Because it came very, very late in the season, it took a number of our staff out of the picture,” Chris said. “So, when we should have been starting planned burning we were still engaged in suppression and recovery at Bunyip.”

Despite the tricky timing and logistic demands of the Bunyip fire, Chris and his team had some success in terms of planned burning and treatment, completing 350 ha of planned burning and about 1,300 ha of mechanical treatment (such as roadside slashing).

But fuel conditions remained too dry through much of the autumn burning window, which meant a large-scale burning program could not begin. Fuel conditions remained dry even up until late autumn before a wetting cycle ended the burn season heading into winter.

Chris and his team are confident that while the small amount of planned burning in 2018–19 is unlikely to have a significant impact on regionwide bushfire risk, it will provide a good level of localised risk reduction.

The third main factor affecting risk reduction in the Port Phillip region remains the 2009 Black Saturday fires, which affected large areas on the region’s northern edge. Black Saturday reduced fuel in these areas, but fuel accumulation since then — planned burning aside — means that bushfire risk is modelled to rise each year. This includes areas in the neighbouring Hume region to the north including wetter forest types (for example, east of Healesville and north of Warburton), which stay too damp for planned burning.

“A lot of the risk in Port Phillip sits to the north of us in that bottom part of the Hume region,” said Chris. “If a fire starts up there, it’s going to travel through our region. Ten years of growth since Black Saturday has accumulated fuel. It’s got to the point where we’re going to start burning it. And when we start burning it, it still has to be in a mosaic pattern. It’s going to take us a long time to get that 80% risk level heading downwards, because of that massive gap from the 2009 fires.”

Environmental values are front and centre when it comes to objective-setting on this scale. “Of course, we can’t burn tens of thousands of hectares to get it all down in one hit because of the ecological values and all the other values that go with it,” Chris said. “So while it’s all growing at the same rate, we can only reduce it in patches.”

Planning and operations

Port Phillip is a unique region in that it has a large proportion of urban communities and tourist attractions: values and assets which in turn require unique management approaches. With life and property always the priority, there is little margin for error.

“Our burns are in urban areas, so there’s high risk and a lot more resources are required,” Chris said. “In less-populated areas, you’ve got a bit more leeway. You can do bigger patches. Away from tourist centres, vineyards and the like, you don’t have to worry so much about where the smoke is going to go. You’ve got more flexibility. Whereas for us, we’re burning across the road from houses. We have to worry about things like embers dropping on trampolines.”

With so many people in relatively close proximity, Chris says that managing expectations about smoke haze is a perennial issue during the Port Phillip burn season.

“It might be smoke from our burns or smoke coming from other regions into the basin of Melbourne,” he said. “We get a lot of criticism about our smoke management and the impacts of smoke on people. That direct impact on the community is a big factor for us, even though compared to other regions we’re much smaller, with a much smaller land area.”

Turning to our precious water resources, Chris and his team have developed a debris flow model to quantify the impact of bushfires on water supplies. Called HydroFire, the model estimates the probability and size of debris flow using factors such as hillslope characteristics, sediment and rainfall. Land managers can use the model to mitigate the impact of bushfires on water supplies.

Mulching was another hot topic of season 2018–19. As Chris notes, “Mulching allows us to conduct fuel management in urbanised areas with minimal staff commitments in any season, as opposed to planned burning, which involves major staffing commitments and small windows of opportunity.”

In a prime example of the way in which FFMVic partners with external experts, the Port Phillip team has been engaged in research funded by The University of Melbourne into fuel hazard and the fire behaviour of mulched fuel. The research found mulching reduces elevated fuel to surface fuel, which results in lower fuel hazard because it changes how the fuel is arranged.

“Overall, they found that mulching as a mechanical treatment was great for suppression because — and these are really important for us — it reduces the flame height and flame intensity. That makes suppression easier,” said Chris.

With a focus on the risk-based approach to bushfire management, the region has used the Phoenix RapidFire bushfire simulator tool to good effect.

“We’ve used Phoenix to do local rather than just broad-scale modelling,” said Chris. “That way, we can better estimate how the weather is likely to affect local areas. That’s really important for us because we have small pockets of public land with big urban interfaces, so the detail we can get is much more specific.”

