The Commons Masthead

Fighting fire with fire

Laura Peppas

Controlled burning in the ACT

Every so often outside of Canberra’s bushfire season, Nadia Rhodes will jump in a helicopter and order the start of a fire.

From up high, the park ranger has an aerial view of the blaze before her, and is able to supervise a careful, strategic process of hazard reduction burns designed to protect Canberra, its wildlife and native vegetation from potentially devastating bushfires.

Often confused with “back-burning”, which is a last-resort measure to stop wildfire from burning out specific areas, hazard reduction or controlled burning is conducted during the cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious hotter fires.

Nadia, as the park ranger and aerial fire manager for the ACT Parks and Conservation Service, has a key role in monitoring fire behaviour during Canberra’s controlled burns.

“It’s my role to do a lot of intelligence gathering while I’m in the helicopter, working out where the fire can go to our benefit,” she says.

“There’s more to fire than just putting it out with water, there’s a science behind its behaviour. It’s about precision implementation of the burn plan to meet objectives. I’ll look at where the fire crew is placed, whether the smoke is becoming too intense, and where the fire is headed. Because I’m right above, I get the bigger picture.”

Controlled burns aim to reduce the intensity of subsequent fires at the same place by removing fine surface fuels such as leaf litter. Reducing these hazards increases the window of opportunity for fire fighters to control bushfires, as high fuel loads in a bushfire burn faster and hotter, and destroy more of the environment.

“Controlled burns used to be more common in spring, but Autumn has become a more popular time as it allows the vegetation more time to grow back properly, so that’s why people may have been noticing more smoke in Canberra in the last few weeks,” Nadia says.

More burns are scheduled in and around Canberra over the next few weeks, including a particularly large burn of over 2000 hectares around Honeysuckle Creek on 9 April, weather permitting.

Nadia, who also works as a firefighter for the rural fire service, says it’s important for the public not to be alarmed when controlled burning is taking place.

“People are encouraged to keep an eye on our website for information on when controlled burns are scheduled,” she says.

“We also usually encourage those with asthma to stay indoors while smoke is particularly heavy.

“If we feel a fire is getting too hot or intense, the pilot will pick up water we’ve got placed strategically in dams and he cools the fire down so it starts backing down and loses its intensity. Sometimes we get stopovers if the fire escapes out of the are that rarely happens as we do it in such a controlled manner. Fire crews continue to patrol and monitor the area until no smoke is visible for 24 hours – our most important factor is the safety of the public.”

It’s a precise process, says Nadia, because all the elements must come together for the controlled burn to take place.

“We need it to be done with the right weather conditions, the right moisture in the air, to make sure the grasses in the shrubs have enough moisture so it doesn’t burn everything,” she says.

“During the burn we aim to achieve a mosaic burn pattern so that all the little critters have enough time to get into safe areas. We do this strategically in areas where fuel is quite high as it means if a wildfire does happen and it reaches these areas, there’s nowhere for it to burn.”

For more information on controlled burning, please visit http://www.tams.act.gov.au/parks-recreation/bushfire_management/prescribed-burns .

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Laura Peppas

Laura Peppas is HerCanberra's senior journalist and communications manager and is the Editor of Unveiled, HerCanberra's wedding magazine. She is enjoying uncovering all that Canberra has to offer, meeting some intriguing locals and working with a pretty awesome bunch of women. Laura has lived in Canberra for most of her life and when she's not writing fervently she enjoys pursuing her passion for travel, reading, online shopping and chai tea. More about the Author

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