Forest Fire Protection in Australia

The recent and early spate of fires in New South Wales, especially west of Sydney, have burnt over 100,000 hectares and destroyed many buildings and other infrastructure. The decision by the NSW Rural Fire Service to evacuate vulnerable areas early undoubtedly reduced the number of lives lost. It was only six years ago that similar conditions (an extended dry winter, followed by hot north westerly winds) led to fires in September in the Blue Mountains. Some of the areas burnt in 2007 burnt again this year.

The fire season in Australia typically starts in the north, and progresses south as the climatic zone changes from summer rainfall (tropical and sub-tropical) to winter rainfall (temperate). In central and south-east Queensland, the drier winter means that the typical wildfire period is around September through to November. This wildfire period is the same for northern New South Wales but begins later in the year in southern NSW and Victoria. For the temperate areas of southern Australia (including south-west Western Australia), the typical season would start in November and continue through to March.

Fire protection in Australia is a key component of forest management services in Australia where risk of fire is much higher than New Zealand.

Each year, a Northern Australia and a Southern Australia Seasonal Bushfire Outlook report is provided through AFAC (the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council) and the Bushfire CRC (Cooperative Research Centre). These reports are produced from workshops that bring together fire and land managers, climatologists and meteorologists to evaluate the upcoming season. They analyse recent and long-term conditions, and view long-term weather forecasts to produce a map of Australia showing areas likely to have above normal fire potential. Along with the map, there are State by State written descriptions. The Southern Australia Seasonal Bushfire Outlook for 2013-14 can be found here.

This outlook shows that a number of key forestry areas in Australia are likely to have above normal fire potential this fire season. Southern NSW, the Green Triangle, and south-west Western Australia are such areas. PF Olsen Australia manages both hardwood and softwood plantations in these areas. We manage this fire risk through:

  • understanding our legislative requirements (these vary from State to State, and sometimes within Local Government Areas)
  • ensuring properties have adequate fire breaks and water points
  • restricting operations during periods of high fire risk
  • fuel reduction burning in key non-plantation areas
  • maintaining suppression equipment, including 'slip on' units (400 litre pump sets that fit a utility vehicle) and tankers (3,000 litre dedicated fire trucks)
  • maintaining staff and contractors with appropriate fire training and an assessed level of fitness
  • a roster of Regional Fire Duty Officers who are the first point of contact for fires (24/7) and coordinate the response to fires
  • working with fire agencies and other forest management companies to coordinate suppression efforts.

Even with good systems and procedures in place, the severity of a fire season is largely dictated by the weather. Let's hope that conditions in this fire season aren't too severe.