In another successful partnership with external experts, Chris and his team have studied new ways help save the Leadbeater’s Possum and its habitat, using the world-leading FAME (Fire Analysis Module for Ecological values) technology and a process known as structured decision-making.

“We’ve followed a structured decision-making process developed by the Arthur Rylah Institute and The University of Melbourne to develop our public land fire ecology strategy and our Leadbeater’s Possum fuel management strategy,” Chris said.

The process allows teams to set objectives, develop management strategy options, compare each option’s impact on a range of ecological values and select a preferred strategy, while grappling with complex trade-offs.

“FAME is a new tool that allows us to measure the impact of fire regimes on a range of performance measures including flora and fauna,” Chris said.

Fuel management and ecosystem resilience

With the Leadbeater’s Possum fuel management strategy, the Port Phillip team has been exploring new ways to protect fire-sensitive ecological values on a landscape scale. The strategy is to use Phoenix RapidFire to identify areas where fuel management can reduce the risk to the possum.

The team used the structured decision-making process to develop the strategy because there can be multiple competing values overlapping with the possum’s habitat as well as fuel management impacts (such as reduced water yield, increased debris flow and consequences for the Greater Glider, the numbers of which have been declining).

Port Phillip’s public land fire ecology strategy addresses fire management for ecological objectives in Landscape Management Zones, where there is minimal risk to life and property.

The strategy applies to five landscape management units, each of which has specific objectives, values and management requirements in relation to fire: Dandenongs, Yarra Ranges, Warrandyte, French Island and Grasslands. “The strategy outlines where, when and what we will manage in these areas by using or excluding fire in the next 40 years, to help promote ecosystem resilience,” Chris said.

For Chris and his team, such initiatives enhance their fuel management as a whole.

“We do a lot of work to plan and prepare burns accurately, to reduce the likelihood of escape when we do them. This work doesn’t directly affect our risk reduction, but it does provide a better product in our planned burning program.”

As Chris sees it, it’s essential to manage the various values. Risk reduction is a critical value, but there are many others that need to be checked and balanced as well.

“There’s environmental and ecological values, traditional heritage values, European history values. There’s the impact of smoke on the community, and the community’s expectations of our parks. There are a whole lot of things we have to look at, and the fuel management system helps ensure we’ve checked all these values and balanced and offset each of them against each other.”

Community and partnerships

Working with the community and forging partnerships is an integral part of fuel management in Port Phillip. In 2018–19, a bushfire strategy advisory group was established to get input from agencies, the community and other stakeholders into the bushfire management strategy planning process.

Chris and his team also used the Engage Victoria website to gather community feedback about values, objectives and strategy selection for priority fuel management areas.

In June, regional and district staff, along with representatives of the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung and Bunurong Traditional Owners, attended the National Indigenous Fire Workshop at Barmah National Park. Afterwards, they used what they had learned to adapt their planned burning program and strengthen cultural fire partnerships in the region. There was a cultural burn in the Yarra District in August and regular updates to Traditional Owners about the bushfire management strategy via the Aboriginal Inclusion Officer and Cultural Heritage Specialist.

On the topic of recent cross-agency relationship-building in the region, Chris cites the Chum Creek management plan. “That involved us working with the CFA, Yarra Ranges Council and Melbourne Water,” he explained. “That’s a really good example of a community that’s taken the lead in protection and resilience while being supported by a number of agencies.”

In a similar vein, Chris and his team helped with the continuing development of local initiatives including the Healesville Community Bushfire Group, St Andrews conversations, the Living with Fire community forum and the Landscaping for Bushfire seminar.

With networks between community-based bushfire management groups and other local groups increasingly evident, Chris and his team see community spirit as a big driver of bushfire awareness in the region.

“Community engagement is a huge part of what we do in Port Phillip,” he says. “We do a lot of work with other agencies and then go back to the community with our planned burning. We burn for so many different reasons, and it’s important to remember it’s not just about reducing the risk in forested areas.”

Page last updated: 23/12/20