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The Art of Roadside Burning
Roadside burning is being elevated to an art form in three brigade areas south of Ballarat where a long black ribbon of burnt ground now slices through the landscape. In fact, it stretches from one side of District 15 to the other.
Cape Clear Fire Brigade’s techniques have been tried and tested over decades and are now documented in their self-published The Art of Roadside Burning written by Captain Michael Rowe with the comprehensive support of members Terry Kelly and Brenda Haskins.
Terry described the burns as running “like a smooth machine” while to Brenda they are “a well-choreographed dance”.
Their season usually begins before Christmas with the burning of the recreation reserve and neighbourhood safer place. They then “watch conditions like a cat watching a mouse,” according to Michael, using the chain of weather stations around the district to identify the golden opportunity to burn 40 kilometres of roadsides.
The fire danger index must be below eight, the temperature under 30 degrees and the winds under 15 kilometres an hour, and those conditions must hold for two days after the burn.
This year the major 38-kilometre burn was brought forward by more than a month to mid-January. It was carried out by a 70-strong team representing multiple Grenville Group brigades as well as crews from Buninyong, Dereel, Shelford, Bannockburn and Grovedale brigades and Forest Fire Management Victoria. They were backed up by six VicRoads traffic control utes with everyone using WorkSafe procedures, including the catering crew, and receiving the same SMEACS briefing.
The aim is to have mixed crews including an experienced driver, one “rock solid” and one new member. The crews are run like three strike teams and positive word of mouth means that some of them signed up to participate 12 months in advance.
Michael’s safety mantra set the tone for the day: “calm and relaxed, calm and relaxed. One of the major tools is the right mindset and remember to use the principles of humanity”.
For Cape Clear brigade that means being excellent hosts: prior planning with the assistance of Vegetation Management Officer (VMO) Tony Brady while Brenda liaises with all the owners along the roadsides. They think of everything from technical issues through to the stomachs of firefighters. (There are casseroles, apple crumble and ice cream!)
“If you don’t treat crews like royalty, with the utmost respect, they won’t come back,” said Michael. “There’s no time to muck around with egos.”
Captain Marc Cannan from Buninyong Fire Brigade was one of the members of the royal family and confirmed that “the briefing was excellent and then we got straight to work. There was no ‘hurry up and wait’ and the speed we progressed really impressed me”.
That’s because momentum is one of the key burning principles at Cape Clear.
“Stopping and starting and slowing down put the wind and flame in control. You need ‘go’ people, not ‘whoa’ people to lead from the front,” it says in The Art of Roadside Burning.
Momentum is maintained using a method they call the double burn developed five years ago. Here we get to Michael’s second mantra: “all road rules stand, all road rules stand” starting with only being able to legally block the road for 15 minutes.
Two crews burn 1.1 kilometres apart within the traffic control points. Fifty litres of water per minute are put down by the lead tanker to create a wet break on one side which is enough to ensure the second burn crew isn’t driving towards a live fire.
Again, the publication explains: “Follow- up tankers are only to put out spot overs and getaways, not smokers in the burn zone.
“The Tail End Charlie is to tag along and black out as needed. If you black out too early, you’ll be doing the same work next year.
“The aim of burning off is to burn but you don’t have to scorch the earth. A 90 per cent burn is all that’s necessary.
“When walking and lighting a burn, it can take over two hours to burn two kilometres by the time you get set up. When walking and lighting on a double burn at seven kilometres per hour, it takes under 10 minutes to burn two kilometres of road.
“By using momentum, you can control the window of risk.”
VMO Tony gives Michael the credit for the double burn innovation. As far as Tony’s concerned, it’s only logical.
“We double the area we can burn and halve the time, reducing the disruption to the travelling public,” he said. “It requires double the resources but it’s much more efficient and we can safely cover long distances in a single day.”
A total of 20-22 truckloads of water were used over the 38 kilometres.
Traffic management – Michael called them the “impeccable chaps from Fulton Hogan” – reopen the road when the smoke has cleared. By then all tankers are clear and the public has the road to themselves.
One unpredictable element of the day, however, was a ute driven by a member of the public catching fire just as it reached the burn area. Within minutes seven tankers moved to assist, Cape Clear brigade hosed the road and Shelford tanker towed it to a side road.
Throughout the day, crews returned in rotation to the recreation reserve to fill their tankers from the council’s 58,000 litre-bore-fed tank. Again the courteous hosting was on display. Crews were moved away for a drink, some cake and a chat while local brigade members filled their trucks.
“This mentally removes them and calms and relaxes them,” Michael repeated. “We can see it in their body language by the end of the day. They have confidence which they can then take to their call-outs.
“Roadside burning is fighting fire at the right end of the flames. It’s the best fire training there is. It gives you a full understanding of how volatile ground fuels are and respect for fire.
“Black is salvation.”
The annual burn is embedded in the Municipal Fire Prevention Plan and consolidated by Golden Plains Shire’s construction of a graded break along its edge on lesser roads while VicRoads contractors do the grading on the main roads.
With the potential commercial loss from a major local fire being agricultural machinery and crops ranging in value from $800 to $1000 per hectare, the pulling up and holding of two large fast-running grassfires within the past 10 years is solid proof of the burn’s success.
Regular burning has markedly reduced the variety and volume of weedy introduced pasture species, particularly Phalaris, and a resurgence of indigenous grassland species. Native Kangaroo grass has become the dominant grass species on some of the burnt roadsides.
Later in the season, the brigade will burn 2500 hectares of stubble as a fundraiser which previously paid for Cape Clear’s two-bay satellite station in Berringa.
The brigade funded a Civil Aviation Safety Authority-certified drone operator to document the January burn from above.
“It was operating above the smoke and we could clearly see from the drone camera footage that the fire was burning within containment lines,” said Michael
“We run a fire and a burn the same way. The drive to be efficient runs through the whole brigade. It was a very relaxing day because we had complete faith in the skills and mindset of all those involved.
“The burn leads to fewer call-outs and that means more time at home with our families.
“We’ve produced the book because we know we’ve got a good system. It’s a breath of fresh air. We want to lead other brigades back to burning so those members can also have that extra time with their families and friends.”
Now, that’s a principle of humanity.
To buy The Art of Roadside Burning, visit www.theartofroadsideburning.com
For more information, contact Brenda on 0408 558 710.