Forestry reviews fire breaks

Forestry Corp Regional Manager Dean Anderson looks at a map of the Dunn’s Road fire progress from December to January.

Lower Bago farmer Andrew Scoullar has been clear since the first day the Dunns Road fire broke out of the private plantation which neighbours his property: he wants better fire breaks. After meeting with representatives from Hume Forest, Forestry Corporation of NSW and VISY, he feels like progress is being made.
“We met here in our office,” he joked, referring to an equipment shed which survived the fires on his property.
Mr Scoullar and other farmers in the Lower Bago have been remarkably organised in their approach, mentioning a variety of issues, but staying focussed on their two primary concerns: having local firefighters and better fire breaks within the pine plantations and between the plantations and hardwood forests or farming properties.
“It went well. I think they listened. The Visy fellow was very quick to catch on to what I was saying about the need for local knowledge. It’s the sort of thing that everybody’s been saying.”
Mr Scoullar believes that a bigger fire break would have allowed firefighters and aerial resources to stop the Dunns Road fire at its source on December 28, when the first farmers saw smoke.
“They’ve got to wake up and get back to the type of fire fighting they used to do,” he said.
The farmers have been talking with forestry representatives about better fire breaks, especially within the private plantations, and Mr Scoullar said they’re currently exploring possible land swaps in the Ellerslie area to allow for improved breaks.
“We mentioned three places just off the top of our head, but they agreed to look at it and work through it with us,” he said, clearly relieved that the conversation has been opened.
Dean Anderson, Regional Manager for Forestry Corporation, said the fire breaks within the State plantations are carefully considered and planned. He said Forestry Corp is currently conducting a full review of its fire breaks, but he said that the Dunns Road fire was already a behemoth by the time it reached state forests.
“We look to make sure we’ve got those breaks so we can get in there early. Fire breaks are really important for getting in early and that’s how we’ve been successful previously,” he said. “The hardest thing on that day was our fire towers had a maximum of about 3km visibility, so by the time the fire was registered, it had already got to a size that made it really hard to suppress.”
Visibility is typically 50kms, but a combination of fires in the Sydney basin, on the south coast and in Victoria, along with a dust storm in western NSW reduced the visibility on that day. Mr Anderson said Forestry was aware of lightning storms in the area and very concerned.
“We had the lightning go through, and we were all worried about the lightning, and we didn’t have any visibility.”
Since the fire ran 90km from Ellerslie to Tumbarumba during the evening of December 29/30, with additional spotting in other areas, Mr Anderson said it was virtually impossible for firefighters to contain the blaze.
When asked about criticism that there weren’t enough firefighters on the fire soon enough, he responded, “Where were they to come from?” Forestry staff were already attending multiple fires around the state when the Dunns Road fire began.
The low visibility and spread of fires around NSW also meant that the Forestry Corp’s local helicopter was the only aircraft available for the early days of the Dunns Road fire. It was already helping with another blaze before Forestry was alerted to the start of the Dunn’s Road fire and was constantly in demand.
Currently, Forestry’s fire breaks range from 12-100 metres, depending on the area and the best way to mitigate fire risks. Mr Anderson said there’s also danger in making the fire breaks too wide, since they can increase wind speeds.
“There’s a bit of research that says if you make it too wide, the wind can eddy on itself, so they’re trying to work out what the optimum width is so we can fight the fire without creating wind issues within the pine,” he said.
During testimony before the Bushfires Royal Commission this week, Snowy Valleys CEO Matt Hyde also commented on the issue of fire breaks.
“We felt that during the event, with the difference between pine forest and natural forest and proximity to assets and towns, and the fact that this event was so severe it created its own weather, the protection zones didn’t quite cater for the veracity of the particular event,” Mr Hyde told the Commission, recommending, “there may need to be some review of the algorithms around the calculations there.”
While Forestry Corp and others continue to study the best science surrounding fire breaks and resource management during fires, Mr Anderson said Forestry has been putting on additional firefighters before the fire seasons (including additional firefighters before last summer) and retaining local employees.
“I know people are most probably angry about what’s happened with the fire, but please don’t direct it at our staff,” he said. “They all fought the fires pretty hard and people have been with us 30 or 40 years, so trees they saw as baby seedlings grow into large trees, they’ve seen them burnt, so it’s not like they didn’t have a passion or a will. They were out there constantly for months.”
Mr Anderson said Forestry Corporation is undertaking a review of the fire breaks within the entire estate to ensure they’re using the best science and building the most appropriate breaks for each area.