Responsible Wood is sharing the stories from those at the frontline, managing and preserving forests amidst the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, Black Summer, the impact of those fires and the recovery efforts over recent months.    

In a special bonus edition, the final in a four-part series, we look to the season ahead.

The memory of the bushfire season is still fresh in many people’s minds, however time has come to look ahead and prepare for the coming season.

Forestry Corporation’s management of State forests is certified to Australian Standard for Sustainable Forest Management under the Responsible Wood Certification System.

The Responsible Wood Certification System sets criteria for forest management.

Key requirements of the standard includes the management of unplanned fire and disturbance to maintain or enhance forest ecosystem health in order to rehabilitate degraded forest.

As one of NSW’s four firefighting agencies, Forestry Corporation is responsible for managing fire on over two million hectares of State forests. It also assists the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service with large bushfires and contributes to interstate and overseas firefighting deployments.

Essential to this role is a program of planning, partnerships and prevention.

Optimistic but cautious

With a La Nina predicted and coming into summer with good soil moisture, Forestry Corporation staff are feeling a lot more at ease than this time last year, said Forest Protection Manager, Karel Zejbrlik.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to a level playing field; the extreme conditions of last year made firefighting very challenging,” Mr Zejbrlik said.

Fire is part of the Australian landscape and there have already been a few bushfires on the north coast this season.

Preparation is still essential

Bushfire protection rests on a well-trained firefighting force, maintained roads, the right equipment and a hazard reduction program in the cooler months of the year.

The cooler months of 2020 were no exception to this, said Mr Zejbrlik.

“Although we are feeling a lot more at ease than this time last year, we are leaving nothing to chance when it comes to protecting State forests from wildfire,” he said.

“The last few months have seen us again invest heavily in training our firefighting staff and maintaining our extensive network of roads and fire trails.

“We have also seen to it that our firefighting equipment and fleet are in top working order and we have PPE stock on hand for our staff.

“We have had to reorder large stocks of PPE, as the intensity of last season’s firefighting saw a lot of our gear worn out.”

Preseason burning – working with the community

Forestry Corporation has again implemented a hazard reduction burning program during the cooler months to reduce the fuel load. These are strategically designed with the local RFS Bushfire Management Committees to protect local communities and assets

This year there has been an emphasis on cultural burning and working with local Aboriginal communities to share fire management knowledge.

Aboriginal Partnerships Liaison Officer Rachael Cavanagh said that cultural burning offers a lot to fire management.

“Cultural burning is good for the landscape and this year we have partnered with Local Aboriginal Land Councils to run workshops to train the community, share burning knowledge and help build skills needed,” Ms Cavanagh said.

“This knowledge sharing goes both ways and we have all learnt from the experience.

“Genuine community partnerships like this are valuable and the knowledge sharing goes both ways – we have all learnt from the experience.”

The training is being put to use, with a series of cultural burns being implemented in northern NSW

“I’m really excited to see Aboriginal people out managing cultural burns in State forests; it’s healthy for Country and healthy for our communities.”

Building the workforce for fire season

Forestry Corporation implements a seasonal firefighter recruitment and training program to bolster its capability when needed most.

Each year the organisation recruits and trains over 100 seasonal firefighters to help protect NSW State forests and meet the bushfire threat head on.

Stewardship and Fire Supervisor in the central west, Dave Anderson understands the value of the seasonal workforce.

“We rely on our seasonal firefighters enormously over the summer months,” Mr Anderson said.

“Through our seasonal recruitment and training programs, we have a fluid workforce ready to go when fires hit.”

There is no standard mould for our seasonal team and regional staff work closely with the HR team to build diversity in our recruits.

“Many recruits are young, others semi-retired; a few work between us in summer and other seasonal work in winter,” Mr Anderson said.

“Some have firefighting experience with us or another agency, but this isn’t essential as we offer a comprehensive training program to newcomers.

“Our seasonal recruitment brings a lot of valuable skills and experiences into the business.”

Between fire events, the seasonal team still brings a lot of value to Forestry Corporation.

“There is always plenty of work to do – whether it be road and fire trail maintenance, weed spraying or the countless other things we need to do to prepare for bushfires,” he said.

The Training

Once the seasonal team is recruited, they are enlisted into firefighting ‘bootcamp’.

The five-day intensive training program is designed to get the new recruits ‘fire ready’.

They learn best-practice firefighting in one of three streams – basic, advanced and crew leader.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added more complexity to this year’s training, but the organisation has adapted and adjusted said Fire Manager, Tim McGuffog.

“2020 has thrown a few challenges to our face-to-face training camps, but we have changed our approach to make it work”, Mr McGuffog said.

Forestry Corporation is running ‘closed camps’ in 2020, meaning no-one comes or leaves during the week-long training. There are also a series of personal distancing and hygiene measures in place to reduce the risk of COVID.

COVID aside, the camps are essential for developing a skilled and capable workforce.

“Our training program is comprehensive and recruits also get the opportunity to learn other skills like using chainsaws, first aid, chemical use and driving trucks when they return to their depots,” Mr McGuffog said.

“Safety is always on the top of this list though.

“Our firefighters’ wellbeing is our biggest concern and it all comes back to correct training and procedures.”

So with the preparations well in hand, forest firefighters will be carefully watching the weather, staffing fire control rooms and fire towers looking for smoke ready to head to the fire line to protect the State forests – all the while doing their day jobs of sustainably managing forests to produce renewable timber for local mills and in tune, timber for your home.

Forestry Corporation 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 long term commitment by forest growers to the management and rejuvenation of forests – but for present and long term use. In this series, Responsible Wood has explored the frontline, the work ahead, the recovery process and the planning process for the season ahead. To find out more about the Responsible Wood Certification System and the Australian Standard for Sustainable Forest Management please visit the Responsible Wood website

Photo credits courtesy of Forestry Corporation NSW.