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Reflections on fire – February 2019

From the research for Permaculture One in the 1970s in the house Bill Mollison saved from the great 1967 fires, to the research for the Flywire House project in the aftermath of Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 to the publication of Bushfire Resilient Landscapes and Communities in the aftermath of Black Saturday (2009), permaculture responses to the risks of bushfire have been a central theme of my life’s work. Although I have many friends who have faced and fought these and other great fires of the last 60 years, my direct fire fighting experience has been limited to 5 fires of more modest proportions.  

Before moving to Hepburn in 1985 I had assessed the town as the most fire vulnerable I had seen in Victoria but I was confident we could build a bushfire resistant house, and fire retardant permaculture landscape on our property, where we could stay and defend through the worst case scenarios. The case study book about Melliodora we published in 1995 included a theme page on bushfire resistant design and our household bushfire plan.

The Mannings Rd Hepburn Fire (2 & 3rd Feb 2019) was the first direct bushfire threat to Melliodora.

Over the years we have updated our bushfire plan but on Black Saturday 2009 I began implementing aspects of our plan never before tested, even though there were no fires in our region. Two weeks later a 7,000 hectare fire on the south side of Daylesford, that created a panic in our community, provided another psychological boost to testing our fire plan. Black Saturday also triggered a significant upgrade of our fire fighting equipment, retrofits to some buildings, tweaks to our fire plan and a renewed focus on work on the public land to our north.

From the beginning we had been informally managing the public road reserves surrounding our property and in the late 1980’s teamed up with fourth generation local Vern Howell in making tracks and planting fire retardant trees that could shade out the blackberries in the gully that ran down to Spring Ck 300m to the north of Melliodora. By the mid 1990s a bunch of locals doing work in our gully and along Spring Ck had built tracks and planted trees as far afield as the edge of the Mineral Spring Reserve upstream and downstream to the Newstead Rd over Breakneck Gorge as well as in Doctors gully. We called our patch The Spring Creek Community Forest, ran tours and advertised working bees and engaged with people in the parks authorities that we called “the department of many name changes”.

This informal, unfunded, unapproved permaculture inspired version of landcare (without the paperwork or poisons) represents a reinhabitation of community commons that prior to the 1960’s had been managed by house cows, rabbit trapping, blackberry harvesting and other active uses of the crown land that was denuded of vegetation and soil (to the bedrock in the creek) by gold mining in the 19th century.

Dr Michael Wilson, a leading expert on willow ecology was part of our crew when he did his PhD on willows in Spring Ck. Over the years since he as supervised another half dozen PhDs on willows in central Victoria providing the scientific evidence that willows were rebuilding a water and nutrient holding corridor along creeks among other ecological benefits. For us this rehydration of the landscape was closely linked to our aim to accelerate ecological succession from the broom, blackberry and gorse thickets to a shady canopy of fire retardant (predominantly deciduous) trees. We knew the woody weeds were rapidly building soil but they were socially unsustainable and in the event of a severe bushfire would lead to calls to blitz the gullies with herbicide and fire to recreate the moonscapes of the gold mining era. We knew grazing animals, especially goats had a role in managing vegetation and were not opposed to some careful use of fire on the dry rocky slopes, but were concerned that burning the moist gully and creek floors would be a huge setback.

After the turn of the millennium the greatest threat to the maturing 2km corridor of mostly deciduous trees (predominantly willow, poplar, sycamore and European ash) in Spring Creek was the willow removal programs being implemented around the catchment by North Central Catchment Management Authority (NCCMA). Following the publicity for Peter Andrews’s Natural Sequence Farming (that included using willows to rehydrate eroded creek courses in NSW) we pushed back as NCCMA destroyed the willow corridor downstream of Breakneck Gorge.

We added a page to this website on Spring Ck Community Forest, engaged with the authorities in efforts to constrain if not stop what I regard as the greatest misuse of public money damaging the environment all in the name of Landcare which we called Land Abuse.

