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)

11 Responses to Reflections on fire – February 2019

  1. Alison Paul February 21, 2019 at 9:45 pm #

    Thank you David, this is the best reflection/article I have read on the recent Hepburn Fire.
    Inspiring, thoughtful & all about community.

    I do have one concern and hope the goats are not teathered as to me that is inhumane.

    So glad you are all safe.

  2. Mitch February 21, 2019 at 10:27 pm #

    Hi David.
    Would love to know your thoughts on the environmemtal weed situation throughout the burn area. Now that most of the blackberry etc is burned and the area accessable again…… would it not be a perfect opportunity to capitalise on that. Given the terrain how would you go about achieving ongoing control of those spp.

  3. Patrick Jones February 21, 2019 at 10:30 pm #

    Great article David! The initial trial area has been reduced from 180 acres to about half that area. The idea is so we can slowly scale up over the next 4 years and not have enormous outlays upfront.

    Hello Alison, the goats will not be tethered and will be able to browse freely, kept in specific areas by solar electric fencing.


  4. Tao Orion February 22, 2019 at 4:00 am #

    Its so interesting to hear about your long term work to prepare for fire by engaging with the watershed and local community, and how these factors played out on the ground when the fires came through. So glad you all are okay! We’re getting ready for the approach of fire season here in the Northern hemisphere, and this definitely gives me some good ideas to put into practice.

  5. Steve Burns February 22, 2019 at 6:49 am #

    Thanks for taking the time to pen these reflections, David… they seem a very honest appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of both the household & official responses. I’m glad you noted the tendency toward complacency that having such a large ‘state’ response could engender – and while I’m sure being aware of it means you guys won’t fall into that trap, but i wonder if others will?

  6. Angela Browning February 24, 2019 at 10:26 pm #

    Great article David. I love the Willows.
    My parents and my disabled sister sheltered in their ute in the bed of the very low Macalister river 5 years ago close to the weeping Willows my Father and my Grandfather planted many years before. The sheep also sheltered under the Willows and they all survived. The mountainous bush around them went up in a storm of fire.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  7. Fiona Ludbrook February 28, 2019 at 9:10 pm #

    Thanks for your wonderful analysis of your planning and preparations to deal with a massive bushfire. Those much maligned willows are such an asset, as are all your deciduous trees and knowledge and observation of your wonderful Melliodora. The quick response teams and CFA, must have learned so much from your community links and personal preparations. That said, I am glad you are all safe and Melliodora fared well, as all through the news of the fires I kept hoping Melliodora and all who live there, were okay and that your fire plan and years of preparation would hold you all in good stead. And yes, let’s hope complacency is not the product of such excellent work on the part of the response teams this time around!

  8. Dan March 1, 2019 at 9:30 pm #

    Thanks for sharing the insights and experiences David.
    Having for just experienced close fire in the Huon Valley Tas and enacting our fire response plan this is great food for thought. Will be taking somebody learning so from it and applying them in our area

  9. Hamish MacCallum March 25, 2019 at 2:49 pm #

    Thanks Dave for sharing. I was proud to be the crew leader for Oli’s first fire and the irony of our reflective positions both physically and ideologically (direct attack vs. protracted management regimes, you on the south of the fire, us on the north) didn’t escape me and I’m glad we saw the opportunity to engage with the broader fire management community with a more integrated approach to landscape management. I have shared this article with members of the Municipal fire management planning committee and have had a very positive response from the members, with the prospects of trialling similar community-led landscape management on public land for strategic fire mitigation. I’m also glad to be a part of influencing ideological paradigms of fire management in the CFA as it becomes clear that pre-fire landscape management is a powerful way to fight fire, and how community engagement is a powerful tool to undertake the necessary steps in establishing a less fire-prone landscape.

  10. David March 26, 2019 at 1:44 pm #

    My block in Sth Gippsland was close to the Yinnar South fire. I spent a nervous weekend looking at the Vic Emergency web site and checking the weather forecast for wind changes.

    We have creeks and gullies overrun with blackberries. I don’t want to use glyphosate, cows aren’t interested and manual grubbing takes way too much time. Well-established blackwood shade the blackberries out to some extent but take a while to reach that stage. A templated, evidence-based, effective, sustainable rubus management approach would be very useful for me and I suspect many other landowners in Gippsland. I’ve started running a few sheep to see how they go. Goats are difficult – I grew up with a large herd kept by my mother – as they’re smart and competent escapologists.

    This is an opportunity for some permaculture oriented citizen science to assist landowners. CMA’s would be interested.

  11. tuffy January 30, 2020 at 3:28 pm #

    Dear Mr Holmgren-
    I am designing my own property right now, specifically to resist fire, as i live in a fire-prone region.
    I was wondering: are all willows fire resistant, or only certain species?
    Are there any other extremely fire resistant trees for Mediterranean climates that you can recommend? (zone 9).
    I am also planting cactus, but the soils and water is rather too heavy in these lowlands for those…

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