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Plantations manager keeps her hands dirty
Ruth Ryan oversees the fire response and protection of assets across 240,000 hectares of Victoria.
Some 160,000 of those hectares are plantations while the rest is native vegetation managed for ecological purposes or fire breaks, road and infrastructure.
As HVP Plantations Corporate Fire Manager, Ruth has 35 years’ experience fighting forest fires and carries out her statewide role in a hands-on way.
She started her training with a scholarship to Creswick in 1979 and did summer firefighting and prevention works. As one of eight female foresters out of 350 students, she graduated to a role at Orbost in 1983 with the Forest Commission Victoria and the subsequent predecessors to DELWP.
“Fighting the 1983 fires in East Gippsland was a considerable baptism of fire for me,” says Ruth.
“On Ash Wednesday, I was coming onto the evening shift. We had over 200 men fighting the northern section of the Cann River fire. We were in an old forestry camp in New South Wales that had poor radio reception and one phone line. I rang my boss in Orbost and he said, ‘Have you heard what’s happened in the rest of Victoria?’. He listed houses lost and possible deaths in Anglesea, Macedon, Powelltown, Cockatoo, Gembrook and the Dandenongs and we had people from all those places in the camp.”
Ruth had to break the news to the crew and quickly arrange a shift change because all those whose towns were affected wanted to return home.
That season, fires in East Gippsland burnt some 250,000 hectares including one that almost burnt out Mallacoota. Working predominantly as a crew leader, Ruth worked for six weeks with two days off.
This was long before the days of mixed crews, and Ruth remembers the cook standing guard at the shower when there was only the one facility.
Her interest in fire comes through the family line.
“My grandparents’ home and farm in Pyalong were burnt in a bushfire in 1940 when my dad was 25,” says Ruth. “They walked away with the clothes they stood up in.
“Through my dad, this instilled in me a great respect for fire and the need to be well prepared. It can happen at any time. The fire started on Christmas Day and hit their property on Boxing Day and the long-term impact through the loss of almost all family memorabilia can last for generations.”
In 1993, Ruth left the public service to work as a field manager of harvesting and replanting for the Victorian Plantations Corporation out of Benalla. She kept her hands dirty, however, working as a sector commander and divisional commander during Level 3 incidents.
In 1998, the state-owned plantations were fully privatised and Ruth was offered the district manager’s position at Benalla with new company Hancock Victorian Plantations Pty Ltd (HVP).
In that same year, she became a member of CFA when the first Forest Industry Brigades (FIBs) were formed. She was appointed captain of the HVP Delatite FIB and, with subsequent career moves, became captain of HVP Rennick FIB and is currently HVP Ballarat FIB captain.
HVP grows and harvests over three million tonnes of timber each year, much of which is processed locally into sawn timber, panel board and paper. This is the timber you use for your house frames, MDF and particleboard which goes into architraves and cupboards and the paper in your photocopier.
“We have 110 permanent staff across the state,” says Ruth. “We take on another 100 to 150 for the summer crew for general forest works such as weed control, track maintenance, pruning and fertilising, and they also have the dual role of firefighter. They do Minimum Skills and we take them up to crew leader level.
“We use CFA trainers and we might organise a Min Skills course that volunteers will join.
“FIBs are CFA brigades and we try to integrate with them and exercise with them whenever possible. FIBs are complex: our brigade areas are discontinuous and spread over a wide geographic area. My HVP Ballarat brigade has land adjoining 39 other CFA brigade areas within 12 groups and three CFA districts.”
When Captain Ruth is on standby on the Ballarat FIB roster, she always makes sure to turn out to fires, especially on weekends and after-hours.
“I always like to keep my hand in,” she says, “and the best place to develop strategy is from the field. There’s always work to educate your crew. It might be working with a fire investigator or exploring how far a stump is burning underground.”
Meanwhile, her corporate role involves using bushfire risk landscape modelling to determine where the risk to HVP assets comes from, the best investment for protection works and the spread of firefighting resources. Is the balance right?
“When we start to get larger fires, we need to gear up and move our resources,” she explains.
“In 2009, I was the officer in charge of HVP resources at Narbethong on the Murrindindi fire. I wasn’t working on the day-to-day of people getting lunch and truck breakdowns, but on developing strategy.”
Ruth maintains close contact with CFA’s Manager of Wildfire Planning and FIBs Gary Weir, FIB Field Officer Ian Hamley and DCO Alen Slijepcevic and local operations managers along with senior management of DELWP.
To anyone thinking of joining CFA, Ruth advises them to “ensure you take your time in learning the theory, but the greatest lessons you’ll learn will be from watching and learning from your experiences on the fireground.
“Respect the wisdom of people with many years’ experience.”