As the millennial drought dragged on we increased our use of goats in our gully in recognition that a slow succession to more a fire retardant landscape dominated by deciduous trees was not happening fast enough.

Goats in Spring Creek Community Forest

When we saw the smoke column on Saturday 2nd Feb we were empowered to act. With unprecedented water demand in our gardens and orchard and the creek dry earlier in the season than ever before (for only the 5th time in 35 years), we knew our work in the gully and creek could be set back by a hot fire. We were less concerned with the chances of a catastrophic fire that would challenge our ability to defend our property and certainly were very confident and empowered to do so. As the fire burnt slowly down the escarpment on the Saturday evening the three households that currently share Melliodora began implementing our bushfire plan. Confident that the home patch was in good hands, I decided to check out the fire (with a competent off sider). We were dressed for fire fighting, had a knapsack sprayer, two fire rakes and a two-way radio.

Photo: Brenna Quinlan, property adjacent to Melliodora.
Photo shows fire at its most active state.

As CFA brigades attacked the fire on Elevated Plain, water bombing helicopters hit hotspots on the steep escarpment and Brigades were marshalled to protect the town, we cleared 150 metres of break along the main walking track below the fire in the hope of protecting the creek corridor, which we knew was dry enough to burn.

As dusk fell we pulled out and connected with CFA brigades watching the fire at the end of our street. From them we learnt that the local group of CFA brigades had scenario planned this exact fire in recent months using the bushfire modelling software developed by Kevin Tolhurst and colleagues. With few other fires burning and reasonable conditions it was clear that the following day would see a major effort to contain and extinguish the fire.

We hit the sack (in our summer tent) with rotational watches. Unable to sleep with the crash of burning trees on the escarpment and bulldozers putting in fire breaks in territory we regarded as our backyard, Su and I headed out for a 4am reconnaissance, which confirmed the fire had stopped at the creek corridor.

The following day with a maximum Forest Fire Danger Index forecast of 55 (just in “Severe” territory) we were well prepared to defend the upper sections of our gully, in addition to the property and politely declined the police invitation to evacuate. Our son Oliver who had been on the Fryerstown CFA truck fighting the fire on the escarpment the previous day joined us before the roads in and out of Hepburn were closed by the authorities.

While coordination and communication between the 8 able bodied adults at Melliodora involved some challenges for which I as “Melliodora fire captain” take full responsibility, Su and I were both very energised by and confident about our situation. What I was less prepared for was the full force of the state funded bushfire response. Having experience in supervising bulldozers and other earthmoving machinery on large projects such as Fryers Forest Ecovillage in the 1990’s had not prepared me for the psychological impact of bulldozers in our gully, Elvis and other massive helicopters, fire retardant bombers and spotter planes weaving across the sky and strafing our creek all day. While CFA volunteers in the town mostly sat around on standby ready to defend houses in our street, all the direct fire fighting was done from the air (apart from ongoing action on Elevated Plain.

Later analysis on the ground and using the CFA software that tracks each water release showed that, as the breeze picked up and the humidity dropped on Sunday the fire was moving into the creek corridor at two places and had already crossed Woman’s Gully at a point directly threatening houses in Golden Springs Ave. Concentrated water bombing contained these leading edges while the very well placed dozer break backed by fire retardant laid across the flammable blackberry, gorse and eucalypts of the dry north facing edge of the creek valley provided a fair chance of containing the fire had the predicted wind eventuated.

View from under the unburnt willow canopy of Spring Creek
looking up the Elevated Plain escarpment.

Lower than expected wind speed and precision water bombing meant we did not face spot fires in our gully and there were no properties directly impacted by fire in the township. The placement of the breaks and the location of fire retardant drops were done in ways that treated the creek corridor as an asset rather than a liability and subsequent tours of the firegrounds with CFA professionals, including fire behaviour experts confirmed that there is a lot to learn in studying the contribution of the willow corridor to ameliorating the potential impact of the fire.

