AAF spoke to Ruth Ryan, HVP Plantations Corporate Fire Manager, about fire prevention and management.
Ruth Ryan, HVP Plantations Corporate Fire Manager, has enjoyed a long and rewarding career in the forestry industry, which over the course of more than three-and-a-half decades has seen her hold a number of leadership positions throughout Victoria, and awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal (AFSM) in 2018.
Ruth received the AFSM for providing outstanding leadership to the Country Fire Authority’s (CFA) Forest Industry Brigades and the plantation industry, and as she told AAF, fire prevention and management is very much a collaborative endeavour, which is not just about protecting forests and plantations, but also the communities we live in.
This is something Ruth – who comes from a rural background, growing up on a farm in Pyalong in central Victoria – had a firsthand experience of during her first posting in East Gippsland in 1983 when the Ash Wednesday fires hit, which she describes as having “literally started with a baptism of fire”
Upon completing a Bachelor of Forest Science (Hons) at the University of “Fire prevention and management is very much a collaborative endeavour, which is not just about protecting forests and plantations, but also the communities we live in.”
Melbourne, Ruth had taken up the post with the Forests Commission Victoria (a former government authority), quickly gaining practical experience to complement her theoretical training.
“I got a really good background in fire management in native forest in East Gippsland,” she recalled. “In some ways being thrown in the deep end like that was good because you really had to think on your feet and had to have that understanding.
“Working in the actual districts, and physically fighting fires – then you also have that personal experience of being on the line, and really beginning to understand fire behaviour in the bush in different environments.”
Embarking upon a career in what was at the time a virtually all-male workforce at times presented additional challenges, however Ruth noted that she was fortunate to have some really good mentors, and it was not long before she was put in charge of conducting prescribed burns, allowing her to advance her knowledge in short time.
Fire Prevention and Management: Collaboration a Key
In the proceeding years, Ruth has accumulated a wide variety of experience in both the public and private sectors – and in 1998, following the privatisation of the Victorian Plantations Corporation, which was sold to Hancock Victorian Plantations (now known as HVP Plantations), she took up a role as district manager with the company.
Ruth has since occupied a number of roles with HVP – which manages a total area of land equating to more than 240,000 ha in Victoria, of which about 165,000 ha is pine and eucalypt plantation – including assuming a command role in a number of campaign fires, while she has also been captain of three CFA Forest Industry Brigades.
Working out of HVP’s Ballarat office, her current position as Corporate Fire Manager encompasses coordinating state-wide fire management.
“That’s looking at the risk fire poses to our plantations, how we can reduce that risk, what type of things we can do to reduce it, and a lot of that is about the things we do before the fire starts,” she explained.
“Fire prevention and management is very much a collaborative endeavour, which is not just about protecting forests and plantations, but also the communities we live in.”
“It might be fuel management programs, especially with our neighbours, and with Forest Fire Management Victoria [FFMVic], to reduce the fuels that are around our plantations.”
In this vein, Ruth stressed the importance of close and regular collaboration with FFMVic and the CFA, along with other private plantation owners, which often have adjoining lands, in preparing for the fire season and ensuring that resources are available to fight fires.
Ruth – who has also been chairperson of the Forest Owners Conference, coordinating industry fire response in the Green Triangle region around the Victoria-South Australia border – explained that plantation owners on the border have joined together to collaborate on how to prepare for and respond to fires.
“We have common guidelines for management of operations within plantations, so that they won’t start fires,” she told AAF. “And then we also have an agreed response – so we help each other out.
“Even though a fire might not be threatening our plantation, it could be threatening one of the other plantations within this group, and we will go and assist them if needed. As an industry we work really closely together in both fire prevention and fire suppression operations.”
New Technologies Provide Added Insight
Among the specific fire preparation and prevention techniques employed by plantations, Ruth pointed to the importance of maintaining a geographic spread that isn’t susceptible to one big fire, with internal works comprising fuel breaks, roads and tracks to provide access, and water points with supplies for fire fighting.
However, controlled burning is not a viable option for the majority of HVP’s plantations, with Ruth advising that the fire can damage the bark, especially that of pine trees, resulting in defects to the logs.
“When we harvest the sites, and are getting ready for replanting, we will often use what we call a chopper roller – it’s a big mulcher, a big rolling drum that chops down the debris that’s left on the site,” she said.
“It compacts it, and makes it decompose quicker, so it reduces the flammability of what’s left behind after harvesting. We also do weed control programs, reducing the weeds underneath our plantations.”
Ruth noted that the basic principles behind the practice of fire fighting haven’t changed much over the years, however pointed to the increasingly important role that technology is playing in both prevention and management.
In particular, she highlighted the range of information that fire fighters now have at their disposal, including increasingly specific weather forecasting, detailed mapping that is accessible via smartphone, and the utilisation of fire modelling software, such as the Phoenix RapidFire fire simulation software developed by the University of Melbourne.
“We can use the software to look at what fuel management burns may be effective in preventing fires running into our plantations,” she told AAF. “It’s a really handy planning tool.”
Another challenge ahead of this year’s fire season is dealing with restrictions on border movement brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Ruth has been working on a communications plan addressing the difficulties in getting fire prevention and management programs up and running in the Victoria-South Australia border region.
“Contractors are not allowed to cross further than 40 km within Victoria, and we often need them to maintain our firebreaks,” she explained.
“The communications plan is a plan for all of the forestry companies, and some of the overarching associations, to talk to various levels of government, to say that these are the challenges that we’ve got with these new COVID-19 restrictions. That’s very much an added challenge that we are facing this year.”