Responsible Wood is sharing the stories from those at the frontline, managing and preserving forests amidst the 2019/2020 Australian bushfire season, Black Summer, the impact of those fires and the recovery efforts over recent months.

Meet Kathy Lyons, Senior Manager responsible for stewardship of coastal hardwoods. Image supplied by Forestry Corporation of NSW

Black Summer ran from July 2019 to February 2020 in New South Wales burning 5.37 million hectares. Forestry Corporation of NSW, managing more than 2 million hectares of NSW State forests, is one of four firefighting agencies in the state and it was a busy season for their firefighters. During the season its staff played a significant part in the bushfire response and were deployed for more than 250,000 hours in firefighting and incident management while still managing the production of timber, safety of forest visitors and protection of the environment. At the end of the season over half of the area of State forest had been protected from fire with 910,000 hectares impacted by fire.

Responsible Wood certified and proudly so, Forestry Corporation has over a hundred years’ experience in fire management and maintains high levels of fire planning, preparedness and suppression capacity. Staff are trained to the highest standard and are available for deployment across the state. Outside of the fire season the focus is on minimising fuel loads to reduce the intensity of wildfires through the implementation of prescribed burning and grazing.

After responding to fire outbreaks across an enormous land mass over summer, Forestry Corporation then turned its mind to the recovery from these fires – the salvaging of fire-affected timber, repair of fire-damaged roads and bridges, and regeneration and regrowth of the forests for the future.

This three-part special feature follows the story of forest fire-fighters and the recovery efforts underway in NSW.

Kathy Lyons, the Senior Manager

Meet Kathy Lyons, the Senior Manager responsible for the stewardship of coastal hardwood State forests including firefighting and prescribed burning.  During the fire season she and her team co-ordinate Forestry Corporation’s firefighting response in the State’s native forests and hardwood plantations. 

How did it feel to be constantly organising and supporting the firefighting efforts? 

Reflecting on the extraordinary fire season, Kathy exclaimed she had never been as exhausted as last fire season.

“We worked for months on end and I constantly watched the patterns of fire from the Queensland to the Victorian border, monitored the weather and tried to predict the balance of resources our people would need in advance to achieve the best results they could on the ground while staying safe.”

During the season there were over 250 individual fires impacting on State forests in NSW and many of these ultimately joined up to form major fire complexes. Forestry Corporation staff were involved in fighting over 100 major fires across the season.

 “It was devastating watching those fires track over the forests we love and to hear the stories as our staff continued to put in control lines and then had to pull back over and over, saving many houses and communities while the forests burnt. By early January we had every available person in the business engaged in firefighting or incident management along with most of our harvesting contractors across the state. The fires didn’t stop. They started in the north and kept burning while new ignitions progressed to the south.”

 “The south coast of NSW and Tumbarumba/Tumut areas were particularly heartbreaking due to how quickly so much forest burnt with little time to defend.  Three of our firefighters lost their family homes.”

Forestry Corporation of NSW personnel working on the front line. Image supplied by Seen Australia

How well did you think our staff performed during the season? 

Forestry Corporation had over 530 staff involved in firefighting including almost 200 seasonal staff brought on specifically for the firefighting season. With such a long and intense season, Forestry Corporation also brought in fire specialists from other forestry companies interstate and overseas to bolster resources.

When asked about how the team of forestry firefighters performed, Kathy said there is only one word: phenomenal!

“I am so proud to be part of such an amazing team of people in Forestry Corporation. There were so many fires put out quickly by our firefighters. Many fires started by lightening or arson were ‘jumped on’ and put out in a few days utilising dozers, harvesters and water bombing choppers.”  

Luke Secombe, the Forest Technician

Luke Secombe, a Forest Technician based on the north coast usually spends his days inspecting and marking up areas prior to harvest, looking for rare animals and plants, finding hollow bearing trees to protect and ensuring we protect waterways and other special areas.  Over summer, Luke worked on fires starting in mid-July, inland from Casino, and finishing mid-February in Bombala. He worked as a crew leader in back burning operations and wildfire suppression; supervised heavy plant working on containment lines; and assessing and dealing with problem trees. Luke said the hardest part was comprehending the sheer scale of loss on every level.”

“Going to work each day and wondering if my own land and property were going to be there when I got back and sending my family and pets to town for a number of days because it was just not safe for them to stay home. Over the season I saw so much heart-break in other people – animals injured, homes and farms destroyed, people in tears time and again,” said Luke.

Dean Evans, the Forest Firefighter

And Dean Evans who is employed specifically as a forest firefighter on the south coast. When he’s not fighting fires, Dean is supervising machinery repairing roads, controlling feral animals and weeds or leading a team carrying out controlled burns during the cooler months. Over summer Dean was deployed five times to the north coast from August to November and was then on the fire line in the Bateman’s Bay area through to February working as a Sector or Divisional Commander.  Dean said with so much fire in the communities, there were times when we were directed to fall back and proceed to protect our own homes.

“Every little win counted, whether it was holding the fire up for a day or two for more containment lines to be built, saving homes and sometimes the same homes again over a week-long period. The support and gratitude from the community for the efforts we were making trying to save their properties really helped,” said Dean.

How well do you think all the agencies worked together and supported each other? 

In NSW Forestry Corporation is one of four firefighting authorities along with the Rural Fire Service, Fire and Rescue NSW and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Forestry Corporation staff are forest fire experts but with such a significant fire season this year, it was all hands on deck.

Kathy said the way all the agencies worked together was wonderful. 

“The Rural Fire Service command of aircraft was outstanding. Fires were quickly detected, tracked and water bombed to slow them for attack and strategic assets were sprayed from the air with retardant. The Fire and Rescue NSW teams were out there with the rest of us, working hard off the main gravel forest roads pouring as much water and retardant as they could on smoking trees and forest fuels, making sure contained fires did not take off again in bad weather.  We worked with National Parks on make safe programs, removing dangerous trees across roads and restoring safe access for communities after the fires.”

“I knew we had to get water out fast after the fires for surviving animals in the worst affected areas. We worked with many different wildlife carers, getting water points out to forests such as Kiwarrak State Forest south of Taree and it was so rewarding to see how many birds and animals had survived.”

What are the recovery efforts after the fires?

A lot has happened since the fires with 12 months passing since the season began on the north coast.

According to Kathy there is much to be done and the recovery efforts will take many years.

“Over 20,000km of forest roads were affected, requiring clearing of fallen timber, removal of dangerous trees, reconstruction of hundreds of bridges and replacement of plastic drainage pipes. We are working now on rebuilding our roads and bridges and restoring access back into the forests.”

“We are also salvaging and replanting our pine and young hardwood plantations and with around 25% of the plantations burnt, this is a huge task in itself.”

“Monitoring of our fauna and flora also continues with experts and care groups. Our eucalypt forests are resilient, it is quite amazing to watch the recovery.”

The Forestry Corporation of NSW is one of 28 forests certified under AS 4708 – Sustainable Forest Management. This standard is used by Australian forest growers to make Responsible Wood and PEFC claims on forest products. Underpinning certification is a commitment by forest growers to the management and rejuvenation of forests.

In next week’s special feature Responsible Wood will cover the recovery efforts in the forests.