While spectacular, the burn on the Elevated Plain escarpment was no hotter than many fuel reduction burns with most of the large wide spaced mature manna gums showing no canopy scorch. While we were very lucky with the weather and think the expenditure of around 5 million dollars (guesstimate) in state funded airpower was critical in protecting Hepburn, the experience has strengthened our resolve to keep working to enhance and protect the Spring Creek Community Forest from fire and any other threats. We know that the willows will catch the sediment from the bulldozed breaks, the fire retardant (fertiliser) dropped from the air and the ash from the escarpment, to grow even stronger while protecting the Jim Crow Creek, Loddon River and Cairn Curren Reservoir from blue green algae blooms.

Fire-felled mature manna gum into the Spring Creek flood plain

On the community front we are encouraged by the progress of the CFA initiated group that is forging common understandings and actions supported by the diverse views in our local community. Council support for a goat grazing and hand tool management proposal on 180 acres of trial sites around the town is a sign of progress. Closer to home, as I showed CFA professionals around following the fires, I was chuffed to see a long time local out in the blackberries with his sheep. The following week I met his son and a mate using chain saws and brushcutters clearing up what we call the “Vern Howell arboretum” in the heart of Spring Creek. To see the next generation of locals taking ownership over their backyard made my day.

In the end the Hepburn fire was small (28 hectares), and the response from the authorities was a textbook example but we still assume that in the Black Saturday scenario where catastrophic fires are burning everywhere in the state, we will not have such help, even if the Kinglake scenario of no warning and zero fire defence, (other than residents) is avoided. Such a large deployment for a small fire runs the risk of creating complacency in our community.

Hopefully the positive outcomes from the fire will continue and our landscape and community resilience to face fire in the future will be enhanced.

Copy of CFA map recording fire area, breaks and features
in relation to Melliodora (bottom left)

RetroSuburbia: out in the world

After four years in the making, RetroSuburbia is finally out there in the world. Weighing in at 1.8kg and 592 full colour pages, she is an absolute beauty, and the whole team here couldn’t be prouder. In fact, we are excited beyond words.

Here are some photos from Saturday’s book launch at the National Sustainable Living Festival at Birrarung Marr in Melbourne.

Thank you to Peter O’Mara for MCing the event, to Costa for launching it, to Formidable Vegetable Sound System for getting us up and dancing, and to Oliver Holmgren for these beautiful photographs:

From L-R Robyn Rosenfeld, Richard Telford, David Holmgren, Costa Georgiadis

An unmistakably beautiful Melbourne scene

Formidable Vegetable Sound System

Costa Georgiadis holding RetroSuburbia while wearing his retro shirt while Peter O’Mara looks on

“Here it is, folks!” says David Holmgren.

MC Peter O’Mara with David Holmgren

David Holmgren + Mariam Issa swap books

Charlie Mgee + Richard Telford

From L-R: Mariam Issa, Charlie Mgee, Mal Webb, Kylie Morrigan

From L-R: Costa Georgiadis, Su Dennett, Charlie Mgee, Mal Webb, Kylie Morrigan, David Holmgren

For those who missed it or want to re-live this momentous event in permie history, here is the full recording which is divided into 3 parts. Thanks to Greg Noy for the footage:

* * *

The day after the launch, David was busy again, this time on a panel entitled Transforming the Suburbs.

The speakers were:
David Holmgren – Permaculture co-originator
Costa Georgiadis – Gardening Australia, ABC TV
Dominique Hes – Melbourne University
Michael Ableman – Sole Food Street Farms, Canada
Kat Lavers – Permaculture practitioner
The event was MC’d by Nick Ritar from Milkwood Permaculture.

The expert panel creatively explored sustainable actions, key strategies and resilience-based concepts for future suburban responses to localised and global ecological challenges. The audience was provided expert analysis and thought-provoking ideas on how suburbia will be a vital place to survive and thrive in challenging futures. The discussion centred on ideas that positively contribute towards low-energy and carbon positive sustainable home and community living and how we can all make a shift towards creatively adapting to a more sustainable way of living.

