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Willatook plantation firefighters
Of the 26 operational members of Willatook Fire Brigade, 14 recently completed the Plantation Firefighter course alongside 10 other members of the Hawkesdale Group.
The course covered pine and blue gum although it’s the latter in the Willatook area, harvested for woodchips and exported through Portland.
According to Wildfire Instructor Ray Downes, about 40 per cent of local farm land has been bought by plantation companies with farmers given a good price to leave. The course examined what that means for brigades
“The grass grows very high in blue gum plantations on highly productive farm land,” said Ray. “On top of that, plantings are in raised beds so you can only fight a fire from the approach roads.
“The course looks at all the stages from planting to canopy closure. In the initial three years, it’s basically a grassland firefight that you can’t reach because of the tree beds. After five years, limbs drop off so you’re dealing with a lot of debris and brigades are likely to use a hoselay. From seven years onwards, you have canopy closure. Brigades might use a hoselay after a lightning strike on a reasonable day but, if a fire has come in from grazing land, it’s an aircraft job.
“I drum in weather, fuel, topography, weather, fuel, topography – that’s the catchcry of the course.”
Willatook Captain Alan Vaughan leads a brigade keen to sign up for any course on offer and well qualified to confront a wide range of risks.
His members picked up the course message about situational awareness loud and clear. The brigade is proud of their brand new medium tanker and would only take it into a plantation in mild fire conditions.
“We came away with a healthy amount of wariness about plantations and more knowledge of fire behaviour,” said Alan. “We learnt about sloping country sending fire into the crowns although it generally crowns more in in pine that eucalypt.
“Bluegums are harvested after about 10 to 12 years at any time of the year. It leaves behind the stumps and refuse and then you start the cycle again.”
Ray applauds the caution of the Willatook members. “We’ve got away from, ‘My underpants are on the outside of my trousers’.”