Chris Hardman, Chief Fire Officer
Victoria is one of the most fire-prone areas in the world. In past decades, Victorians have seen the disastrous effects bushfires can have on communities. Under the Forests Act 1958 and in line with the Code of Practice for Bushfire Management on Public Land 2012, Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic), is responsible for bushfire management on public land.
Planned burning is an important tool in bushfire management. Planned burning (and mechanical treatments such as mowing and slashing) is undertaken to reduce the amount of fuel – leaves, bark, grasses and shrubs – in our forests and parks. By reducing fuel loads, we won’t stop fires from starting, but we can reduce their spread and intensity when they do, making it easier for our forest firefighters to bring them under control quickly.
This goes to a key objective of our fuel management program: to minimise the impact of bushfires on people, communities, the economy, critical infrastructure and the environment – with the protection of human life prioritised above all else.
By being smart in how we deliver the fuel management program, and drawing on the best available science, we can also meet our other key objective: to improve the resilience of our natural ecosystems, and the services they provide – biodiversity, water, carbon storage and forest products.
In meeting these key objectives, Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMVic) seeks to maintain bushfire risk below a statewide target of 70%. This was achieved in 2018–19, and the current bushfire risk is 69%.
Despite difficult conditions for the safe and effective delivery of the fuel management program in 2018–19, more than 130,000 hectares of public land was treated with planned burning and 12,000 hectares by mechanical methods. This included the successful completion of a number of priority planned burns, identified as being essential for the protection of communities in areas such as the Otway Ranges, Central Goldfields and on the peri-urban fringe of Melbourne.
Our changing climate means that the window when planned burning can be safely undertaken is getting smaller – as our forests quickly go from being too wet to get a burn started, to being too dry to do so safely, and the bushfire season starts earlier and goes longer. The was evident in 2018–19 – it was one of the hottest and driest years on record, the first bushfires occurred at Cape Conran in East Gippsland in September 2018, and the season extended through to April 2019, with the devastating fires in the Bunyip State Park. Overall, more than 2,000 fires impacted on 218,000 hectares of public land. Importantly, 94% of these fires were contained to less than 5 hectares in size – a testament to the effectiveness of our fuel management program, and the skill of our forest firefighters.
The re-accumulation of bushfire fuels presents further challenges for maintaining bushfire risk below the 70% target into the future. The ‘megafires’ that occurred in 2002–03, 2006–07 and 2009 burnt about 3 million hectares and significantly reduced fuel loads in the landscape. As our forests and parks regrow after these fires, fuels are re-accumulating rapidly. Increasing fuel loads, combined with significant rainfall deficits and underlying soil dryness across much of the state means that bushfire risk continues to rise. In fact, modelling shows that without the fuel management program that was delivered in 2018–19, statewide bushfire risk would already be at 72%.
Preparing for our future planned burning seasons
The challenging factors outlined above mean that areas in our forests and parks, that are still ecologically recovering after major bushfires of the past, are nevertheless beginning to exhibit very high to extreme fuel loads. While their ecological recovery means we would prefer to avoid the pressure of planned burning if it were possible, these areas are both flammable and vulnerable to major bushfire, and the risk of leaving them untended is too great. We need to reduce and break-up fuels to decrease the spread and intensity of bushfires when they occur – giving our forest firefighters a better chance of controlling them while they are still small – minimising impacts on people, property and the environment.
A safe and effective fuel management program is important to meeting these challenges into the future. FFMVic will continue to use bushfire simulation technology – Phoenix RapidFire – combined with the expertise of our forest firefighters, and the knowledge and experience of local communities to focus the fuel management program when and where it will have the greatest effect in reducing the risk of bushfire to people, property and the environment. This means doing planned burns across the landscape: in areas close to communities – the interface between public and private land; in corridors that divide the landscape and moderate bushfire spread; as well as in more remote, backcountry areas, where bushfires can start and build in intensity.
As we go forward, FFMVic will increase the amount of mechanical fuel treatment it undertakes – with more than 20,000 hectares planned for 2019–20. We are also looking beyond the traditional spring and autumn planned burning periods to more winter burning – ensuring flexible delivery of the program and taking every opportunity to manage fuel loads in our forests and parks.
Backcountry or landscape mosaic burning – large scale planned burning to create a patchwork of burnt and unburnt areas – will play a more prominent role, alongside existing approaches, in the fuel management program to help us meet these challenges.
This type of burning will also benefit ecological values in our forests and parks. Decision making will be informed by the best available science, including the Fire Analysis Module for Ecological values (FAME) which was launched in 2018–19. FAME was developed in collaboration with researchers from the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research and the University of Melbourne to help fire managers understand risks to ecosystems and threatened species.
2018–19 also saw a significant focus on working with Aboriginal people to re-introduce cultural burning into the Victorian landscape, with 42 cultural burns delivered and the launch of The Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Strategy. The strategy was developed by the Victorian Traditional Owner Cultural Fire Knowledge Group, which involved about 50 Traditional Owners and Aboriginal fire knowledge-holders from across the state, and was supported by FFMVic.
With increasing bushfire risk, it is essential that the community understands that bushfire management is a shared responsibility. Working with the community – talking and listening – is fundamental to FFMVic’s approach to bushfire management. In 2018–19, FFMVic and the Country Fire Authority (CFA), worked with 22 local communities as part of Community Based Bushfire Management Planning program - developing innovative local fire management strategies and improving fire preparedness. We also developed a Joint Fuel Management Program and delivered 35 planned burns across public and private land boundaries.
Part of our approach to working with the community is reporting more regularly on the performance of the fuel management program. In 2019–20, FFMVic will complement its annual fuel management report with an online dashboard that will allow the public to monitor our progress in meeting objectives, including bushfire risk and the amount of fuel management that is planned and completed in each Fire Management Zone on public land – at the state and regional level.
2018–19 was a big year for FFMVic and I am confident in our ability to continue to deliver a safe and effective fuel management program on public land – a program that reduces bushfire risk; protecting people, property and the environment and improving the resilience of our natural ecosystems.
Chief Fire Officer
Forest Fire Management Victoria
Page last updated: 23/12/20