The panel was recorded by ABC Big Ideas. You can listen here.

Photos by Oliver Holmgren.

From L-R: Nick Ritar, Dominique Hes, Costa Georgiadis, David Holmgren, Kat Lavers, Michael Ableman

From L-R: Dominique Hes, Costa Georgiadis, David Holmgren, Kat Lavers

In the Dome, Birrarung Mar, Melbourne

* * *

Don’t have your copy of the book yet? Head on over to to order your copy today!


2018 Advanced Permaculture Planning + Design Process

Have you completed a PDC but feel there is more you’d like to learn?
Are you interested in design principles and ethics but are not quite sure how to integrate the processes into your thinking, designing and decision making?

On this four-day residential course, tutors David Holmgren and Dan Palmer will take you through various approaches and methods that they implement in their own design processes to help you establish your own framework for designing and living. Here is the rundown of the April 2017 course:

2017 course participants + presenters

After the inaugural Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process course, Dan wrote a comprehensive overview of the 4-day residential, which is highly recommended reading.

Participants are encouraged to arrive on the night of April 2 and camp over, ready to begin the course at 9am on the 3rd. Dinner will be provided on the 2nd, and brekky on the 3rd, as well as all subsequent meals for the duration of the course.

The course is limited to 30 participants and bookings are essential. Once you have booked you will be sent more details.

More information + bookings here.


Persimmons, pumpkins and permie dancing

With the corn we harvested and shucked in March, we cooked up a delicious feast of tortillas.

IMG_5044We dug up potatoes to store for winter,


and relocated naughty runaway artichokes.


We exhaled deep sighs of relief with the coming of the rain,


and we farewelled Lori, who returned to the US. Lori, pictured here with this season’s latest fashion, the scarf biologique, is our last MIAOW (Melliodora Interns and Other Workers) for a while. Ordinarily we don’t take MIAOWs over the winter, though we do start booking people in to come and stay from September onward. This year we are taking an extended break from our usual MIAOW scheduling as we look forward to settling the Milkwood crew in to their new digs in early July.


We heartily welcomed these gorgeous visitors with their generous box of shroomy delights. Thanks Tess and Oliver!


Last month, the R/1 students from the Yorketown Area School in South Australia created a book of drawings for Charlie Mgee after listening to his music during their Science, Literacy and Music lessons. Charlie received this book at the Food Forest in SA where David was teaching at this year’s PDC.

Charlie and David

As we hung up the last of our tomato vines to ripen


we welcomed the onset of citrus season and look forward to rereading Morag Gamble’s great post on Ways to Use Abundant Mandarins (fruit & peel).


Autumn really is the season of giving thanks. Here is Su with the gorgeous Kat Lavers exchanging persimmons for pumpkins. Thanks Kat! You made Su sooooooo happy.


We had another visitor join us here in Hepburn. Woody from Artist as Family came and spent the day being the apprentice’s apprentice. Your care and gentleness was much appreciated, Mitch,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAas were your awesome dance moves.


Thanks too for taking this photo of this morning’s frost, the first big one for the season.


Thanks to Hamish and Christian, too, for their work building the stone wall on the east side of the house. It’s looking so good!


OK. That’s enough chit chat. It’s been fun and all but we’d better get back to work. Hope you are working hard and dreaming big, filling your barrows with pleasures accumulated and shared.


If you are considering writing a poem for the Venie Holmgren Environmental Poetry Prize, our inbox still has plenty of room. Entries close July 15 so there’s still lots of time.


Venie Holmgren passes after colourful and nourishing life


Wednesday January 27th Venie finished writing her life long poem. An adventure filled with 93 years of words, feisty activism and wry humour. She moves on leaving vivid memories in her brothers Norman and Gordon, her children Jenny (partner Chin) and David (partner Su), grandchildren Oliver, Kimon and Jody as well as many others she touched over many years of wordsmithing and friendship.


She will be celebrated at Poets Corner, Melliodora 16 Fourteenth St Hepburn on Tuesday 9th Feb at 10.30am. The burial will follow at Franklinford cemetery.




venie(young) (1 of 1)Venie Holmgren(nee Rich) was the second youngest of 11 children, born to immigrant jewish parents in York, Western Australia. In 1946, Venie Rich married Jack Holmgren a (non-jewish) comrade in peace activism against nuclear weapons and, later Australia’s involvement in Vietnam (documented in her Vietnam memoir – in press 2016). They had three children Jenny, David and Gerald and were active in community affairs from their home in Fremantle suburb of Bicton. Venie and Jack also were business partners in Rellim Booksellers(Perth), one of the best technical bookshops in the country in the 1970s.


After Jack’s death in 1975 Venie spent her gypsy years travelling in a campervan (documented in her travel memoir A Sense of Direction. The bush property, at Wyndham on the Far South Coast of NSW, where she settled was designed and established with her son David, the co-originator of the permaculture concept. Venie’s Wyndham property is documented in the case study Permaculture In The Bush.


In her late 50’s Venie began to write poetry and her first published anthology, The Sun Collection 1989, became a poetry “best seller”. At the same time, she applied her activist skills and commitment to the campaign to save native forests of the region, being arrested twice for obstructing log trucks. After 16 years of solo self reliant living she moved to the local town of Pambula where she penned her travel memoir, several more books of poetry and travelled widely as a performance poet.


After the unexpected death of Gerard (Gerald) in 2010 she left her community of choice to join her son David, daughter-in-law Su Dennett and grandson Oliver at Melliodora, their home and permaculture demonstration site in Hepburn, central Victoria. While waiting for the completion of the second handmade-house built for her by David, she wrote The Tea-house Poems, that has received wide acclaim. See Kevin Child’s article In Praise of Venie Holmgren: at 92 still an activist, adventurer and poet, published in the Guardian March 2015. During the last couple of years of life, her house mate Rick helped her with the publication of The Tea house Poems and, along with other local friends, satisfied Venie’s love of Scrabble. Venie’s last move of her long life, was up the road to Hepburn House where she made an impression on the staff with her sharp mind and tenacity.


Venie Holmgren at 2012 Words In Winter, being introduced by Glen Heyne and accompanied by Maureen Corbett on harp


Venie Holmgren speaking to Tim Metcalf at the 2007A.C.T. Writing & Publishing Awards

Venie Holmgren speaking to Tim Metcalf at the 2007A.C.T. Writing & Publishing Awards



Venie in her self sufficiency days (early 80s) on her bush property at Wyndham on South Coast of NSW

Venie in her self sufficiency days (early 1980s) on her bush property at Wyndham on South Coast of NSW

Venie (and David Holmgren 15th months) in the 1956 May Day March Fremantle WA

Venie (and David Holmgren 15th months) in the 1956 May Day March Fremantle WA. Photograph from ASIO file.



Melliodora Studio available for the month of January only.

A unique opportunity to experience Melliodora by staying at the studio for a couple of nights or even a week. The Studio is available for this brief time only. It is a very modest, energy efficient, passive solar home that uses recycled and natural materials surrounded by a small productive home garden and is nestled at the bottom of Melliodora. Enjoy lots of walks to the Blowhole, Hepburn pool and Spring Creek. Enjoy the goats and the geese. Some Melliodora produce will be available and the weekly veggie box scheme (Wednesdays) can feed a family of 4 or 5 for just $35. Some bulk dry goods are also available then.


2 storey, greenhouse bathroom and compost toilet, solar hot water and grid feedback electricity. Wood stove or small gas cook top, tank water and reed bed grey water

Sleeps 4 upstairs. Maximum 6.

Small garden for you to enjoy and nice views over Melliodora, premiere permaculture home to co founder David Holmgren and family. Get a feel for a a low impact lifestyle and enjoy country living in the heart of Hepburn

 House rules and a bond apply

$560/week or $140/nightIMG_8244

for booking email [email protected] or call Su on 03 5348 3636